Microsoft is rolling out version 3 of Silverlight, its competitor to Adobe’s Flash, and the Expression tools used to create Silverlight content in San Francisco today. The new version of Silverlight can smoothly stream live HD video, supports hardware graphics acceleration, does 2-and-a-half-D effects involving moving flat objects in 3D space, and can be used to build applications that run outside of a Web browser as well as inside it. Basically, it looks pretty cool.
Steve Ballmer doesn’t seem to be here, but another Microsoft exec invoked his Developers, Developers, Developers mantra at the keynote this morning. And every Microsoft employee I’ve chatted with has stressed the notion that Microsoft is about helping developers build applications. (They keep bringing up the fact that Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft in 1975 to sell their version of the BASIC programming language–call me paranoid, but I think they may have discussed the talking points they wanted to hammer home.)
The emphasis on developers is obviously in part a reference to the fact that Adobe’s heritage is in making tools for designers, not programmers–Microsoft wants to position Silverlight as a better tool for building true applications, as opposed to video-and-animation creations with a bit of interactivity. But Microsoft is also focusing on stoking up enthusiasm among developers because it’s content that will convince consumers to install Silverlight. Nobody but nobody ever installs something like Flash or Silverlight simply because they want the player–they install them the moment that something they want to use tells them that they need the plug-in.
Microsoft says that Silverlight 2, which has been out for nine months, is on one out of three Internet devices. Which is not bad, although it’s also a way of saying that almost two-thirds of folks don’t have it yet. By contrast, Adobe says that 99 percent of PC users have Flash, and 86.7 percent have Flash Player 10, the current version. The majority of computer users still haven’t arrived at the moment when installing Silverlight is worth the effort.
Like every media player, Silverlight must overcome a basic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum: Developers are most likely to use it if consumers have it installed, and the only reason for consumers to install it is if there’s nifty Silverlight-enabled content. Microsoft has certainly had some success stories–NBC streamed the Beijing Olympics via Silverlight, and Netflix’s Watch Instantly feature is Silverlight-powered. The company also got NBC, MGM, and Continental Airlines to wax enthusiastic about Silverlight onstage today. But there’s been no true Silverlight killer app–akin to YouTube, which must have prompted untold millions of Flash installation–so far.
Getting large numbers of real people to install browser plug-ins remains one of the biggest challenges a Web company can face. People dread the hassle of installing anything. They’re afraid of messing up their browsers. Flash may be everywhere, but I know more folkswho squawk about sites using it bogging down the Web with needless frippery than who express gratitude for the way it made Web video a whole lot simpler than it was in the era of RealPlayer and Windows Media player.
Like I said, Silverlight 3 looks like it has the power to enable Web applications that could be mighty appealing. (If it really permits streaming of live HD over typical Internet connections without hiccups, I wanna see lots and lots of video sites adopt it.) It makes sense for Microsoft to try and get developers stoked up right now, but the time for you and me to get excited is once those developers have built stuff.
[UPDATE: I just talked with Brian Goldfarb, director of developer/UX platform and tools for Microsoft. A few tidbits from our conversation:
Will Silverlight become ubiquitous? “It’s not an ‘if’ question, it’s a ‘when’ question.”
Why doesn’t Microsoft bundle Silverlight with the OS and/or browser, since it would instantly boost penetration? “It’s a matter of being friendly to the Web” and letting people choose to install Silverlight. Microsoft does bundle it with applications that require it, such as Windows Live Essentials.
When did Flash become ubiquitous? Was it when YouTube came along? No, it was when Microsoft bundled it with Windows XP.
Will HTML5 or future versions of HTML render Silverlight redundant with stuff like native Web video? No, “innovating via a plug-in will always move faster than a standards committee–that’s just a fact.” And Silverlight isn’t trying to replace Web standards–there’s a need for multiple approaches.
How does Silverlight’s new support for outside-the-browser apps compare to Adobe’s AIR? “AIR is a security mightmare,” since it gets full access to your machine “That’s scary.” Silverlight apps are sandboxed to prevent security problems, with only carefully managed access to resources. Microsoft will give them more power over time, but will continue to sandbox them.