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An Overview of Microsoft Silverlight
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by Joydip Kanjilal
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Introduction

The monopoly is over; it's the time of duopoly, or more precisely, a takeover bid. Who will replace whom or whom to be replaced by what? Don't get confused in these twists of sentences. Relax! Your queries will be met as we move ahead. Microsoft’s latest gift in the name of Silverlight, is all set to replace the old and traditional Adobe's Flash and become the technology of choice for developing the next generation of cross-browser, cross-platform Rich Internet Applications (RIAs). Moreover, Microsoft has already decided to make this plug-in freely available for all supported platforms. This article presents an introduction to this technology, its applicability, and its future; it also provides links and references for further insight onto this technology.

But what exactly is this technological hype about? Moreover, how far it will be effective for those users who play with animations, graphics, designs, i.e., especially where the creativity matters? We will discuss this and other related issues in the sections that follow.

What is Silverlight and why is it useful?

Silverlight was formerly known as Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere. Yes! Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/E) now has an official name - Microsoft Silverlight. It is "blindingly fast" and a strong competitor to Adobe Flash and promises to be the technology of choice for designing Rich Internet Applications (RIA) in the years to come. It is a cross-browser, cross platform plug-in, a light-weight subset of XAML, which supports Ajax, Python, Ruby, etc., and helps develop Rich Internet Applications (RIA) with awesome media experiences. "Microsoft Silverlight provides a comprehensive environment for delivering rich media experiences online and beyond. With the support of Rhozet's suite of transcoding solutions, content providers will gain tremendous versatility and efficiencies for rich video distribution to Silverlight-based experiences."

Silverlight promotes a collaborative development of rich online media content that enables the developers and designers to integrate awesome graphics into Ajax enabled web pages. Moreover, you can create and even preview your code at real time. You can write your code in Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML) in the Microsoft .NET environment and then integrate within it rich graphics and animations, without being skeptical about the compatibility issues. Tim Sneath says, "By separating markup (XAML) from code, Silverlight provides a familiar web metaphor for designers and developers. You can embed XAML directly within an HTML file if you want a simple, monolithic solution, or you can keep the two separate to enforce delineation between different web development roles."

Striking features

Silverlight integrates seamlessly with HTML and supports Microsoft’s Common Language Runtime (CLR), which allows both the designers and the development community to create their applications within the context of Microsoft .NET Framework and at the same time, integrate animations and graphics into their applications seamlessly. It would contain a cut-short Common Language Runtime (CLR) that can be assessed from the web browser. In a nutshell, you have the combination of the best of both worlds - the power of Microsoft .NET's managed, platform independent environment coupled with amazing graphics. So, what comes out is an awesome user experience. According to Nik Cubrilovic, "Silverlight isn't just animations in applets, far from it - it is a very serious development environment that takes desktop performance and flexibility and puts it on the web."

The usage of Silverlight facilitates the distribution of multimedia as an integral part of an application in full screen having a support for Partial High Definition (HD) video at 720p resolution. With the help of Microsoft’s new Dynamic Language Runtime (DRL), Silverlight also supports JavaScript, Python and Ruby within the context of Microsoft .NET Framework. Both Python and Ruby were introduced by Microsoft and released under a shared source license, providing developers with both access to the code and the capability to contribute to it.

Silverlight and Adobe - Who will be the winner

With Silverlight around, is it the end of the road for Adobe? Maybe yes, to a large extent. You have in Silverlight usage of XAML, the runtime speed, a wide range of flexible options with a variety of programming language support, a strong multimedia support, compatibility and support for the .NET managed environment and even more! According to some industry tycoons, it is going to become a "Flash-killer" and very well poised to dethrone Adobe in no time.

Still, you will find some critics who often create controversy so as to usher a new light in the horizon. Silverlight has been criticized often for the lack of Linux support or any platform other than Windows and Mac OS X, citing it as a factor that could limit the widespread adoption of Silverlight in the development community around the globe.

It has further encountered criticism for ignoring existing international standards. According to Ryan Paul of Ars Technica, Microsoft could have chosen SVG to implement the vector graphics subset, instead of a "limited and compatible facsimile," to show their commitment to open standards and also fix the standards problems that plagues Internet Explorer. He feels this is inconsistent with Microsoft’s ignoring of open standards in other products as well.

Moreover, according to David Betz, a standards advocate, Microsoft would have needed to alter the SVG specification to add .NET integration and UI constructs on top of SVG.  Consequently, the "choice by Microsoft to use XAML over SVG, served to retain the SVG standard by not adding proprietary technology" he further reiterates.

Silverlight - Moving ahead

What has the future in store for Silverlight? Silverlight has been pushed side-by-side with Microsoft’s live services for developers. Microsoft is further opening up API's (application program interfaces) for its most popular search engine, for Virtual Earth, for its instant messaging service, and for other services, under benevolent, but not unlimited licensing terms. These indispensable services will allow the creation of attractive and interesting online applications that take an advantage of existing Microsoft networks and resources.

Nik Cubrilovic says, "My personal opinion is that Silverlight is great and that Microsoft has done very well to bring .NET to the browser (almost all browsers)." Silverlight enables the display of high-definition video files. Streaming large media files is dearer, but Microsoft will host Silverlight media files and applications. This will be a great help for smaller developers to deliver large and high definition files fast and reliably, without paying content distribution network fees. Microsoft promises reliable 700 kbps throughput for media files, and free distribution of all content on its network for one year. After that phase, distribution will be free up to 1 million streamed minutes a month. You can find more information here.

References
Conclusion

The Silverlight technology is typically meant for developing and distributing stupendous Internet applications or Rich Internet Applications (RIA's) that use animations, graphics and video within the context of Microsoft .NET's managed environment.

Keeping aside the technological revolution that Silverlight technology has brought in; it has already become a victim of controversy. Critics are there, but whatever the hurdles on the path are Silverlight is well poised to emerge as the winner in the days to come.  Microsoft has a battle in hand and many points to prove to the creative development community on the web.



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