Silverlight, via Moonlight, comes to Linux

If you're like me, you don't like proprietary video and audio codecs. Be that as it may, some sites, like NBC's Olympics site, use Microsoft's proprietary Silverlight streaming technology. Until recently, if you were using Linux that meant you couldn't watch videos from these sites at all. Until now. The Mono Project, a Novell sponsored open-source initiative to bring .NET code to Linux, has just released an open-source, Firefox add-in Moonlight 1.0 that enables Linux desktop users to view Moonlight content.

Moonlight not only brings Silverlight content to Linux users, though, it also brings Microsoft's WMV (Windows Media Video), WMA (Windows Media Audio) and MP3 files to Linux via the Microsoft Media Pack. This is a Microsoft blessed set of Microsoft's proprietary media codecs.

To get Moonlight, you download it as a Firefox add-on from the Go-Mono site. This is a straightforward operation and will be familiar to anyone who's downloaded Firefox add-ons. The one possible mis-step is that you must be sure to give the site permission to download and install Moonlight on your browser.

Officially, Moonlight supports SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) 10, the latest versions of openSUSE, Fedora and Ubuntu on 32-bit architectures and SLED and openSUSE on 64-bit chips. In practice, I've installed and used it without any trouble at all on not only those operating systems but on MEPIS 8, which is based on Debian 5, Lenny, and Mint 6, which is built on top of Ubuntu 8.10.

The instructions on the Web page give you the impression that after you install Moonlight, you'll be prompted to install the Microsoft Media Pack. That isn't correct. Instead, you'll be asked to download it the first time you come across a Silverlight site that requires any of the Microsoft codecs. The site I used to fully enable Moonlight was the Official Microsoft Silverlight site.

The Media Pack is also a Firefox add-on. It only works with content that's already been encapsulated in Silverlight. So, for example, you can't use it to watch most of the WMV videos on the WindowsMedia site.

You will also find that some Silverlight-enabled sites, such as the Olympics site and Netflix, are set so that they still won't play their content even with Moonlight installed. That's because they check, not to see if you can view Silverlight content, but if you have the 'right' combination of Web browser and operating system. It will look like you can see their content... right up to the point where it slams the door in your face. This is really annoying.

In a statement, Miguel de Icaza, Mono's founder and Novell's Developer Platform vice president, said "Moonlight brings the benefits of Silverlight's popular multimedia content to Linux viewers. This first release delivers on the goal of breaking down barriers to multimedia content and creating parity in the user's viewing experience regardless of whether the user is on Windows or Linux."

That sounds good, and Moonlight does work, but there's really very little Silverlight content out there. And, from the way the economy is tanking, it looks like there's little work being done to make more Silverlight applications or content available.

I'm sure the sites that currently support Silverlight will eventually let you use Moonlight as well. It's really just a matter of bad Web site design and that's easy enough to fix.

In the long run, though, Adobe's Flash already owns most of the Internet's streaming video, and Adobe AIR provides the same kind of middle-weight Internet application interfaces that Silverlight promises. Besides, both Adobe Flash and AIR are also available on Linux and, unlike Silverlight, I've yet to find any Flash or AIR site where Linux had a bit of trouble.

Novell promises that in the future it will deliver a multimedia player using Moonlight. This will be built on top of its existing music player Banshee. As it happens, Banshee is my favorite audio program on any platform, so I am looking forward to what Novell will be doing here.

That said, Moonlight, for now at least, isn't really that useful. On the other hand, once NBC and Netflix get their act together, I can see using it. Mind you, I'd much prefer it if the media companies would just use an open standard format or, at least, Flash, which is on its way to becoming one.

Until that day comes though, programs that help play proprietary formats in Linux will still be useful. So, I, for one, will be installing Moonlight on my Linux desktops. For now, it doesn't do a lot, but then it doesn't take much to install it and it has the potential to be far more useful in the future.

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