WPF/E Becomes 'Silverlight:' Microsoft Takes on Flash Directly

For the first time in many years, Microsoft this morning launched a head-on assault in a commercial software market where it is not the established leader. With Adobe's Flash becoming entrenched as the Web's principal delivery platform for scalable vector graphics, freeform animations, and flexible layouts, Microsoft is betting on there being room for two to play in that market.

Today at the NAB convention in Las Vegas, Microsoft will be unveiling Silverlight, the platform and marketing campaign whose aim is to deploy an Internet graphics delivery system not just on Windows, but on Macs and Linux as well.

There's some novelty to Microsoft's strategy, at least for this company. Generally it builds up a technology around a code-name, such as "Avalon," that becomes a platform that sounds like a pharmaceutical ingredient, like "WPF" (Windows Presentation Foundation). Today, it's "WPF/E," with the "E" standing for "Everywhere," that's getting the name change to the nicer-sounding name, the easier-to-swallow marketing premise, and the fuzzier logo - literally a fuzzy blue sphere.

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But it almost wasn't Silverlight, at least not for a few minutes after the manager of this project, Microsoft's Brian Goldfarb, unveiled it some days ago during an analysts' briefing. As Goldfarb told BetaNews, he started the briefing by "giving a lot of context around the energy and investment and the importance of doing the brand well. And I key all of that up and then I show this slide that's the standard Microsoft text, that says, 'Microsoft X-PLAT Rich Player Plug-in for Browsers.' And you just watch the blood drain out of their faces and their eyes lock onto the screen, because they're too embarrassed and too horrified to look anybody in the eye, and they don't really want to say what they're feeling, which is, 'Oh my god, you idiots, what are you thinking?' I let that sit and dangle for a few seconds, and then I go, 'No, just kidding, the brand's Microsoft Silverlight,' and we have gotten resoundingly positive feedback about everything regarding the brand."

Microsoft Silverlight logoIf Microsoft went up against Flash with "WPF/E" or "X-PLAT," the immediate result with consumers might have been "whoops" or "splat." With Silverlight, Microsoft is attempting to evoke a positive image in customers' and users' minds, but an image that is intentionally not too explicit about its own purpose. "The identity system behind it, we call it the 'nebula,"' Goldfarb said, "this spherical object with misty smoke and blue coloring, and you'll get to see all of it coming out of NAB. I'm very proud of what we've done."

Like Flash, Silverlight is a managed plug-in for distributing scalable graphics, that's also capable of delivering video. As you might expect, that video will utilize Microsoft's VC-1 codec, which has received much acclaim and which is among the standard codecs in both HD DVD's and Blu-ray's portfolios. But unlike Flash - at least for now - Silverlight will support VC-1 video encoded in 720p resolution. (Flash Video can technically support any vertical resolution that's a multiple of 16, though presently its encoder is limited to standard broadcast resolutions, the highest being the European PAL standard of 576 lines.)

Goldfarb believes this could optimize the authoring experience for Web video for many developers who have already captured 720p high-resolution, and don't want to have to transcode it for the Web, perhaps losing clarity in the process.

In stark contrast with Flash, Silverlight's Web productions will be constructed around XAML, Microsoft's XML-based user interface composition language. The key to this language is that Microsoft's tools, such as its Expression series (its graphical Web development counterpart to Visual Studio, currently in public beta) produce XAML code without the author having to write it explicitly.

Which leads to the reason why Microsoft is unveiling Silverlight at a convention of broadcasters. "We're introducing a new feature to the Expression media product called Expression Media Encoder," Goldfarb told BetaNews. "for designers and compression engineers to take any existing video assets and encode them, compress them, change them, integrate them together into the VC-1 standard. Inside the encoding tool, I can take my content [and] transcode that into the format that I need - whether it's HD, Web quality, device quality - and automatically wrap that in a set of ten to twelve pre-built Silverlight video players.

"So without having to do any extra work, I can actually create the baseline experience for getting that online," he continued. "And all of that's built using XAML, so I can go and use Expression Blend to customize those even farther than the default, and we have a seamless experience in the Visual Studio which I can use to customize how they interact."

Also at NAB, Microsoft will announce that a version of Windows Server "Longhorn" later this year will include Streaming Media Services for deploying VC-1 video for Silverlight clients. "Secondly, we're going to be announcing the IIS 7 Media Add-on Pack," stated Goldfarb, "which is a set of technologies focused on making it easy with IIS 7 to distribute and manage these types of infrastructure investments. That goes to the scalability, the manageability, the reliability of the distribution network."

While Goldfarb invoked the word "cross-platform" several times during our interview, it's clear that the cross-platform nature of Silverlight will be relegated to the "experience" end of the system. The development tools for Silverlight, for now, are all Microsoft; while he stated the company is officially open to the idea of someone else making Linux or Mac OS variations on Silverlight tools, that statement seemed less than an open invitation.

The server side of the platform appears to prefer Microsoft, but for now, it won't be limited to that single manufacturer, Goldfarb promised. "I can definitely deploy Silverlight applications from Windows Server-based infrastructure, but if I have investments in PHP, Apache, and Linux, that's fine. I can definitely incorporate my Silverlight-based applications directly inside of those environments."

Next: After ActiveX, Microsoft gets smarter

37 Responses to WPF/E Becomes 'Silverlight:' Microsoft Takes on Flash Directly

  1. templar™ says:

    One thing that eludes me, why does MS have to be so uncreative in copying names from competitors?

    Gadget - Widget
    Dashboard - Dashboard
    Aero - Aqua (okay, this one is debatable)
    Silverlight - Flash

    And when they can't copy, they would come up with pathetic names, like Office 2007, Expression Web, Blend, Design, Ajax Extension and this WPF/E.

    No wonder people deride them.

    • Altman says:

      I guess I'd rather a company spend more time on the product itself than trying to come up with some great name that causes people to bow before it. And what is wrong with names like Office 2007, Expression Web, Blend Design, Ajax Extension. They are descriptive names for what they do. I'd rather call it AJAX Extension (which says what it does) than call it some flashy name like Microsoft Supernova or some animal name like Microsoft Elephant which says nothing about the product.

    • Niro says:

      what does that even mean?? You don't like the names of the products? What would you like gadgets to be called? Microsoft Crystals? This is the most nit picky post on betanews I've ever seen I think.

    • rsx508 says:

      I'm surprised it wasn't renamed "Microsoft Flash-Killer Attempt 2007 .NET Ultimate Premium Extras Edition"

    • frankwick says:

      What does/did Konfabulator call their widgets? ...and EVERYONE seems to have a dashboard. MS even had a dashboard for Outlook in the 1990s.

  2. templar™ says:

    *snip*

  3. sstange says:

    This is great news for developers. Who cares about the name? They could call it Microsoft Peanut Butter for all I care. For competition, this is something that is long-overdue. We have another tool we can use to make great websites.

    Sam
    http://blogs.samstange.com

  4. drumcat says:

    Adobe pushed a Flash variant, until they gave up and bought it.

    History will repeat itself. Just like Flex, Microsoft will capitulate, and allow its IDE to export to .swf within 18 months.

  5. kashin says:

    What I'm most interested in is pricing. I like Flash, but my main gripe is the fact you have to pay a very high price for it. If Microsoft makes available a good free tool for creating Silverlight content, I would definitely give it a try.

  6. JabbarMiles says:

    I'm not a programmer and I have invested allot of time learning Action Script. Flash is finally becoming more popular and it has taken years. I don't know if I want to start all over with something new. The only way I can see this working is if the plugin comes installed on the computer or with automatic updates. My only problem with Flash is that the end user is afraid to download something that they know nothing about.

    • mjm01010101 says:

      taken years?
      Flash was installed on like 97% of client machines in 1999!

      • PC_Tool says:

        O RLY?

        I don't think I actually had a need to install it until 04 or so.

        I'd love to see where you got those numbers, if ya don't mind.

      • xcorpio says:

        Where have you been in the last 10 Years? Playing T Ball?

      • PC_Tool says:

        Softball, actually.

        ..and only on weekends.

      • uberfly says:

        It really was on most machines in the late 90s - swf was used everywhere. It was hard to avoid installing it and was mostly annoying. It's really come on strong though in the last few year as a serious web dev platform.

  7. Paradise-FH- says:

    "Generally it builds up a technology around a code-name, such as "Avalon," that becomes a platform that sounds like a pharmaceutical ingredient, like "WPF" (Windows Presentation Foundation). Today, it's "WPF/E," with the "E" standing for "Everywhere," that's getting the name change to the nicer-sounding name, the easier-to-swallow marketing premise, and the fuzzier logo - literally a fuzzy blue sphere."

    "If Microsoft went up against Flash with "WPF/E" or "X-PLAT," the immediate result with consumers might have been "whoops" or "splat.""

    oh come on. a little less commentary? wordy enough without a long "joke" every other sentence.

  8. uberfly says:

    I just surprised it's taken this long. Maybe they thought Flash would fizzle like embedded java did.

  9. Jim says:

    "So think about this: You're watching your favorite TV show on NBC, and up pops the little sparkly graphic at the bottom that says, 'Heroes,' and then advertises the next episode that's up for seven seconds, it's overlaid on top of your existing content, and it's completely seamless, and not really that intrusive,"

    Sorry for the long quote, but how many people agree with me that this is not only the worst possible thing to happen to web browsing since pop-ups, and is the #1 thing on my list of things my ad blocker better prevent. If such a feature is hard coded I'm going to disable it all together, which would be a big hit for them if their trying to get it to be used like flash, which is annoyingly intrusive as it is if your not using FF's flash block extension (ever click on several myspace links at a time...).

    • Jim says:

      Also, this will be the greatest thing ever to those websites that don't let you close out of them, while flashing porn windows that hide cover or just plane disallow clicking X. On your work computer. Which all so often tends to belong to a teacher in a classroom full of elementary school students.

    • Floodland says:

      I agree.

      I'd like to see some samples of the Microsoft technology though. I could bet that almost any vector animation including M$ XML will be fat, will not transfer smoothly and will have the worst quality render and problems you can dream of, unless they bought some company with an existing product. In that case the bloating/self destructing job will take couple of versions. In both cases, they will eat some significant market share.
      Don't get me wrong, I will be happy if I have to eat my own words (the product only got its name), but... I already know Microsoft too much.
      Now, Microsoft fanboys, you can start bashing me right now (I already know Betacrosoft fanboys too).

  10. tedvandell says:

    If Microsoft thinks that creative producers are going to switch from any application, including Flash, to ANY Microsoft application for developing media for the web, they have been smoking something illegal.

  11. donnyemu says:

    I have been using WPF/E silverlight for months already in the preview version. It's a very cool multimedia system, though I really don't find it has much in common with Flash, mostly because it's very good at integrating with other Web technologies, like SQL databases, ASP.NET, PHP. The whole design methodology lends to serious customization (especially when using it as a media player). The whole thing is designed to just do what it needs to and integrate with other technologies. I like it's event model better than Flash and honestly it's good client technology even if you are a Mac developer.

    • alphatrigon says:

      this is what confuses so many out there...but you have the idea ;). It is just another SVG development platform. I like it.

    • iwintaz says:

      Hey, donnyemu!
      Thank you for having a technical perspective (unlike political perspectives of many others). I would like to add that unlike Flash, Silverlight's big brother WPF will be well integrated on the desktop. And the picture on the desktop is opposite: MS has already done it with WPF and Adobe will try to compete when they introduce Apollo at the end of 2007.

  12. zridling says:

    Wow, another substandard copycat of someone else's better idea. WAY TO GO MICROSOFT, you officially blow chunks! Expect Microsoft to abandon it within two years. Let's hope BetaNews follows up on the quiet obituary at that time.

    • extremely well says:

      In two years, this player will be installed on 80% of PCs (thanks Automatic Updates!!) and actual usage will be at least 10% worldwide. In the small businesses and nonpro individual markets, Microsoft (cheap/free) tools are always well received. WMV is a VERY popular format these days. This new format will effectively be (for the common usages) WMV on stereoids. It will be a big hit with porn sites.

    • templar™ says:

      In what way is it "substandard"?

    • ladylust says:

      Wow so I guess everyone with a website is a copycat because it all uses HTML code? Give me a break... everything is copied, repackaged and tweaked to call it their own.

  13. alphatrigon says:

    lol, so much MS/Windows envy...go try WPFE or of course now, Starlight, that thing is sweet.

    Seriously, if you haven't even tested it out, just do it and get a perspective. It has a whole different feel to it and no it isn't a copy cat, just another piece of competition.

    Consumers...we all want scalable vector formats right? SVG...all flavors of production competition...just as you would buy something a development kit to make a website, game, app, dbase...etc.

    If you don't like it...that's the beauty of it, you can keep using what you prefer! amazing! :D

  14. billweh says:

    Hmm - I'm more curious as to what the tools will cost and how easy it will be to build dynamic content with it (e.g. querying a database, updating a database, etc).

    Knowing MS - it will probably be much easier than it is within Flash. If it's also a lot cheaper, then Flash may have a real run for itself.

    My biggest beef with flash has always been that it's so complicated, if I can turn out a slick, dynamic site with all of the bells and whistles that are capable in Flash, but in a fraction of the time and cost - hmm, I wonder which way I'll go...?

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