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Microsoft unleashes Silverlight 4 beta

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PDC Microsoft has unveiled major and long-awaited basic features in the next version of Silverlight, hoping to take on AJAX and Adobe Systems' Flash.

Om Wednesday, the company announced Silverlight 4, which has been designed to simplify both the development and consumption of rich-media applications and content by programmers and users. Silverlight 4 has been released to beta here with delivery promised for the first-half of 2010.

Central to Silverlight 4 is tighter integration with the PC at a programmatic level to improve the way applications and media in Silverlight 4 run outside the browser and work with local resources on your desktop, laptop, or netbook

Also, Microsoft announced Silverlight 4 will be the first version of Siverlight to work with Google's Chrome browser.

Corporate vice president for the .Net developer platform Scott Guthrie indicated at Microsoft's Professional Developers' Conference (PDC) that a decent proportion of Silverlight 4's flagship features were the direct result of feedback from developers.

Certainly, the features demonstrated drew a strong applause from the PDC audience.

The company this year began taking votes on what should be in Silverlight 4, receiving 12,000 votes. According to Guthrie, Silverlight 4 contains 70 per cent of those features.

Unfortunately, one feature Microsoft still couldn't tackle was its size. Silverlight 4 still comes at you in a 10 second, 5Mb-dowload process making it far too big and too slow for where Microsoft really wants to see its player: on mobile phones.

The beta came as Microsoft began talking about the next version of its browser, Internet Explorer.

According to Microsoft, IE 9 will offer greater compliance with the ACID 3 test but appeared to indicate that support for industry standards would not get in the way of Microsoft adding features for "real-world" use.

Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live division, claimed the company had learned a "great deal about interoperability" on IE 8, and three weeks into IE 9, he said the new browser is already more compliant with ACID 3 than IE 8.

But he noted it's important to have a "balance between standards and the real world." He said there's a "of things" Microsoft wants to do but also that "it's important to balance the base line with innovative technologies."

Silverlight is, of course, Microsoft's other play for rich media, and Silverlight 4 is designed to build on the foundations of, and pave over the gaps in, Silverlight 3 - released in July.

Bread-and-butter features include the ability to - finally - print from Silverlight, to access rich text and the PC's clipboard, there's support for drag and drop, bi-directional and RTL text, while client-side HTML hosting support means Silverlight does not need to call the server.

Guthrie demonstrated some of these features with a Bing search screen and YouTube video of Rick Astley singing Never Gonna Give You Up that he cut up, dragged around the screen and that he then re-assembled while - in the case of Astley - the video still played.

Also, on the desktop, Silverlight will integrate with video and audio hardware. Guthrie demonstrated the ability to run video through a camcorder and apply filters in Silverlight to distort the picture.

Silverlight 4 adds new APIs to re-size and re-position content on the desktop outside the browser, and support for pop-ups. Silverlight 3 added the ability to run trusted applications inside a sand box, but Silverlight 4 lets you run outside the sand box - again accessing local resources such as files. To run outside the sandbox, a developer must click a check box during the build process while an end user must also give their consent.

On the coding side, Silverlight 4 means you can share assemblies with .NET so you compile the code just once - instead of the current twice. UDP multi tasking has been added with enhancements to ADO.NET data services and Windows Communication Foundation - Guthrie claimed TCP channel support means data transfer now happens up to 600 per cent faster than using HTTP.

The forthcoming Visual Studio 2010, meanwhile, will integrate with .NET RIA services, and there will be improvements in IntelliSense. ®

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