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Microsoft Launches Silverlight 3

Microsoft has released version 3 of its Silverlight framework for developing rich interactive applications (RIAs) and its Expression Studio Web and graphics design suite. While numerous developers and users have had access to the beta for four months, this marks its official release of a development and runtime platform that is critical to Microsoft's effort to drive the next crop of RIA-based apps based on its .NET framework.

At a launch event in San Francisco Friday, Scott Guthrie, vice president of the Redmond software maker's .NET Developer Platform group, and Soma Somasegar, SVP of Microsoft's Developer division highlighted key features of Silverlight 3. Among them is its ability to work outside the browser for both connected and disconnected access to applications and data. Another key highlight, IIS Smooth Streaming built into Microsoft's Internet Information Services 7 (IIS7), boasts HDTV-quality video. Also new is Expression SketchFlow, which allows for rapid prototyping.

The Silverlight and Expression products will make it "easy for development teams to work together effectively, from concept to deployment, to create the types of rich interactive experiences today's users expect," Guthrie said at the launch event. Microsoft said that there have been more than 300 million downloads of Silverlight since it was first introduced in 2007. Silverlight 3 was announced last year at the IBC 2008 show in Amsterdam and the developer beta was released during the MIX09 show in Las Vegas in March.

Microsoft made the Silverlight 3 runtime and software development kit (SDK) available for download a day before its scheduled release. Silverlight 3 is definitely the star of this tandem release. This version of Microsoft's alternative to Adobe's ubiquitous Flash comes with more than 50 new features, including video performance and quality improvements, ClearType for Windows and Mac, hardware acceleration, support for touch-based input, a set of controls for charting and layout, and further integration with Visual Studio and the Expression Suite.

Several Microsoft partners appeared onstage during the launch event to show off Silverlight applications, including MGM, Continental Airlines, NBC Sports, and Accenture. The company's Silverlight Partner Initiative now comprises more than 300 technology partners, Somasegar said.

Outside the browser
But the new feature that's likely to have the greatest overall impact on users and developers is Silverlight 3's ability to run applications outside the browser, said Gartner analyst Eric Knipp "When you look at the browser plug-in type of RIA solution, it comes down to Silverlight versus whatever Adobe is offering," Knipp said. Prior to Silverlight 3, that meant Silverlight in the browser versus Flash in the browser; outside the browser, there's the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), but Microsoft didn't have anything comparable. Now, with Silverlight 3, you can run the applications outside the browser, which makes it a direct competitor with AIR."

This capability is likely to change how the next generation enterprise desktop apps are developed, Knipp said. It allows .NET developers to build applications that can be saved locally on the desktop, and access Web services without the constraints of a browser. "Unlike in previous versions, you can produce an application that's meant to run in a browser, connected to the Internet, but with the simple change of a checkbox, you can create that as an out of browser Silverlight application," said Daniel Chait, managing director of Lab49, a New York-based technology consulting firm.

Silverlight consultant and trainer Erik Mork said its ability to run applications outside the browser will lead to new implementations of Silverlight. As an example, he pointed to the popular TweetDeck Twitter client, which is an Adobe AIR application that lives on the desktop, but acts like a Web app, said Mork, who is the founder of Silverlight services company Silver Bay Labs and one of only a handful of Silverlight MVPs, and a Silverlight Insider.

"That's the one that's going to be the biggest thing for the users," Mork said. "They have a great security model around that. The security sandbox is still in place, so you don't have to worry that one of these out-of-the-browser applications is going to do something to your machine. It can't do anything to your machine that it wouldn't be able to do from inside the browser frame."

Gartner's Knipp pointed an "overall improvement in the richness" of the apps Silverlight 3 supports--such as native support for 3-D graphics and the H.264 video compression standard, which allows for HD-quality media streaming. This could make Silverlight 3 more appealing over Flash, Knipp added because Microsoft does not charge for streaming media over its IIS server software, while users pay to stream over Adobe's Flash Server Media.

Microsoft's Deep Zoom feature, which was available in Silverlight 2 has been enhanced in this release. The company leveraged its patented photosynth technology, which provides for dynamic scaling of images and the scaling of that process across multiple CPU cores, to create the Deep Zoom feature.

Developer enhancements
This release is full of features that should be well received by developers, Mork said, including his favorite: behaviors, which allow developers and designers to add interactivity without writing code. "Until this release, if you were a design person and you didn't write code, you could do some design for Silverlight but you couldn't reach into the guts of a program to change, say, how things move in response to a mouse click. Behaviors allow designers to specify how the application moves and feels. It actually gives the designers a tremendous amount of power, which all part of this evolving concept of developer-designer workflow. People don't talk about this much, but it's a killer feature."

Silverlight 3 also enhances the ability of developers to create line-of-business (LOBs) applications, Mork said. The new navigation framework, for example, allows developers to implement navigation between UserControls in a Silverlight app, interacts with the Browser History journal, and provides URI mapping. "It provides a much richer ecosystem for writing applications," he said.

In an interview following the keynote, Guthrie discussed Silverlight 3's appeal to enterprise developers. "When you think about visualizing data--or displaying and interacting with it--Silverlight 3 offers significantly richer capabilities than we had in VB 6 or WinForms, or the traditional line-of-business forms packages," Guthrie said. "We have about 100 controls, and those controls are much richer than we've had in the past, and that's how you get that user productivity benefit. Having rich APIs, rich UI controls, and rich networking support that just does all that work for you means that you, as a developer, can focus on your business."

Silverlight 3's plumbing and UI support will developers take their business and map inside an application, Guthrie added. "You'll see us do more of that in the future, but with Silverlight 3, we're starting to enable that out of the box. "Also, for enterprises in particular, the ability to write .NET code--server side, middle tier, and now client side--inside the browser, and getting Web-based deployment; that's something that no one else has."

The battle for enterprise market share is likely to heat up in the coming months. Gartner estimates that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of enterprises have made some kind of commitment to a particular brand of RIA technology, Knipp said "If you want to build a Flash application that was going to launch into the consumer market in the next four months, it would be foolish to do it in Silverlight. But if you look beyond that--say 18 to 24 months--I think Silverlight has to be a consideration."

But when speaking with a client who is a heavy .NET user, "then Silverlight is [now] a no-brainer for internal enterprise RIA," he said. "If they're not a .NET shop, they should evaluate both products. And there's certainly room for both in the market."

--Jeffrey Schwartz contributed to this story.

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