Microsoft officially launched its Silverlight video player last week, which is a free downloadable plug-in that can present videos in high definition on PCs. First announced in April at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference, Microsoft now has a number of partners already in place, including CBS, which will use the technology on a site dedicated to its Emmy Awards broadcast on Sept. 16. In addition to the CBS partnership, Microsoft’s MSN is using Silverlight in its Election Central offering, as will HSN and World Wrestling Entertainment. Major League Baseball has also been using Silverlight since July and is working towards using it to broadcast live games on MLB.TV.
Silverlight is a plug-in that allows Windows and Linux PCs as well as Macs to display animated ads, run mini-software or games, or play DVD-quality video - all inside the Web browser. Microsoft says that, "Silverlight is blindingly fast… you can play many videos simultaneously without stuttering or dropping frames (subject to network bandwidth, of course)." According to Microsoft, Silverlight is just a 1MB download on a PC (slightly more on a Macintosh), it supports Windows XP and above, and Windows 2000 support is in the works.
Technically, Silverlight is a proprietary runtime for browser-based Rich Internet Applications (RIAs), providing a subset of the animation, vector graphics, and video playback capabilities of Windows Presentation Foundation. RIAs are Web applications that have the features and functionality of traditional desktop applications, but typically run in a Web browser, and do not require software installation. They can also run locally in a secure environment called a sandbox. Silverlight consists of a core presentation framework that integrates user interface (UI), interactivity and user input, basic UI controls, graphics and animation, media playback, digital right management (DRM), and Document Object Model (DOM) support. (DOM is a platform- and language-independent standard object model for representing HTML or XML and related formats.)
Silverlight competes with Adobe Flash and with Sun Microsystems’ JavaFX. According to Forest Key, director of product management at Microsoft’s server and tools division, Adobe Flash has "some video capabilities, and some success in that market," but Silverlight offers "better video quality than Flash," while the Expression tools will be "cheaper, faster and better" than Adobe’s offerings. Before joining Microsoft, Key was a senior manager at Macromedia Inc., where he helped oversee Flash. He was also a video editor and animator at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic.
Silverlight uses the VC-1 video codec, originally developed by Microsoft as Windows Media Video 9 but now available as an open standard. As such, Silverlight bypasses other video players such as Apple’s QuickTime or RealNetworks’ RealPlayer, and may offer video quality equal to or superior to them (says Microsoft) by providing 720p high-definition quality content.
So what’s the point of a new browser presentation engine? For one, it promulgates the "walled garden" strategy of software and services deployment. By keeping more and more of the application environment within the Microsoft "nest," Windows is able to keep a competitive edge above other software developers such as Apple, Adobe, and Sun. And while Silverlight is said to run in any browser, we’ll have to watch this development carefully as future revisions are unfurled. By possibly integrating features with the Internet Explorer browser, IE becomes a de facto standard for web applications - a strategy that all but eliminated Netscape as a contender in this space. Let’s hope that some of Silverlight’s features eventually don’t become incompatible with Mozilla’s Firefox and the like.