April 17, 2008

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See the Silverlight
Or: Silverlight my fire, or blinded by the Silverlight
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

If you’re a Windows user and you’ve recently gone to Microsoft Update for the latest security patches — something you should do, like, whenever you remember to — you might have noticed something different. It’s a mysterious, yet alluring, download called Silverlight. Have you wondered what it is?

(a) A new low-calorie beer from Coors

(b) A retro metal easy-listening supergroup formed by members of Silverchair and Electric Light Orchestra

(c) A cross-browser, cross-platform, and cross-device plug-in for delivering the next generation of .NET based media experiences and rich interactive applications for the Web

If you chose c, congratulations on your uncanny ability to identify corporate jargon. Microsoft’s sites — yes, sites, plural — about the plug-in are rife with the stuff. Visit www.silverlight.net or www.microsoft.com/silverlight* and you’ll come across some real gems.

Monetization of media assets via protected content and advertising-enabled scenarios!

Broad ecosystem of media tools, servers, and solutions compatible with the Windows Media platform!

You can’t possibly still be confused at this point, but just in case, here’s the deal: it’s a small piece of software for your Web browser that does groovy multimedia stuff. Kind of like Flash, or Shockwave, or a million other plug-ins. It can play little movies and show interactive mini-programs. While the marketing lingo makes the capabilities of Silverlight somewhat hard to tease out, it does seem to have bigger ambitions than the others.

Take the programming languages it supports: AJAX, VB, C# and others. AJAX is used by most online mapping sites and by Google for its Apps section. VB (Visual Basic) and C#, though, while not new to the online world, have always been primarily used for building desktop applications. That brings traditional programmers into the Web applications business without having to learn all new languages.

Microsoft’s “cross-platform, cross-platform, and cross-device” promise is interesting as well. Rather than stick to its own Internet Explorer browser, the company made plug-ins for Firefox on the Mac and PC, as plus the native Macintosh browser, Safari. It’s also supported on not just Windows Mobile, but Nokia’s S60 platform for smartphones.

All this points to a little more than simple altruism on Microsoft’s part. Sure, many developers will doubtless appreciate a plug-in that makes it simple to translate their locally-running code to Web application, but even giving the software away free benefits Microsoft in the long run. Software is moving inexorably toward a new model of not being installed on every personal computer, but hosted on servers and accessed when needed. The company doesn’t want to sell you CDs of Word every few years when they could charge you a subscription fee every month.

Microsoft plays up Silverlight’s rich media features, but that’s just to rope us all in. Once we’re dazzled, it’s on to the boring ol’ office apps — where the money is.

*Notice I didn’t mention www.silverlight.com. That’s a photography site based in California. Expect it to be bought out or sued to a pulp by autumn