Microsoft Silverlight Ready For Olympics Closeup

Silverlight, a subset of the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) system that powers Windows Vista, is Microsoft's attempt to trump Adobe's Flash technology by offering better-looking, more advanced display and interactive functionality, as well as superior tooling support.

When the Olympic games kick off on Aug. 8, the Silverlight-powered Website on MSN will go live with event coverage and features that go beyond the typical Web video experience, such as multiple camera angles, rewind, and picture-in-picture, according to Eric Schmidt, director of media and advertising evangelism at Microsoft.

While these types of features can be difficult to pull off in low bandwidth situations, with the current version, Silverlight 2 beta 2, Microsoft added an adaptive video streaming technology that automatically chooses the optimal bitrate and encoding based on available bandwidth, Schmidt said.

"We have the ability to serve video to lots of different PC and Mac environments that otherwise would not get the greatest experience with traditional live streaming," said Schmidt.

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Microsoft and NBC chose Limelight Networks as the lead content delivery network to deliver more than 2,200 hours of Olympics games footage, including 20 simultaneous live video streams at peak times. "This will definitely be the first time that something like this has been done on this scale," Schmidt said.

Dave Meeker, user experience strategy lead at Roundarch, a Chicago-based Web development firm that works with both Microsoft and Adobe, says a strong performance during the Olympics could catapult Silverlight into a genuinely competitive position with the more entrenched Flash platform.

"Silverlight lacks the ubiquity that developers need to push our software out there, but having multiple cameras all streaming into a single player is something we haven't yet been able to achieve in online video," said Meeker.

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

This flexibility means that Silverlight is sometimes the shortest path for companies to get a good user interface in front of their customers, says Anthony Franco, president of EffectiveUI, a Denver-based Rich Internet Application (RIA) provider.

But while Silverlight's user base will grow as a result of the Olympics, Franco believes it'll take some time before it's regarded as a true challenger to Flash. "The ubiquity and install base is the name of the game. And even with the Olympics, it's going to be difficult for Microsoft to get the ubiquity with Silverlight that Adobe has with flash, at least in the short term," he said.

At the Democratic National Convention, to be held in Denver from August 25th to 28th, Silverlight will once again be in the spotlight, as Microsoft is the "Official Software and HD Web Content Provider" for the event.

From an online standpoint, Scott Stanfield, CEO of Vertigo Software, a Richmond, Calif.-based firm that is one of the official developers of the DNC Website, expects Silverlight's features to be just as effective in the political arena as they will be at the Olympics.

"The content is going to be stunning, just really great quality. And even if you have a slow connection, the bandwidth scales to take advantage of your pipe automatically," Stanfield said.

The DNC Website isn't meant to replace televised election coverage, but instead will let visitors use Silverlight to create their own unique viewing experience from the event's official video feed, according to Stanfield.

"People ask 'Why should I watch a live event on the web if can watch on TV?' Well, it's all about being able to choose from multiple camera angles, having access to full schedule of events, and viewing past clips as video on demand," Stanfield said.