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Microsoft taking the hard way to winning Silverlight users

Company eschews past "strong-arm" tactics; will it work?

By Eric Lai
April 30, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - With its new foray into the Web design tools market, Microsoft Corp. faces the formidable chicken-and-egg problem that has sunk many a budding technology venture.

In Microsoft’s case, the company needs to get tens of millions of consumers (at least) to use Silverlight, its rich media platform, before it can hope to sell Web and graphic designers and developers on its new Expression line of tools for developing, among other things, Silverlight applications.

Spreading Silverlight won’t be an easy task. Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash media player enjoys a virtual monopoly in this space today. It is installed on hundreds of millions of PCs worldwide.

Moreover, Microsoft is eschewing what many would say is its normal strong-arm tactics to push Silverlight. While Silverlight is free, Microsoft is not bundling Silverlight into Windows, a tactic that has made the company vulnerable in the past to accusations of monopolistic practices. Nor is it bundling it into Internet Explorer, which, despite recent gains by Firefox and Safari, remains used by nearly 8 out of 10 Internet users worldwide. 

"It’s the whole anti-trust issue," said Chris Swenson, an analyst with Port Washington, NY-based NPD Group Inc., which makes Microsoft hesitant.

Nor is Microsoft making Silverlight an optional or automatic download to Windows users via Windows Update. Windows Update’s reputation was tarnished last year after Microsoft used the service to stealthily roll out a controversial anti-piracy feature called Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) last year.  

Rather, Microsoft is betting that partnerships with big media Web sites using Silverlight will enable quick adoption. "We want to get people to voluntarily download," said Forest Key, director of product management for Microsoft, in an interview Monday at Microsoft’s Mix07 Web development conference.  

Asked if the WGA debacle led Microsoft to avoid Windows Update, Key said, "Because it [Silverlight] is a customer experience, we want to create a positive association, rather than payloading it down" to consumers.

Ironically, Microsoft actually bundled Flash into Windows XP for several years, according to Keith Smith, group product manager for Web/client user experience platform and tools at Microsoft. Users could set Windows Update to automatically download updates to Flash, too. However, that relationship was discontinued with Windows Vista, Smith said.

Microsoft has a handful of media companies that have already committed to using SilverLight. Those companies include baseball’s, Netflix Inc., and CBS Television.

"We’ve announced five partners, and there are others in the pipeline," said Key. "We think we can get 80% of users worldwide with 10-15 key partners. To get to 90%, to get people in places like China and Korea where they aren’t as likely to watch, we’re going to go with regional partners."

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