With the imminent release of Silverlight 2.0, developers and Web designers, particularly those already working in Microsoft IT environments, will have the first viable alternative technology to Adobe Flash for building rich Internet applications, analysts and developers said.
Microsoft first released Silverlight, a cross-browser runtime for Web-based multimedia and 3D applications, about a year ago. However, the development of the 1.0 version, like many new Microsoft products, was rushed, and not even close to the vision the company had for the product.
"[Silverlight] 1.0 was a stop-gap measure -- they were late to market and wanted to get something out there early after Adobe had done an amazing success [with Flash]," said Al Hilwa, an application development software program director for research firm IDC. But Silverlight 2.0 "is the real deal -- they've put out architecturally what they've always wanted to do," he said.
Silverlight 2.0's final release is imminent. Insiders said it could be available in a few weeks. The first release candidate for developers is already available on the Web.
It may be fair to say that Microsoft moved faster with Silverlight than it ever has to get a product in shape as a viable competitor to already-established technology. In this case, that's obviously Flash, which has enjoyed great success for years as the predominant technology for adding high-impact multimedia applications and graphics to Web sites. It was this early trend that spurred the current development of more complex Web-based and business applications that make the user experience as important as stability, security or general performance.
Though it's no match across the board for the more mature Flash technology yet, people who have used early versions of Silverlight 2.0 said Microsoft indeed has made great strides with the technology.
However, developers should not be misled into thinking that Silverlight is meant to be a "Flash killer," warned Christopher Smith, president of Aquent Graphics Institute, a Boston training and staffing firm that works with developers and designers using Adobe and Microsoft development software.
"I don't think Microsoft is trying to go after the hard-core Flash people," he said.
Instead, Microsoft is "offering an option for designers and developers who want to build an interactive front end that will tie into their existing Microsoft infrastructure and platform," Smith said.
For that goal, developers said that Silverlight 2.0 and its companion tools -- the Expression toolset, and in particular, Expression Blend -- actually have an advantage or two over Flash for companies and developers that already use Microsoft infrastructure.
Fred Gerantabee, a training manager and instructor at Aquent who has used Flash for 11 years and also is now using Silverlight, said that because of this tie-in, Silverlight is a better runtime than Flash for data-intensive applications.
"From a data-integration perspective, Silverlight is powerful out of the gate because it uses this back end that has been proven for users," he said. "If you're in a Microsoft environment, which a lot of people are, Silverlight's capabilities [in this respect] will excel."
On the other hand, "Flash was not originally designed to be a data-intensive, application-building environment -- it became that through user demand," Gerantabee said. Because of this, in his opinion it still has weaknesses to Silverlight in this area, he said, acknowledging that "there are Flash developers who would disagree" with this assessment.
Another advantage for Microsoft developers is the integration of the .NET framework into Silverlight 2.0, so developers can use C# or Visual Basic to build Silverlight applications, said Jonathan Wetzel, a developer for startup ZocDoc in New York. ZocDoc, which has a Microsoft-based IT environment, has a Web site for people in the New York area to set up appointments with health-care providers.
.NET developers who may have little to no experience in designing multimedia applications can easily use Silverlight to do so because they can leverage a familiar development language and environment, Wetzel said. "It's a much easier transition," he said.
Aside from the advantages Silverlight has as a Microsoft technology, the company also has added at least one feature into Expression Blend -- a companion tool for generating Silverlight applications -- that trumps what a developer currently can do in the Flash development environment, Gerantabee said. That feature is "handoff timeline," he said.
Historically in Flash, if a designer is creating two isolated animations that need to follow each other sequentially in an application, if the timelines of those applications don't exactly line up, the transition between them won't be smooth without "a tremendous amount of programming," Gerantabee said.
However, Microsoft has built into Blend a feature that will automatically calculate that transition in Silverlight, he said. "If you have a number of different storyboards and you switch [between them], it actually calculates the position for you -- it takes over from one animation and picks up another," Gerantabee said.
For all of its strengths, however, Adobe need not be worried that Silverlight will be displacing Flash anytime soon, as Adobe's proven technology still has significant advantages from a design perspective, developers said.
"Flash has more years on Silverlight in terms of authoring tools and there are things from a design perspective that it can do that Silverlight can't do," Gerantabee said.
"People still say when it comes to 3D handling or animation handling Flash is superior environment," Hilwa concurred. "In terms of existing features for high-definition video, Flash still has the advantage."
However, Hilwa thinks it may not be the technology features that will have the most long-term impact on long-term adoption of both technologies -- it will be support from independent software vendors and the strength of each company's marketing rather than "pure technical merit."