At the NAB conference this morning, Microsoft is giving us a first glimpse at Silverlight, the artist formerly known as "WPF/E". Because the announcement comes from the NAB conference, but also because it's one of Silverlights major strong points, Microsoft is talking a lot about video. I was briefed about Silverlight and the video infrastructure last week and I came away impressed. See the gallery for Silverlight goodness.
When you look at the explosion of Flash video and how it has transformed the web, it was easy to see that Microsoft had to get in. Flash video happened almost by accident, but it really energized Adobe and gave it even more street cred with consumers and media companies alike. The great thing about Flash video is that it just works, and that has been the major part of its success. But it does have some drawbacks. The On2 codec is excellent for the web, but for high definition content like movies, it lacks a bit. Flash also doesn't have native DRM (though that may change this week), so some of the big media companies refused to use it for any of their major properties. It's also a fairly expensive solution to implement streaming. The On2 encoder is expensive, and Flash Media server can also get expensive. The licensing is set up so that as your site becomes more and more popular, the costs rise very quickly. Silverlight finally gives Microsoft an easy web video solution. The Silverlight plugin runs on Mac and Windows, and supports all of the major browsers. It leverages the VC-1 codec which powers Windows Media and also has a fairly robust infrastructure that fits well into Microsoft's platform. For one thing, when you buy IIS, you have all the tools you need to encode and stream Windows Media Files. In addition, using VC-1 gets you a lot of third party tools. As an added bonus, its also supported by HD DVD and Blu-ray. The DRM capabilities of Windows Media are also a fairly well known commodity.
But despite what seems like a technology edge, Silverlight has a long way to go before it can be considered a competitor. The Flash Player is on 98% of machines, which means that media companies can bet that when they deliver content this way, nearly everyone can see it. With Silverlight, Microsoft is starting from scratch, and getting the kind of penetration that Flash has is going to be extremely difficult. They do have some good partnerships lined up though. They're working with MLB.com to provide video for the site. They also lined up Brigthcove, a company founded by Jeremy Allarie , whose company was bought by Macromedia. The fact that Brightcove signed up with Silverlight shows me that it's worth keeping an eye on despite the initial disadvantage.Silverlight is a wide ranging product, and all aspects of it are going to affect things like penetration and partners. Right now, Microsoft is focusing on the video story, which I think is their best play. Later we'll hear about the developer side of Silverlight and how Microsoft is going to support rich, interactive web applications. That story may not be quite as good, but there is a beta of Silverlight coming at MIX, so we'll see.