Microsoft Silverlight: Flash Killer or Wannabe?

When Microsoft rolled out its Silverlight RIA (rich interactive application) platform this week, it threw down the proverbial gauntlet, so to speak, at longtime rival Adobe, whose Flash product has thus far been the dominant interactive content creation tool on the market.

The availability of Silverlight will undoubtedly create more choice for developers and users, and may be particularly compelling to some if the rumors about plans to make some components available as open source are true.

Silverlight is a cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in “designed to deliver the next generation of .Net-based media applications and content,” as Microsoft puts it.

Attack of the 800-Pound Gorilla

While a giant in so many areas of technology, Microsoft is in some ways venturing into new territory with its release of Silverlight.

“What Microsoft is doing is something even the successful third parties always fear: that the big guy, the 800-pound gorilla, suddenly decides to go after the little guy,” Yankee Group analyst Laura DiDio told TechNewsWorld.

Adobe will have to start “marketing hard,” she added, to counter the new threat. “If you’re Adobe or any third party, you’ve always got to be worried when a dominant player with this much money starts casting covetous eyes on your space,” DiDio said.

Enough to Switch?

Nevertheless, how well Silverlight will be received remains to be seen. Adobe enjoys a large base of Flash users who will need a compelling reason to switch.

“Who’s going to be really interested in this? Maybe 10 to 15 percent of leading edge users,” DiDio noted. “A lot of the people who have Flash like it, and will want to keep it. A lot of people will see no need. To the bulk of the end user audience, good enough is good enough.”

Current Microsoft customers will be most likely to give Silverlight a try, DiDio continued, while Adobe users will probably consider carefully before switching. “I think it will have its proponents, but I don’t think it will be a Flash killer,” she said.

Newer Technology

Nevertheless, even without the open source possibilities, Silverlight may indeed offer some compelling attractions.

“Silverlight is the result of the recognition that although Flash powers 80 percent of online videos today, it has some significant shortcomings that made sense five years ago but no longer apply,” James McQuivey, principal analyst at Forrester Research, told TechNewsWorld.

“Namely, Flash video quality is based on old technology, and the cost to stream using Flash media servers is high,” he said. “Also, the level of interactivity basic Flash can support is limited. With Silverlight, Microsoft is focusing on all of these limitations in Flash.”

Microsoft still has its work cut out for it in the marketing of Silverlight, though, given the enormous size and breadth of its product portfolio, DiDio noted.

Banking On Tomorrow

However, Microsoft may have strong incentives to make Silverlight a success.

“Microsoft is hoping to get back into this market, not necessarily because of how attractive the market is today, but because the amount of video delivered via the Internet is about to explode,” McQuivey said. “Microsoft would like to be relevant in five years when many households will get a significant portion of their video from the Internet.”

Whatever its ultimate success, it will almost certainly improve the whole market. “I’m all for choices,” DiDio said. “It will make Adobe better, it will make Microsoft better and everyone down the line. It’s clearly a good product, and we’ll see if it catches on.”

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