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Getting to know Microsoft’s Silverlight

New cross-browser, cross platform plug-in poised to take on Adobe's Flash By Matthew David

The domain of rich media Internet applications, a place Adobe’s Flash has reined King, is gaining a new entrant: Microsoft’s Silverlight. In this article you will learn why Silverlight is a technology you need to take seriously, how it will affect your business and, most importantly, how you will use Silverlight solutions to run your business.

What is Silverlight?
Microsoft first presented Silverlight in the Fall of 2005. Back then, Silverlight had the code name WPF/e, standing for Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere. Not a snappy name anyone is going to remember. In April 2007 Microsoft re-released WPF/e as Silverlight at NAB.

Silverlight is a bold move for Microsoft. The technology has a basis on the new user interface design definition technology called Windows Presentation Foundation, or WPF. WPF is, however, restricted to just Windows XP and Windows Vista. Silverlight uses much of the same technology as its WPF bigger cousin but with the addition of running in Web Browsers such as Internet Explorer, FireFox, Safari and soon on Opera as well as running on Windows 2000, XP, Vista, Mac OS X and soon on Linux.

At first blush, you may think that Silverlight looks very much like Flash. The graphics are vector-based and there are cool animation effects you can work with. Silverlight’s difference is with the ability to leverage the .NET Framework and stream scalable video that goes all the way up to 720p HD.

The deployed version of the .NET Framework in Silverlight, or DLR, far surpasses what a developer can programmatically do with Adobe’s Flash  ActionScript technology. The DLR allows developers to program in popular languages such as Visual Basic, C#, Jscript, IronRuby and IronPython. In effect, you can easily take the millions of .NET developers and convert them to Silverlight developers more easily than Adobe can convert Java developers to Flash programmers. In addition, Silverlight development comes with robust debugging, project management and version controls tools inherent to Visual Studio.

Silverlight promises to stream HD video in the browser

The inclusion of scalable streaming media is an engaging addition to Silverlight. At NAB 2007, Microsoft demonstrated HD quality video streaming over the Internet through a Silverlight solution. In addition, Microsoft announced the release of a new Media Streaming Service that Microsoft will support. These advances will cater to new, improved solutions to replace the clumsy deployment of video through services such as YouTube which rely on inferior Flash Video streaming. Video over the Internet can now rival the quality of video you have delivered to your TV.

Key technologies in Silver, including XML, Web Services and LINQ, allow for the update of real time data which Silver converts into graphical presentati

How Silverlight will affect your business
It is clear from the early adopter solutions on display at, Microsoft’s Silverlight Gallery Showcase Web site, that Silverlight has the capability to build technologies and solutions that easily transform data into visual, comprehensible solutions. The most effective solution is a tool that tracks the flights of a fictional airplane company. In real time, you can see where the planes are in the world overlaid on a map.

It should not take developers long to merge data from sources such as Google Earth with Silverlight interfaces. Key technologies in Silver, including XML, Web Services and LINQ, allow for the update of real time data which Silver converts into graphical presentations. This makes analyzing and consuming data much easier. There is truth in the saying “a picture paints a thousand words.”

In many respects, you are getting the better of two worlds: rich user interface expected in the desktop and ease of deployment associated with the Web.

The advantage Microsoft has over Adobe is that Microsoft already has a massive development community. Silverlight solutions are arguably easier to develop than complex AJAX solutions with a deployment that is going to be more consistent: your restriction is where the Silverlight player is installed and not differences in JavaScript support from one browser to another.  This is a lesson Microsoft learned from Adobe’s success with the Flash Player. Expect companies to rapidly build and deploy Silverlight solutions that will rival desktop tools in functionality.

How you will use Silverlight in your business
For the first time, Silverlight is a practical Web tool you can use to build solutions in your company’s business. You can think about moving away from cumbersome page refresh-based solutions used in traditional Web applications. Silverlight allows you to deploy elegant looking tools that have development moxie.

In many respects, you are getting the better of two worlds: rich user interface expected in the desktop and ease of deployment associated with the Web.  Companies need solutions that are rich in format and reach. Today there is a battle between Web applications and desktop applications. Silverlight can be an effective middle ground.

Beyond the hype
Expect a lot of stage show antics between Microsoft, Adobe and other companies touting rich internet solutions. The next couple of years will be interesting to watch as each technology attempts to outdo the other. At the end of the day, there will be only one clear winner: the customer.

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Matthew has written four Flash books, contributed to a dozen Web books, and has published over 400 articles. He is passionate about exposing Internet's potential for all of us. Matthew works directly with many companies as a business strategist coaching IT architects and business leaders to work tightly with each other towards common goals.
Related Keywords:flash, silverlight, rich media, rich Internet applications

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