Is Microsoft's Silverlight likely to shine?

Video space heats up, but a slew of deals doesn't equal a cakewalk

In touting deals it has signed with Internet video broadcasters such as Netflix Inc., Brightcove Inc. and Major League Baseball, Microsoft Corp. is declaring that its nascent Silverlight rich media software is not only a would-be Flash killer but also a high-definition video delivery system that takes on, among others, Apple Inc.'s QuickTime.

At the massive National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas on Monday, Microsoft announced that those companies, as well as a slew of other media firms, will produce and deliver content including online video on Silverlight.

"Microsoft’s really stepping up what they are doing on the video side of things," said John Bromhead, vice president of marketing at Tarari Inc., a San Diego-based maker of high-end video hardware that is supporting Silverlight.

Into the Light

Silverlight is a free plug-in from Microsoft that allows Windows and Linux PCs as well as Macintoshes to display fancy animated ads, run minisoftware or games, or play DVD-quality video, all inside the Web browser. Until today, Silverlight was known as Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/E). It remains in development, though users can download the plug-in and try out sample content today.

Previously, Microsoft had mostly talked up WPF/E’s ability to match Adobe Systems Inc.’s dominant Flash player in more traditional rich media areas.

But Forest Key, a director of product management at Microsoft's server and tools division, bluntly claimed the superiority of Silverlight, along with Microsoft’s upcoming Expression design and video encoding tools, on the less-talked-about video front.

Flash has "some video capabilities, and some success in that market," Key said. But Silverlight offers "better video quality than Flash," while the Expression tools will be "cheaper, faster and better" than Adobe’s offerings, he claimed.

Key has some credibility to back up what on the surface sounds like unwarranted cockiness. Before joining Microsoft several years ago, Key was a senior manager at Macromedia Inc., where he helped oversee Flash.

Key is also a former video editor and animator at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic whose feature film credits include Star Wars and Big Love. From that experience, Key said, he understands the technical needs of the creative community as well as how to position Silverlight and Expression in a way that "stokes their passion as storytellers."

Not only is Silverlight more convenient than conventional video players such as QuickTime, RealPlayer or Microsoft’s own Windows Media Player, said Microsoft, it may also offer video quality equal or superior to those fuller-fledged offerings. Silverlight can play video at 720P high-definition quality -- the same 720-line resolution used by DVDs. Depending on bandwidth, videos start playing either immediately or after a few seconds of caching. That ensures that picture quality doesn’t degrade, Key said.

Under the hood

Silverlight uses the VC-1 video codec, originally developed by Microsoft as Windows Media Video 9 but now available as an open standard that has been adopted by other vendors.

According to Tarari’s Bromhead, VC-1 is technically superior to other codecs such as MPEG-4, which is used by QuickTime, especially in the area of digital rights management (DRM).

Those content protection features make VC-1-based systems such as Silverlight and Windows Media Video more attractive to movie studios and others conscious about protecting their content and/or making money from it, said Kathleen Maher, an analyst at Tiburon, Calif.-based Jon Peddie Research. And while Microsoft is aggressively going past the PC to get cable set-top boxes to run Silverlight, she said, "that’s a race that Apple is just starting."

All about the eyeballs?

As for Flash, Maher agreed that the prices Adobe now charges for its Flash and Acrobat authoring tools are "indeed relatively expensive. ... However, the prices are in line with professional tools and the businesses that use them consider them the cost of doing business."

She also said that wooing the hearts and minds of creative types, as Microsoft hopes to do at its upcoming Mix conference, won’t be enough. There is also the cold, hard issue of the number of eyeballs that Flash currently owns.

"Installed base is the name of the game," she said.

Key said he is well aware of the issue. The deal with the video broadcasters, as well as content-delivery accelerators such as Akamai Technologies Inc., should accelerate the spread of Silverlight and avoid Silverlight/Expression being stuck in a chicken-and-egg scenario, he said.

"Through these types of partnerships, we will drive the ubiquity we need," Key said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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