Foley on Microsoft

The White Elephant in the Room?

Puzzling over Silverlight? You're not alone.

You know the old story about the blind men and the elephant: Even as a group, a bunch of blind men couldn't figure out -- much less agree upon -- what a tail, plus a head, plus an ear, plus tusks, etc., ultimately comprised. I think Microsoft's Silverlight is the elephant and we Microsoft pundits, customers, partners and competitors are laboring, so far unsuccessfully, to piece together all the clues that will tell us exactly what it is.

For brevity's sake, Silverlight is often described as Microsoft's competitor to Adobe's Flash. Microsoft's more marketing-massaged definition: "Microsoft Silverlight is a cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in for delivering next-generation media experiences and rich interactive applications for the Web." I believe what Microsoft means by "experiences" and "applications" is far bigger and wider-ranging than most of us Redmond watchers have yet understood.

Last year's Microsoft MIX conference was all about Silverlight. This year's MIX08 event, which will take place in March, is shaping up once again to be heavily Silverlight-focused. Sessions on Microsoft's Silverlight Streaming hosting service; the forthcoming Silverlight 2.0 release; and Silverlight programming techniques for Python and Ruby programmers are all on the docket.

Microsoft has convinced some major Web sites, like NBA.com, to use and distribute Silverlight. And it has shown some interesting prototypes, such as the Microsoft-Jackson Fish co-developed Tafiti search engine that's built on top of Silverlight.

But Silverlight has even broader strategic importance to Microsoft.

Ponder these points:

  • Silverlight (starting with the still-to-be-delivered 2.0 version) will include a micro version of the Common Language Runtime (CLR), which is the heart of .NET. Silverlight will run on Mac and Linux systems, as well as with non-Microsoft browsers like Safari and Firefox, so Silverlight will become Microsoft's way to distribute .NET through the back door.

  • There's been much speculation about whether Microsoft will integrate Silverlight with Internet Explorer (IE) 8.0. (Many expect beta 1 of IE8 to debut at MIX08.) While Microsoft's competitors -- as well as antitrust watchdogs here and abroad -- would likely scream bloody murder if Microsoft does this, I'm betting Microsoft finds a loophole by shipping Silverlight "with," rather than "in," IE8. If it does, Silverlight will get a huge marketshare boost.

  • Microsoft's Live Labs team is developing a number of fast-tracked technologies that are built on Silverlight. Ditto with the still-secret Windows Live Core team, which is working on the fabric that truly allows users to sync their data across all kinds of devices and cloud services.

  • Speaking of futures, there also seems to be some kind of connection between "Astoria," Microsoft's forthcoming technology for exposing data as a service, and Silverlight. Again, what that looks like and means is still fuzzy, at least to me.

  • Microsoft's developer division is working on a family of Visual Studio 2008 extensions, known as "Silverlight Tools for Visual Studio 2008," that will provide the kind of dev tools programmers need to write Silverlight applications. (The Microsoft Expression family of "designer" tools isn't sufficient here, as some developers have noted.)
  • I asked Microsoft execs whether the company was contemplating using

    Silverlight as a way to distribute applications like Word, the way Adobe is doing with Buzzword. Interestingly, I got a no comment, not a denial. Although this sounds like pie in the sky right now, I wouldn't be surprised to see Silverlight ultimately become Microsoft's Web client environment of choice-its 2.0 alternative to the current fat-client Windows and Office combo.

    What do you think Microsoft will do with Silverlight -- in the near-term and way out there?

    About the Author

    Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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