Battle lines form around who will dominate emerging rich Internet applications.
As the 2008 Summer Olympics fade into memory and the athletes bring home the gold from what is being dubbed the "great haul of China," technophiles are noting the win that Microsoft scored at the games through its successful trial of Silverlight, which millions of users have now downloaded onto their computers.
Hooking up with NBC and the Olympics was a brilliant move by Microsoft and resulted in downloads of its Silverlight plug-in at rates that reached eight million users a day at the height of the games. If the idea was to appeal to developers by instantly creating a large audience in one fell swoop, it could hardly have been more successful. More than 40 million visitors arrived at the NBC site, NBCOlympics.com, in the first days of the games to watch some 2,200 hours of live coverage streaming from Beijing. The site delivered 13.5 million video streams to 16.9 million unique users who created 291 million page views--all in just the first four days.
In order to view streaming video from NBCOlympics.com, viewers in the U.S. had to download the Silverlight plug-in. Using Silverlight, viewers were able to watch up to four videos at once or stay ahead of the competition with a running commentary. In one day during the Olympics, we consumers streamed some 250 TB of data onto our computers via Silverlight, Microsoft officials reported. Overseas, viewers downloaded Adobe Flash Player, the leading player for watching video online, a proprietary plug-in that routinely is downloaded 10 million times a day.
Offering the Olympics as a reward for installing the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in is almost like offering free candy to grade-school children. Before they know what's happening, they're hooked on sugar. Based on comments submitted to several online forums, many users and some developers were a little taken aback by the Silverlight blitzkrieg. After all, the prospect of having to develop for two platforms instead of just one makes a developer's life that much harder.
The Silverlight plug-in is compatible with a number of Windows-supported browsers, including Internet Explorer 7 and 8 (only 2.0 on the latter), Mozilla/Firefox/SeaMonkey, Safari, and, unofficially, Opera, along with Mac OS 10.4/10.5 on both Intel (1.0 only) and PowerPC. But as usual, Microsoft is offering up a proprietary format and its own tools. But you can't argue with success, and if the Olympics proved anything beyond who has the world's greatest swimmer, it's that Silverlight works and it delivers a quality picture.
Microsoft sees Silverlight as a source of new business, and the Olympics demonstration is the tip of an iceberg belonging to a larger competition that will determine who delivers online video and, more important, what technology--and companies--will drive the next generation of Web software. Coming down the road are rich Internet applications (RIAs), powerful Web-enabled programs incorporating complex graphics. These programs, like their earlier Web application brethren, are less costly to deploy and maintain than traditional software, but they use vector graphics, run faster, and offer users a seamless experience so they don't have to refresh screens to access updated information.
RIAs can be developed with Adobe Flash, Adobe Flex, Shockwave, Silverlight, and technologies such as AJAX, HTML, Sun's JavaFX, or the open-source OpenLaszlo. Many consumer Web sites already use rich Internet applications, but most corporate sites today do not. The market play, according to analysts, is selling design tools as well as server and database software to enable these newer applications. Adobe is well-positioned and aware of the market potential. It is expanding its portfolio beyond design and Web-creation tools. Flex will help developers create and deploy more robust applications. Adobe's cross-platform runtime environment, Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), makes it possible to deploy applications on the Web or on the desktop without a browser.
As Microsoft advances into this emerging market, it would rather utilize developers' current skills. .NET developers can create Silverlight applications that run under the current beta of Silverlight V2, which is scheduled for general release later this year. (A stable version of Silverlight 1.0 was finally released during the middle of the Olympics, causing some viewers who downloaded the original beta plug-in at the beginning to have to download Silverlight 1.0 again later). Developers can use Microsoft's free Visual Studio Express (as well as Visual Studio 2008) to create Silverlight apps, as long as it includes a beta of Silverlight Tools for Visual Studio. At some point, there will be an open-source GNU/LINUX version of Silverlight called Moonlight that Microsoft is developing with Novell.
It's obvious that Adobe has a strong foothold in the rich Internet applications market. Flash reportedly is loaded on up to 90 percent of all PCs connected online. While this creates a huge market for loyal Adobe developers, Microsoft has its own army of developers who, based on the success of the Olympics Silverlight deployment, may see the chance for a medal in what's shaping up to be a world-class technology competition.