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Let The Web Games Begin

Microsoft's Silverlight takes on AIR—Adobe Integrated Runtime. However it plays out, the Web development landscape will never be the same.

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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."

Next: Adobe Integrated Runtime

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At the same time, Adobe has its own breakthrough waiting in the wings: Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), a new runtime that enables unprecedented overlap between online and offline application functionality. Formerly code-named Apollo and slated for release by the end of the year, AIR marries HTML, PDF, Flash and AJAX technologies.

AIR excels at enabling "intermittently connected" applications like Apple's iTunes, said Sean Christmann, experience architect with Adobe partner EffectiveUI, a Denver-based design and development services firm. EffectiveUI used AIR to create a prototype desktop application for eBay, which loved the pilot-project version so much it immediately fast-tracked the software's development.

"[Adobe's] vision all along has been 'the Web on the desktop,' " Christmann said. "Through this process of working with AIR, we're starting to understand what Adobe was getting at—applications connected online that have the benefit of the desktop."

Adobe partner Universal Mind, a Web development services firm in Westfield, Mass., is also already putting AIR to use on several test projects.

"[Developers] can get their application on a desktop to their customers, brand it the way they want, push data to it when the customer is connected and enable rich interaction with the desktop, like dragging and dropping information onto it," said Brett Cortese, Universal Mind's president. "It's really a hit with clients who are looking to bridge the gap between the Web and the desktop."

Silverlight and AIR are both aimed at the emerging "rich Internet applications" space, where Web applications gain the functionality and UI elegance traditionally associated with desktop software. With the Web playing an ever-greater role in software delivery, it's a market poised to boom, and vendors are jockeying for position to be sure they get their piece. Silverlight is Microsoft's move to catch up to Adobe's powerhouse Flash; AIR is Adobe's bid to stay a step ahead and keep its archrival in check.

Microsoft has serious ground to make up, though, if it wants to catch up to Flash, and developing a competitive technology is only part of the company's challenge. Like Flash, Silverlight requires users to install a browser plug-in. While the download takes only seconds, users will still need to be convinced, solution providers say.

"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.

Microsoft also needs to shake off the bad karma from its long history of sins against interoperability. Silverlight is intended as a true cross-platform runtime: Version 1.0 will run on both Macs and PCs, supporting Internet Explorer 6 or 7 as well as modern versions of Firefox or Safari. Early testers say the user experience really is comparable on all platforms, and Microsoft executives swear on all things holy that Silverlight will now and forever retain that level of cross-platform support.

"We're absolutely, 100 percent committed to that—it's a key requirement," said Brian Goldfarb, Microsoft's group product manager in charge of Silverlight. "Reach is critical."

But critics are quick to note that unlike Flash, Silverlight won't support Linux. (Microsoft claims Linux doesn't yet have the desktop penetration to justify a Silverlight port.) Even Silverlight enthusiasts acknowledge the sticking point. "You always wonder with Microsoft if it's going to be true cross-platform or if it's going to run better on Windows," Maven's Boes said. "What's really interesting is that it really is true cross-platform."

Others remain unconvinced about Microsoft's newfound zeal for reaching rival platforms. EffectiveUI is impressed with Silverlight's capabilities but is dubious about Microsoft's interoperability pledge.

"It's really hard to assume that they will support this forever on the Mac," Christmann said. "I don't see Linux support ever happening. I think Microsoft doesn't see Mac as a competitor anymore, but they definitely see Linux as one. Adobe doesn't care about that. Adobe just wants to be on as many computers as possible."

One thing all sides agree on: Microsoft's heated battle with Adobe is good for both partners and users. Without a serious rival, Adobe had become complacent about Flash, a complicated technology with a sharp learning curve for developers. The prospect of losing the fastest-growing part of the application development market to a rival has Microsoft working feverishly on its Web design and development technology, and being in Microsoft's crosshairs has stimulated Adobe's development pace. Silverlight, AIR and other fledgling creations like Sun Microsystems' JavaFX are going to blur the lines between the Web and the desktop, making rich-media applications easier to create and far more prevalent.

"We've been saying to clients, 'Hey, look what you can do now,' and big sparks go off in their heads. You can see how excited they are," said Universal Mind's Cortese.

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