LAS VEGAS--Is it time to start talking about the "new Microsoft"?
At the company's Mix '07 conference here this week, the star was Silverlight, Redmond's browser plug-in for creating interactive Web applications often done with Adobe Systems' Flash. The parade of announcements surrounding Silverlight, including a video-streaming service, brings to life some significant changes in the way Microsoft designs software.
It also demonstrates how Ray Ozzie, chief software architect and Bill Gates' successor, is making his mark at the software giant.
For years, detractors have complained that because Microsoft's primary focus was Windows, its software was not fully in line with industry standards and its commitment for products on other operating systems wavered.
At Mix, however, Microsoft executives deliberately sought to highlight the company's intention to make Silverlight "ubiquitous" on a range of devices and to complement its software with Internet-delivered services.
In an interview, Ozzie said Microsoft's moves to embrace the Web more deeply with Silverlight and services are meant to better address an audience that is increasingly using Web services.
"I don't necessarily think that it would be accurate to characterize the increasing openness as a backing away from Windows. I think what it is is a reflection that Windows is in a broader technology environment," Ozzie said.
The Mix announcements and Ozzie's keynote speech show that Microsoft is making progress on its long-stated claims to build a platform for building Internet applications, said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at the Burton Group.
By providing tooling and, through its Live brand of programming interfaces, a set of services for building Web applications, O'Kelly said, Microsoft is creating an offering for customers such as small Web companies that may have no interest in its largest product lines, Office and Windows.
"It's an enlightened Microsoft. To engage with this ecosystem in a constructive way, they have to be part of the ecosystem," he said. "In some respects, you could argue that Microsoft has been assimilated into the Internet culture."
Speaking to developers
At Mix, billed as a "conversation" with Web developers and designers, Microsoft started delivering key pieces of its Web strategy.
The company released an alpha version of Silverlight 1.1 that will let developers use .Net languages, including dynamic languages, to write applications that will run on Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari on Mac OS, with handheld devices and potentially Linux to come.
In a nod to the popularity of open source among Web start-ups and developers, Microsoft said it will release the source code for its Dynamic Language Runtime--software for running applications written with dynamic, or scripting, languages--under its Permissive License, which allows outsiders to modify and distribute the code.
Microsoft also introduced Silverlight Streaming, a service, now in alpha testing, through which the company will host and deliver up to 4GB of video in Silverlight format to Web pages for free.
Ozzie and other Microsoft executives said to expect more services like Silverlight Streaming. These services will provide basic infrastructure, such as data storage and network authentication, as well as access to online data, such as contact information for its Windows Live Spaces users, for building mashup applications.
It also released Expression Studio, a Web design application built to include close integration with Microsoft's flagship Visual Studio development tool.
Microsoft developers' reactions to the Silverlight announcement were generally positive because it allows them to create Web applications for both Windows and Mac OS with familiar products and skills.
Online banking application developer Intelligent Environments, for instance, said Silverlight is appealing because the company's staff of C# programmers will be able to write Web applications with a compelling user interface. Until now, it had hired Flash developers as contractors, said Mike Warriner, chief technology officer of Intelligent Environments.
Miguel de Icaza, a Novell vice president and head of the Mono open-source project, said he will create a version of Silverlight for Linux.
In a blog, de Icaza said that because Silverlight offers substantial front-end development capabilities, he will forgo the Mono project's plan to create an open-source version of Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), a Windows-specific, more comprehensive version of Silverlight.
"Unlike WPF, that requires people to rewrite their software to take advantage of it, Silverlight is aimed at the Web and it will become a nice complement, a way of spicing up existing Web applications without rewriting what already works," de Icaza wrote.
Making Silverlight tools available to .Net and scripting programmers over the course of this year will likely create more so-called rich Internet applications, or Web applications with interactive features.
It will also likely heighten competition with Adobe as well as other, similar tool providers such as Nexaweb and Laszlo Systems.
Right now, Microsoft has the advantage of offering complementary online services like Silverlight Streaming, something that only the software giant, Google and Yahoo have the resources to do right now, the Burton Group's O'Kelly noted.
But Google and Yahoo don't have the same development tool infrastructure as Microsoft. Microsoft also has a complete line of server products to sell to companies looking to build their own Web-based businesses.
Adobe sees Microsoft's investment in rich Internet applications as an indication of how hot the field is, said Kevin Lynch, Adobe's chief software architect.
Last week, Adobe said it will create an open-source project around its Flex development tool. Lynch added that Apollo, its software for running Web applications on desktop PCs, has captured the imagination of developers, but Microsoft doesn't have an equivalent.
Regarding Microsoft's stated commitments to make its software cross-platform, Lynch said Redmond has a bad track record. The company used to create a version of Internet Explorer and Windows Media on the Mac but both were canceled.
"If you look at the DNA of the companies, cross-platform is Adobe's DNA and Windows is Microsoft's DNA," Lynch said. "Something like that doesn't change overnight...It's up to developers to decide how much they want to rely on those statements."
Privately, Microsoft executives said the company's efforts to work with other platforms and open-source technologies are part of an ongoing transition at the company, one that Ozzie endorses.
Although the company will continue to have its naysayers, the latest details on its Web strategy will likely prompt people to take a closer look, O'Kelly said.
"For people who are trying to deliver software value on the Web and different devices, Microsoft will (now) get serious consideration," O'Kelly said. "This is a moment where it's clear Ray (Ozzie) is putting his signature on Microsoft."