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Microsoft's Silverlight to support streaming HD Flash video

Silverlight 3 will be able to play high-definition Flash video and music in iTunes' AAC format

By Eric Lai
September 9, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft Corp. said today that the next version of its Silverlight media player, due early next year, will be able to play live high-definition video encoded for rival Adobe Systems Inc.'s Flash player.

Users of Silverlight 3 will also be able to listen to streaming music encoded in the same format used by Apple Inc.'s iTunes player.

Adding support for the H.264 video compression formats based on the increasingly popular MPEG-4 standard won't necessarily make Silverlight-viewed video look better.

Nor will supporting the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) codec allow Silverlight to play music stored locally by iTunes, partly because of Apple Inc.'s restrictions, said Steven Sklepowich, group product manager for Silverlight Media.

But it will prepare Silverlight 3, which will ship in the first quarter of next year, to play a much wider variety of the streamed HD video and high-fidelity music that broadcasters are expected to bring online.

"We are becoming more of an open runtime environment," Sklepowich said.

Silverlight is a Web browser plug-in that allows users to watch or listen to streaming multimedia. It differs from Microsoft's Windows Media Player, which is mostly used to play back media already downloaded off the Internet.

When Microsoft first released Silverlight last fall, to compete with Flash, it required broadcasters to encode video in the VC-1 codec, a now-open standard for HD DVDs and Blu-ray Discs based on Windows Media formats.

VC-1 enabled true DVD-quality streaming video that is much higher quality than the Flash video on sites such as YouTube, where most of the videos are still encoded in the H.263 codec. Such files are streamed to Web browsers, which cache them as .flv files.

Adobe has since updated its Flash 9 player to play HD H.264 video files, which are stored temporarily as .f4v files. Both .f4v and .flv are different than .swf files, which can be downloaded and played by Flash offline. (Silverlight today plays streamed video in the .asf file container format.)

Silverlight 3 won't be able to play .flv or .swf content, said Sklepowich. But it will be able to play H.264-based .f4v content.

Microsoft had long resisted calls to make its Silverlight player more compatible with Adobe's. Adobe says that last year 70% of Web video was streamed via Flash's .flv format.

Microsoft was motivated to support H.264 because it is becoming "the next-generation standard," said Sklepowich, with HD digital broadcasters such as DirecTV and Dish Network using H.264.

Adding H.264 support will cut work for broadcasters who previously would have had to do the time-consuming work of re-encoding their video in VC-1 to support Silverlight, he said.

And that should encourage more of them to stream video using Silverlight, as well as build special Silverlight-based players such as the ones specially created for NBCOlympics.com and the Democratic National Convention. The players, in addition to showing HD video, also offer features such as picture-in-picture, multiple views, and ticking data, Sklepowich said.

Microsoft plans to show off an early preview of Silverlight 3 at the International Broadcasting Conference (IBC) 2008 in Amsterdam later this week, according to Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Developer Division.

A beta of Silverlight 3 is expected soon after Silverlight 2 ships this fall, Sklepowich said.

The other caveat on video is that Silverlight will only be able to view .f4v streamed video if it is delivered from Web servers using the standard HTTP protocol, Sklepowich said. Video delivered from Adobe's Flash Media Server software using its proprietary RTMP protocol won't play, he said.

In addition to supporting MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) streaming, Silverlight 3 will enable users to listen to streamed music in AAC formats. WMA is the most popular format for streaming today.

AAC is best known as the default audio format used by Apple Inc.'s iTunes, iPod and iPhone to store music files on devices and PCs.

Silverlight 3 will not be able to play those stored songs, Sklepowich said, partly because Apple adds its own digital rights management technology called Fairplay to prevent non-iTunes programs from playing them, and partly because Silverlight is meant only for streaming content.

However, an increasing number of broadcasters are using AAC to stream music through the Web, which Silverlight will be able to play.

Read more about Networking in Computerworld's Networking Topic Center.



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