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Microsoft Details Silverlight At Mix 07 Conference

Flash competitor to support VB programming; may show up in cell phones and on Linux

At Microsoft's sold out conference for Web designers and developers this week in Las Vegas, Mix 07, the company will release a test version of its Adobe Flash competitor, Silverlight, and deliver, finally, a long-in-development set of tools called Expression Studio. These products are meant to shore up a Microsoft weak spot: Web interface design. "They're competing for the next generation of eyeballs," says Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey Hammond. "Microsoft correctly understands that these technologies are where the next generation of user interface design is going to happen."

Version one of Silverlight, due for general release later this year, will include Microsoft's Ajax library, a JavaScript engine, and the ability to play WMV, WMA, and MP3 files, as well as the ability to execute code written in .Net languages C# and Visual Basic .Net. The next version, Silverlight 1.1, will add controls for layout and editing, digital rights management capabilities, a dynamic language runtime that will let developers code for Silverlight in popular languages such as Ruby and Python, and services that make it easier for developers to get at data stored in databases. Microsoft is considering expanding Silverlight to work on mobile platforms and even on Linux, if the demand is there, says S. Somasegar, VP of Microsoft's developer division.


One of the questions around Silverlight, which was previously known by the clumsy name Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere, has been how Microsoft will support it with tools. Enter Expression Studio, which includes Expression Web, a Web site design tool (already available); Expression Design, a graphics editor; and Expression Media, a multimedia asset manager and editor. "The people who have been working on Silverlight have mostly been doing things in Notepad," admits Wayne Smith, group product manager for Expression Studio. Expression Blend, a user interface builder in Expression Studio, will become the design platform for Silverlight in its next iteration; Microsoft will preview that functionality at Mix 07. However, Smith says it's possible Silverlight support will be added to Expression Blend as a plug-in even before the next version.

Microsoft's Web Interface Push
SILVERLIGHT Browser runtime engine; Flash competitor
EXPRESSION STUDIO Suite of tools for Web interface design
WINDOWS PRESENTATION FOUNDATION Windows Vista user interface platform
Developers used to working with Microsoft's .Net platform should be relatively comfortable working with Silverlight since it uses a subset of the .Net technology. Microsoft will introduce at Mix test versions of Visual Studio .Net 3.0 tools that can be used to build Silverlight apps.

Microsoft is catching up to competitor Adobe Systems, which acquired the Flash technology, a Web multimedia standard, when it bought Macromedia in 2006. Adobe offers both the Flash Player, a runtime multimedia engine that operates in various Web browsers, and the Flex Builder development environment. Perhaps anticipating Microsoft's competitive push, Adobe said last week it would make Flex available as open source code under the Mozilla open source license, potentially greatly expanding the community of developers committed to working with Flash.

Silverlight, Expression Studio, and Windows Presentation Foundation, the user interface technology in .Net 3.0, represent Microsoft's plays in the emerging area of dynamic interface design. Darin Brown, executive VP of global strategy at Avenue A/Razorfish, which has designed Web experiences for Coca-Cola, Nike, Toyota, and Visa, is confident that Microsoft is putting "serious weight" behind Silverlight. Having two major players in the field is good news to companies otherwise uncomfortable moving from a page-based world on the Web to one dominated by graphical, dynamic, interactive presentations, he says. "There are legions of Microsoft developers out there, so it enables a much larger base of people who can create with this stuff," Brown says. "And that will have an exponential effect in moving the industry forward."

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