Microsoft is a big frickin company. Although born from the Windows operating system and the success of software such as Microsoft Office, the giant now has its hands in everything from cell phones to game consoles to in-car infotainment systems. Microsoft’s execution of its various goals also varies greatly – Internet Explorer has been bleeding users for years, but the Xbox 360 has become a popular and successful device.
Given the array of Microsoft products and services available, it can become difficult to remember any single service very well. You may have heard recently about Microsoft Silverlight – indeed, its likely because some Microsoft websites and software don’t work correctly without it. What is Microsoft Silverlight, and how does it matter to you?
In The Beginning…
You may have heard of Microsoft Silverlight as early as 2007. This is when the first version of Silverlight was released. This early version is likely best described as “online presentation software”. Silverlight started as a web application framework that provided a method of building interactivity into online content. Input could be taken from a user’s computer, and appropriate results would happen with in the application. Video, in the form WMA, WMD 7-9 and VC-1 was support, as was MP3 audio.
Is this sounding familiar? It should, because Silverlight from the very beginning had goals similar to Flash. You view Flash content constantly, often times even when you’re not aware of it, but Flash has always been criticized as inefficient and somewhat buggy. Silverlight offers an alternative.
Updates to Silverlight have been provided regularly since the original release of Silverlight in 2007. Each new release of introduced some fairly substantial new features.
Silverlight 2 was perhaps most famous for introducing Deep Zoom, a feature that made it possible to display a series of high-resolution photographs as thumbnails, yet also display extremely high-resolution detailed photos if the user zooms in. There are many good examples of this online, one of which is the Hard Rock Memorabilia website.
AAC audio support an H.264 video support was added in Silverlight 3, as well as support for 1080p streaming and other media features. This bolstered Silverlight’s already reasonable capability as a media player, making it a good alternative to Flash for streaming video.
The most recent version is Silverlight 4, which was released in April 2010. This version’s most important update was problem the addition of Google Chrome support. It was also made possible to include webcam and microphone input in Silverlight apps.
These are, obviously, not all of the updates made to Silverlight over the years. If you’re an actual developer, and not an end user, the additions to the framework over the last three years have made big changes to what you can achieve. For users, however, the basic result is this – Silverlight is a lot like Flash, but is often quicker and has features (like the Deep Zoom Support) that are difficult or impossible for Flash to replicate.
However, Silverlight is a relatively new and not entirely understood player on the scene. The situation of Microsoft’s Silverlight is actually rather ironic for the company – in this case, they appear to have a competitive and arguably superior solution, but are being held back by the fact that a competitor (Adobe’s Flash) already has an entire ecosystem of applications and experienced developers surrounding it.
Perhaps the best way to see what Silverlight has to offer, however, is to simply use it. Microsoft’s website offers a showcase the highlights a number of websites, gadgets and tools that make use of this framework. Some are pretty damn cool. Others aren’t.
If there is one thing that Microsoft can offer its projects, it is access to a very large user base. Anyone Windows XP, Vista or 7 can use Silverlight with Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari. Silverlight also works in Safari on Intel-based Apple computers. Windows based smartphones support Silverlight as well.
All current Windows mobile smartphones and Windows operating systems should already have Silverlight installed. If that’s not the case, however, grabbing it is easy. Installation should take less than a minute.
Now that I’ve explained the basics of Silverlight, it is time for the geeks to weigh in. I think there is a lot of promise here, but the fact remains that Flash is the 800-pound gorilla. It remains in the middle of the ring, ready to take on all challengers. What do you think? Is Silverlight a reasonable alternative to Flash? Or, just as importantly, will both Silverlight and Flash succumb to HTML5?