Microsoft taking the hard way to winning Silverlight users

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

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 MLB.com, 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 MLB.com, we’re going to go with regional partners."

Silverlight, which promises DVD-quality video as well as fast-performing rich media applications, is not a heavy download. The latest beta for Windows users is only 1.1 MB.  The final version of the plug-in, which will run on Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari, and on both Windows and Mac OS X, is due this summer.

A future update, Silverlight 1.1, will be slightly heftier, at about 3.5 MB. It includes support for a .Net engine that will make Web applications even more powerful.

"I think it's reasonable," said Peter O’Kelly, an analyst with Burton Group. He pointed out that Microsoft still has the option to accelerate the rollout of Silverlight by making it a part of upcoming Windows Service Packs, such as XP’s SP3 or Vista’s SP1.

Nir Shimoni, vice-president of product for Eyeblaster Inc., a New York City interactive advertising agency that is an early adopter of Silverlight, argues that Microsoft will do fine, anyway.

"If people realize the advantages of Silverlight, they will embrace it," he said. "If it took Adobe 5-10 years to get where they are today, it will probably take Microsoft less time to get there."

"I think that everybody wants Silverlight to take off for the simple fact that a rising tide lifts all boats," said Noah Gedrich, director of engineering at Blitz Digital Studios LLC, a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based advertising agency that creates interactive ads. "If Silverlight becomes a serious competitior -- I mean, an alternative -- to Flash, it will force everyone to get better."

All that's needed for Silverlight to become adopted quickly is a single "killer app," Gedrich said. He cited the rapid adoption of Adobe's Flash 8 player two years ago after YouTube Inc. began using that technology to let visitors to its Web site watch video clips.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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