By Michael Rau
August 18, 2008
This week, I want to discuss something that anyone in the U.S. who has been experiencing the Olympics online has encountered.
At some point in the planning process, NBC chose to partner with MSN and parent company Microsoft to provide domestic online video coverage using Microsoft's “Silverlight” technology.
If you logged on to NBC's Olympics site and tried to watch video, you've been asked if you'd like to download Silverlight (you do have the option of declining).
The Silverlight interface is attractive and functional, and the video is of very high quality, although it does lack some features of an equivalent Flash-based interface, such as the ability to go to a full-screen player.
As seems to happen all-too-often with Microsoft, the manner in which the company has chosen to employ Silverlight is stirring controversy.
I'll tell you why in a minute, but first, some background:
For those of you unfamiliar with it, Silverlight is a relatively new Rich Internet Application (RIA) developed by Microsoft, which contains many of the same features and capabilities as Adobe Flash.
Development of Silverlight was implemented and fast-tracked as Flash just flat-out crushed Windows Media in the streaming video market over the past few years (Flash now commands about 95% of the online video market).
The reasons why this happened are numerous and obvious. Windows Media has always been a highly restricted and tightly controlled technology, whereas Flash has always been user and developer friendly.
Additionally, Flash has vastly greater capabilities than Windows Media. In fact, it would be fair to say that its ability to stream video so well turned out to be an afterthought with Flash as it was originally developed for it's other capabilities – mainly the ability to embed a variety of media types within a single window.
Anyway, as I've discussed in previous columns, Microsoft's compulsion to control its technologies, particularly in regards to their interoperability with non-Microsoft systems and software, is something that any developer worth his or her weight in beans resents. Why would anyone employ a technology which only those deemed worthy by the technology's provider can use?
Nonetheless, Windows Media initially gained a large market-share by providing software and support to developers for free or at greatly reduced cost, thus ingratiating it into the Internet environment. I compare this to a drug dealer providing free samples until their customer base becomes utterly dependent on them.
The problem was that the restrictions and limitations of the technology hampered developers like myself, who eventually grew resentful and searched for an alternative.
At around the same time, Macromedia was making leaps and bound with Flash, and when a company called On2 technologies developed the so-called VP6 codex for Flash video, enabling creation of compressed video of as-good or better quality than Windows Media, all bets were off. We could employ better video across a broader spectrum of platforms, as well as taking advantage of Flash's other rich Internet capabilities.
Since Adobe, which absolutely dominates the creative software market, bought Macromedia a couple of years ago, they've been pushing development of Flash even further.
Nobody ever said the boys from Redmond are stupid. They realized a couple of years ago that Flash was kicking their hindparts, and wisely launched the Silverlight project.
Fast-forward to today: Microsoft partners with NBC to use Silverlight to present the biggest sports and cultural event of the year, using it to introduce its new RIA in a big splashy way.
Imagine how many millions of Americans have downloaded the Silverlight plugin since NBC started streaming Olympic coverage. That's smart marketing.
But what about the bigger picture here?
As was the case with Windows Media, Silverlight only works on some systems (I can't watch any Olympics coverage on my primary Mac). Furthermore, Microsoft has pretty much said that they will retain restrictions and limitations similar to those applied to Windows Media for Silverlight.
What happens if they try to benefit Silverlight by handicapping Flash? Since the U.S. Government has always given Microsoft a free pass when it comes to their attempts to monopolize and control the Web, what disincentive do they have? (Interestingly, in European and other foreign countries where the governments have stood up to Microsoft's bullying tactics, the Olympics are being broadcast online using Flash – Go figure).
Look – I've always said Microsoft has the talent to accomplish anything they choose, which makes their continued attempts to dominate by cheating all the more baffling.
If Microsoft wants to compete with Adobe on a level playing field by creating a superior product in Silverlight when compared to Flash, I say more power to them.
But if their goal is the integrate Silverlight into the World Wide Web by coercion, deception, or brute force, I can guarantee that most Web developers will agree with me when I say Silverlight will never see the light of day on any of my Websites.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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