Developers Eye Microsoft's Silverlight As Potential Flash Alternative

Adobe's ubiquitous Flash has never had serious competition, which allowed it to become the dominant technology for Web multimedia, even though its complexity causes some headaches for developers. Yet Microsoft's Silverlight stands to give Flash a run for its market share.

Now available in beta, Silverlight is slated for a 1.0 release this summer and is already drawing strong interest from developers.

Attendees at Microsoft's TechEd 2007 conference in Orlando, Fla., crowded into a packed Silverlight overview session Monday evening, led by Developer Division General Manager Scott Guthrie. A recap of slides and demos first shown at Microsoft's Mix07 show last month, the Silverlight session showcased the technology that Microsoft is relying on to bring its technology platform beyond the operating system and into the Web browser.

Silverlight is a subset of the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) system that powers Vista. It aims to best Flash in two ways: By offering better-looking, more advanced display and interactive functionality, and by featuring better tooling support.

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Silverlight's programming model supports Visual Basic, C# and a number of dynamic languages, including Python and Ruby, while Microsoft's Visual Studio and Expression IDEs will allow .Net developers to work with Silverlight using tools they're already familiar with.

"I'm itching to get started," said Jon Nowick, a systems engineer with logistics software maker Coyote Logistics in Lake Forest, Ill. A self-described "old-school Flash programmer," Nowick would prefer to never deal with Flash again. From what he's seen of Silverlight tool and programming model, he expects it to be easier to use than Flash's.

"One of the things I didn't like about Flash was the debugging and scripting. It was painful," Nowick said. "It looks a lot easier to do things with Silverlight than in Flash. I've been a .Net developer for the last five years, so it would be great to be able to apply those skills. Since we're a Microsoft shop, I can see us redoing our entire Web site in this."

But other Flash programmers won't be so easily converted. Flash's greatest strength is its universality: More than 95 percent of Internet-enabled PCs worldwide include the Flash Player, according to Adobe research. Flash also runs on aging browsers and on Linux, a platform Microsoft isn't planning to support for Silverlight, which will work on Macs and PCs running Internet Explorer 6 or 7 or modern versions of Firefox or Safari.

"This is a tougher sell than Flash," said freelance developer Michael Chabot, who stopped by to check out a Silverlight demo on the TechEd show floor. "One hundred percent of the people they're targeting with this use Flash. Right now, zero percent of them use Silverlight."

Chabot said he's eager to see competition for Flash, but what he's seen so far of Silverlight and the Expression toolset supporting it doesn't impress him. For designers accustomed to programs like Adobe's Dreamweaver and Photoshop, Expression feels clunky and isn't intuitive to use, he said.

"I would say that, by far, Flash is the hardest technology I've ever had to learn. It's not a good product, but it's the only one that does these things," Chabot said. "This is really the first rival, but I don't think it's going to be successful. I don't think it does anything more than Flash does, and it excludes old browsers."

Another potential hurdle for Silverlight is that it requires users to download and install the Silverlight client runtime. Microsoft has made the process as painless as possible: TechEd's opening keynote included a Silverlight installation demo that took less than 20 seconds and didn't require a reboot.

Still, corporate users in secured environments may not have the option of installing new browser add-ons, according to solution providers.

"A lot of our users don't have security permissions to change their configurations, and our clients aren't ready to install yet another runtime," said Matt Jurgensen, lead infrastructure architect for financial services software developer DST Systems in Kansas City, Mo.

Jurgensen's firm aims to redevelop its desktop software for browser-based access and is beginning to explore options. Flash's steep learning curve is daunting, and Jurgensen likes the idea of using Silverlight and putting his .Net expertise to work. He plans to keep an eye on Silverlight as it launches and works to gain traction over the next year.

Next: Microsoft paves way for Silverlight

For now, Microsoft said it won't take advantage of its desktop stronghold to push Silverlight to users through a Windows or Internet Explorer update. Instead, the company will rely on users choosing to install Silverlight to access applications built with it.

The Redmond, Wash., software giant is lining up some heavy-hitting early adopters, including CBS, Netflix and, all of which plan to use Silverlight for some of their streaming video.

"If you get the right 12 sites on the Internet to use it, you will have 95 percent installation covered within a year," Guthrie said at his TechEd session.

Thanks to Silverlight's catchy name and strong word-of-mouth buzz from Mix07, the fledgling technology already has high awareness in the leading-edge Microsoft development community.

Dave Noderer, a Microsoft MVP and CEO of .Net services firm Computer Ways in Deerfield Beach, Fla., is kicking Silverlight's tires and looking to use it for a monitoring application he's upgrading for a call center client. The current version of the application is text-only, and Noderer isn't interested in plowing through a complicated Flash or JavaScript development process to improve the application's interface.

But Silverlight so far has proved to be easy to use and relatively free of glitches, Noderer said. Once Microsoft releases Silverlight 1.1 -- now in alpha and the first version that will include Microsoft's Common Language Runtime (CLR) -- he expects development to really take off.

"We'll definitely be tempted to put more graphics into our projects," Noderer said.

Application developers that have already invested in Flash are eyeing Silverlight and beginning to consider whether to migrate. Bamboo Solutions, a Reston, Va., developer, offers a number of SharePoint add-ons, several of which incorporate Flash. After Mix07, one of its engineers began testing Silverlight and is exploring what it has to offer, Bamboo Solutions Engineering Manager Wes Bryan said. The Microsoft-centric ISV is open to the idea of switching over.

But screen-capture and recording applications maker TechSmith, another exhibitor at TechEd's Partner Expo, is less inclined to move away from the venerable Flash.

"Right now, it's Flash that's the de facto standard," said Ron Scott, a TechSmith technical sales engineer. "A lot of our customers don't want you to put all these plug-ins and players on their servers."

Microsoft's challenge to Flash's dominance will begin in earnest when it ships Silverlight's first official release this summer. If the company's efforts to recruit top-tier content partners pays off and Guthrie's bullish prediction about end-user adoption pans out, the Web multimedia technology and tools market could look very different in a year.

On the other hand, Microsoft may have to be patient and wait a bit longer for Silverlight to achieve mass adoption. After all, it has a checkered history with new technology launches -- and partners have long memories.

"We know Microsoft. We usually wait until the 2.0 product comes out," DST Systems' Jurgensen said.