More Flash Brings More Light

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Listen to the marketing pitch from Microsoft and you’ll hear what amounts to one portion of a duet with Adobe’s marketing pitch for AIR, almost tantamount to a pithy line from Gilbert and Sullivan ("When you say ‘orphan’ do you mean ‘orphan,’ a person who has lost his parents, or ‘often,’ frequently?")

"Web-based applications have often represented a compromise between creating a high-quality, engaging user interface and the amount of effort and time that a development team can put into the application," Microsoft’s marketing pitch goes, adding that developers "generally believe that browsers simply do not support the interactive and expressive capabilities of a true client-based application."

One of the areas Microsoft sees an opportunity for RIAs (the same term Adobe uses) to thrive is in the video streaming and interactive space that Adobe firmly occupies with Flash. To combat Flash’s dominance, Microsoft has chosen to use video streaming—from the mobile device that runs Windows CE to the desktop and entertainment system that’s capable of high-definition content playback—as a key component of its marketing strategy against Adobe. Playing in the same HD field has its advantages for Microsoft as its VC-1 codec, in use as part of the HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc standards alongside H.264, gives Microsoft the advantage of having played in the HD space for several years while Flash was focused on low-bandwidth, low-resolution output.

In a nod to Adobe’s Flash ecosystem, including the ability to play Spark (Flash MX) and VP6 (Flash 8) video files on mobile devices via Flash Lite 3, Microsoft notes that "Silverlight scales video quality to everything from mobile devices to desktop browsers to 720p HDTV video mode."

For all the benefits of Silverlight, Microsoft has the distinct disadvantage of having to support several integrated developer environments (IDEs) that different divisions of the company push: Visual Studio, .NET, and even the aging ASP developer’s environments receive equal weighting to Silverlight.

While Silverlight is itself a derivative of .NET, a concerted effort by Microsoft to get behind Silverlight as its IDE of choice could quite possibly tip the scales for web applications and video/rich media delivery in Microsoft’s favor: The company pitches that Silverlight "offers a flexible programming model that supports JavaScript, Visual C#, Visual Basic, and other languages," which may explain why Adobe rolled out a sneak peek of Flash running C# modules encapsulated in Flex at Adobe MAX in Chicago in late October 2007. It seems, in hindsight, this was Adobe’s way of assuring a part of its audience—the part less prone to making pretty pictures and more prone to deep-level coding—that it too was ready to let Flex do what it was good at but also accommodate programming and scripting languages that added extra benefit.

Microsoft appears to be on the road to tying every IDE to Silverlight in some way: for instance, the company touts a tight integration with the ASP.NET platform, using AJAX capabilities in ASP.NET to allow client machines to interact with server-based resources. The newest version, 1.1, currently in alpha release at the time of this writing, also ties in tighter .NET framework support, and both versions take advantage of Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML) for significant parsing and object-oriented programming advantages. Think of XAML as HTML, but focused deeply on the creation of application user interfaces, whether they be on the desktop or on the web.

Microsoft’s belief is that developers’ lack of vision—not just the lack of tools—has resulted in web applications (or rich internet applications) that "often do not take full advantage of the capabilities of the user’s computer to provide an experience that users find not just functional, but exciting."

At least one firm that we discussed Silverlight with agreed that it will be an uphill battle to get desktop application programmers to seriously consider the web an equally robust playing field.

"We find that our customers want desktop apps that are robust," said Rajesh Radhakrishnan, vice president of business development with Vritti, a Mumbai-based technology solution provider during a discussion at Streaming Media Europe in London in late 2007. "They use web applications as client access to content, but keep the two applications separated due to security concerns and difficulty in creating rich web applications. Putting the core application on the web raises several security concerns that clients would need to be educated on."

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