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Microsoft recently began shipping Expression Studio, the new line of Web design and development tools that the company spent nearly two years developing. Expression is the opening salvo in Microsoft's campaign to seize share in a market Adobe has long dominated. But in August, Microsoft will bring out its big gun: Silverlight, a new cross-platform multimedia runtime that will go head-to-head with Adobe's ubiquitous Flash.
Like Flash, Silverlight is a cross-platform multimedia framework and Web browser plug-in runtime. Developers can use Silverlight to deliver video, animation, vector graphics and rich user interfaces. Partners who have already started working with Silverlight, currently in beta, say it's a worthy rival for Flash.
In one high-profile showcase, design firm Avenue A/Razorfish is using Silverlight for a revamp of online movie rental retailer Netflix's streaming video service. (Avenue A/Razorfish is a subsidiary of Seattle-based aQuantive, which Microsoft is in the process of acquiring.)
"As we looked for the 'wow' factor, Silverlight rose to the top as the platform that would support those features," said Steve Gray, technology lead of Avenue A/Razorfish's Silverlight practice.
Some of the "wow" features only available with Silverlight include 720p high-definition video—higher resolution than Flash can deliver—and deep interactive functionality. Netflix's Silverlight streaming will allow users to synchronize movie streams with their friends and trade instant messages about their shared viewing experience.
Silverlight also differs from Flash by offering digital rights management (DRM), a feature Adobe currently lacks (it's under development) and that some content creators consider indispensable.
Maven Networks, an online video services firm in Cambridge, Mass., supports both Flash Video and Windows Media. Right now, Flash has strong UI advantages, and most clients that opt for Windows Media do so primarily for the DRM functionality, according to Todd Boes, Maven's vice president of product management.
Boes views Silverlight as essential if Microsoft doesn't want to keep surrendering Web video market share to Adobe. A year ago, half of Maven's clients opted to use Windows Media for their video and half chose Flash; now, the breakdown is 70-30 in Flash's favor. Boes expects Silverlight to rebalance the scales.
"Silverlight almost puts the UI on par now with what you can do with Flash," Boes said. "We're pretty impressed with it. Microsoft is a little late to the market, but they've had the advantage of seeing what Adobe has done and thinking about where they can improve on it."