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Shedding Some Light on Silverlight

Does the world need yet another way to embed animations and videos in Web pages? Yes, says Microsoft, which released the 1.0 version of a browser plug-in called Silverlight earlier this month.

You could have easily missed out on the news, since Microsoft refrained from making much of a fuss about it. But Silverlight has some pretty sweeping goals: It competes with Adobe's Flash player, which so far has been the dominant way to liven up a Web page with interactive multimedia (not to mention some obnoxious ads).

Silverlight does not, however, run on nearly as many computers as Flash. Its system requirements boil down to "Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Mac OS X 10.4." Nor can all browsers run this plug-in on those operating systems: In Windows, Opera and Safari 3 aren't yet supported, while on a Mac, the Mozilla-based Camino browser didn't run it either.

Microsoft is also working with Novell to ship a Linux version of Silverlight.

I've installed a copy on a new iMac and on laptops running Windows XP and Vista and have had little to complain about so far. The program was quick to download and install, and online presentations--I watched a news clip at Major League Baseball's site and played with a somewhat silly interactive animation on Microsoft's developers' site--looked as sharp as they do in most Flash presentations. In other words, I can't say that I sensed a huge upgrade in interactive media.

I do appreciate how Silverlight, unlike Flash, has an actual preferences menu you can access with a right-click (the only option available is an auto-update feature that is, sensibly enough, enabled by default).

But if we're going to have to download yet another browser plug-in for every computer we use, I'd like to see a little more reward for my efforts than Silverlight has delivered so far. That will depend on what developers do with this technology--see Microsoft's online showcase for some examples of that.

Have you tried this plug-in yet? Or did you not know about it until you read this post?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 17, 2007; 8:33 AM ET
Categories:  The Web  
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Next: Debating the Future of Music


I first saw it mentioned yesterday in the changelog for the Firefox NoScript extension.

Posted by: William | September 17, 2007 11:11 AM | Report abuse

From a user's standpoint, there's not much to get excited about yet. But from a developer's standpoint, Silverlight does some very interesting things. The biggest one in my mind is that Silverlight 1.1 will allow a developer to build a .Net application and run it in a a wide variety of browsers. Taking that view, Silverlight isn't just a competitor to Flash, it's also a competitor to Ajax.

If this all pans out, it will result in some nice web sites and web applications. That's the point where users will start to see a difference. But for right now, it's just a new developer tool with a lot of promise.

Posted by: Jack | September 17, 2007 12:29 PM | Report abuse

What exactly does Silverlight do after developers start using it? And what would I, as a user not a developer, see that is different?

Posted by: mmrudy | September 17, 2007 1:33 PM | Report abuse

As I understand it, Silverlight's biggest feature is support for DRM.

I'm no huge fan of DRM, but it should mean we see more accessibility for "major label" video content.

For example, Netflix has publicly stated that they're developing their online movie streaming option in Silverlight, to ensure cross-platform compatibility.

DRM is still a requirement by the major movie studios, so if I want to watch Pirates of the Caribbean 17 on my MacBook, this is good news for me.

Obviously, it would probably be easier to just make movies available in unrestricted formats. But at this point, that's just tilting at windmills.

Posted by: Todd | September 17, 2007 3:47 PM | Report abuse

"What exactly does Silverlight do after developers start using it? And what would I, as a user not a developer, see that is different?"

One aspect of Silverlight is that it's a new tool for building Rich Internet Applications--that is to say, applications that have the power of a desktop app, but run inside your browser. The poster child for Rich Internet Applications is Google Maps--which is built with a set of technologies collectively known as Ajax.

From the user's perspective, you might not see anything different between a website built using Ajax and a website built using Silverlight (or a website built using Flash/Flex for that matter). However, if Silverlight turns out to be a good tool for building these Rich Internet Applications, you might see a lot more of them. That's where the long term benefit is for users. More of these powerful web applications, but not necessarily more interesting ones.

Posted by: Jack | September 17, 2007 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Well, I believe there's a difference between RWA's (Rich Web Applications, which honestly is what AJAX is), and RIA's (Rich Internet Applications).

Silverlight and Flex just use a browser as a delivery mechanism. They can live together with web applications, but for the most part are fairly self-contained.

AJAX is about squeezing every ounce of usability left from HTML; a technology that is limited by it's origins as a document platform.

Flex and Silverlight aren't about documents, they're about Applications.

Web Apps have reigned for so long because the deployment methodology is so incredibly advantageous (release updates to a central location all day long, and everyone is using the latest version). VS Desktop Apps, which are a pain in the butt to get ALL your users using the exact same version of s/w at the exact same time - the logistics are a nightmare.

Flex and Silverlight are the best of both worlds. Desktop like usability, with the deployment ease of a Web App.

The Flex/Silverlight apps you've mostly seen so far are cooler versions of traditional Web as a user that's why you wouldn't say there's much to write home to mom yet. This is because the developers come from a Web App background so they're used to that...

But as they learn and adapt to more innovative ways of visualizing information, stream lining workflow, and innovative ways of achieving usability...

... one day your kids will be making fun of you for how when you were young you used phones that were tethered by a wire, and used "interactive online documents" to fake the feeling of an application.

Posted by: Tariq Ahmed | September 17, 2007 4:51 PM | Report abuse

I find it worrisome that good old MS has come up with a new way for powerful applications to run in a webpage. I can't wait to surf to a page and have it open up, without asking me, a powerful application that I did not ask for and do not want to run. Knowing MS, they have thoughtfully provided all sorts of new exploits that the unscrupulous can take advantage of to impose their ads and porn and trash on my system. Oh, but I am sure I can disable most of these manually if MS happens to tell me how to do so in plain English, just like they always have in the past (not). DRM, oh joy. Another portal for the RIAA to go snooping around on my system to see if I have borrowed music from a cow-orker or saved off a video clip that someone else obtained without permission. Isn't technology grand!

Posted by: mattbnh | September 18, 2007 12:54 PM | Report abuse

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