Microsoft Begins Push Into Adobe's Flash Stronghold
Upcoming beta release of Silverlight technology will be a test for Microsoft's push into rich media on the Web.
Microsoft is taking aim at Adobe Systems' ubiquitous Flash technology with the pending beta release of its own rich media technology for browsers, called Silverlight.
Formerly code-named Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere, Silverlight will compete with Flash as a way of jazzing up Web applications during development, then playing them in a browser. Silverlight will be released for beta testing later this month at Microsoft's Mix 07 conference for Web 2.0 developers.
Silverlight's full-screen play
For users, Silverlight comes as a 2-Mbyte plug-in for Internet Explorer, Firefox, and the Mac's Safari. Unlike Flash Player, Microsoft's technology expands to full-screen mode and supports MP3 audio and digital rights management. Silverlight includes enterprise deployment tools for businesses wanting to control how it's downloaded.
Still, Microsoft has a long way to go in convincing developers and users of the need for an alternative to Flash, which has a place on 98% of browsers. Microsoft promises eventual support for managed code, including C# and Visual Basic .Net, but that capability is lacking in the beta version. Nor does Silverlight support 3-D graphics, despite the fact that the related Windows Presentation Foundation is the graphical component of Microsoft's .Net 3.0 development framework.
Lee Brimelow, senior design technologist at consulting firm Frog Design, says his initial reaction is that "Flash is way more powerful" than Silverlight. The one thing that could set Silverlight apart, Brimelow says, is its ability to play video. Silverlight comes with a standard video codec that's also faster than Flash; both of those factors will make for cheaper streaming than Flash, Microsoft claims.
Microsoft already has some takers. Companies that plan to use or support Silverlight on their Web sites include Major League Baseball, Netflix, and Universal Music Group. Some, such as Internet video company Brightcove, will use both Silverlight and Flash. MLB.com will use Silverlight exclusively for the development and distribution of video.
An earlier Microsoft FAQ on Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere hints that a final version is due in the first half of this year, but Microsoft won't confirm that, saying additional details will come at Mix.
COMPETITIVE FLASH POINT
Adobe is racing to maintain Flash's lead. "Never assume that Adobe is just in a static place," says Jim Guerard, VP of the company's Dynamic Media group, hinting at upcoming improvements in price and encoding speed. There also are plans to make a version of Flash for mobile devices.
The release of Silverlight solidifies the competition between Microsoft and Adobe around interactive rich media technology. Windows Presentation Foundation squares off with Adobe Apollo for Web-connected apps on the desktop. Windows Media Player will compete with Adobe Media Player, a desktop video player that Adobe is unveiling this week. And both companies have a full set of competing developer tools.
Then there's the squabble over Adobe's Portable Document Format. In 2005, as Microsoft prepared an alternative to PDF now known as XML Paper Specification, or XPS, it said it would include a "save as PDF" feature in its Office 2007 applications. Adobe last year demanded Microsoft charge extra for the feature or remove it, and while Microsoft initially conceded, it's now available as an Office add-in. Adobe, meanwhile, has submitted PDF to become an ISO standard.
Developers are happy to see the competition. Says Brimelow, "We're going to win either way." And end users will, too, as visually sophisticated Web sites become the norm.
This article was updated on April 16 to clarify Jim Guerard's title.
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