A remarkable sign of changing times at Microsoft was on display Monday at Microsoft's opening keynote session for its Mix07 conference in Las Vegas: Macs. The presentation was riddled with Macs.
The show's breakout star is Silverlight, Microsoft forthcoming client technology for advanced, browser-based video functionality. While Microsoft is famed for its halfhearted or nonexistant support for running its software on rival platforms, the company vows Silverlight will be different: Version one is slated to run natively in Safari and Firefox as well as Internet Explorer (both version 6 and 7), and Opera support is in the works.
To hammer home that message, Microsoft threaded Mix07's showcase keynote with Mac-based demos. Darrin Brown, executive vice president of interactive services firm Avenue A/Razorfish, showed a demo of a streaming video application his firm developed for Netflix using Silverlight -- then swapped computers to show off the same technology on a Mac running Firefox. Scott Guthrie, the Microsoft developer division general manager responsible for many of its Web technologies, relied on the Mac so much during his demos that at one point he quipped "and it also runs on Windows!"
The Apple embrace had attendees twittering on Twitter, where Microsoft set up a running round-up of Mix07 commentary. One writer reported that he was "marveling at the number of Macs making an appearance at a Microsoft conference." Another posted to the world at large, "Have you ever heard so much airtime devoted to Macs at a Microsoft event?"
"Open" and "interoperable" are the new watchwords at Microsoft, at least as far as Silverlight is concerned, according to company executives. Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie opened Mix07 with a discussion of the "comprehensive sea change" going on at Microsoft as the company moves beyond a focus on pure software toward his "software plus services" vision.
"What we're building is an open, interoperable foundation for software plus services," Ozzie said. "Silverlight itself has been just one of those foundational investments that we've been working on for quite a while in this area."
Silverlight, formerly code-named "Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere," drew oos and ahs from the crowd in its first major public airings. Released today in beta, Silverlight is scheduled to ship this summer.
Silverlight will go head-to-head with Adobe's Flash, the current dominant platform for online multimedia content. Microsoft has long insisted that Silverlight will do things its rivals can't. Those claims got a major boost from Silverlight's dramatic demos at Mix07. Netflix plans to adopt Silverlight as the foundation for its instant-viewing feature; a demo showed off high-quality streaming video overlaid with DVD-like menus and controls. A preview of forthcoming on-demand video functionality from MLB.com had attendees clamoring for the developing new features to hurry up and get finished.
Silverlight's content presentation was impressive, but development partners said its programming model is even more impressive. Avenue A/Razorfish began working on the Netflix demo it showed off today just three weeks ago, Brown said.
"We've found it to be an incredibly powerful platform to create immersive experiences," he said. "We now have unprecedented collaboration between our designers and developers."
Solutions provider Metaliq showed off a Silverlight-based in-browser video editing application, Top Banana. Building the application was quick and painless, according to Metaliq CEO Beau Ambur. What's even more painless is its download speed: the application itself is just 50kb, Ambur said.
Of course, Microsoft's willingness to play nicely with rival platforms has its limits. Silverlight applications will run on Macs, but the tools for building them won't. Expression Studio, which shipped today, will remain Windows-only software, according to Wayne Smith, the group product manager in charge of the suite.
"It's all based on Microsoft technologies, and that's what the tools are optimized for," Smith said.
Linux enthusiasts also shouldn't hold their breath for their own Silverlight client. The Linux crowd is noisy, but Microsoft isn't convinced it has enough market share to justify Silverlight support, said Brian Goldfarb, the group product manager helming it.
"We're really focused on Mac and PC. We want to support 99 percent of the users out there, and we think support for the four leading browsers covers that," he said. Still, the company will listen to customer feedback and evaluate its Linux support plans, or lack thereof, he said.
Mix07, Microsoft's second annual conference aimed at Web developers and designers, is also serving as a check-in on the company's progress toward adapting to new software development models. During the opening keynote, Ozzie proclaimed himself "quite pleased" with the company's progress.
"In case it's not clear to you, I'm having a blast," Ozzie said. "I'm enjoying the opportunity to help shape Microsoft's role in this next shift, as the pendulum has swing from software to pure services to software plus services."