Silverlight has been quite the buzz around the internet lately. Microsoft’s new product explicitly takes aim at Flash as they try to take on the rich media arena. Up to this point, Flash has basically stood alone at the top as the rich media standard for the browser. I will explain why, from my point of view, I do not see Silverlight changing that reality any time in the near (or far) future.
Flash Player’s 95.9% (And Growing) Penetration
Make no mistake, this Flash/Silverlight feud is no comparison to Netscape/Internet Explorer. Netscape was the most popular browser before IE took over, but the user-base on the internet was far lower than it is now. The wild-west environment made it much easier for Microsoft to take the browser market – that is going to be much more challenging with a more stable software suite, and solid standing behind the Flash Player plugin.
When I say solid, I mean 95.9% of all internet users and 98.7% of users in mature markets. On top of it, the new versions of Flash Player are being adopted at an increasing rate. The speed at which Flash Player 9 has been adopted is absolutely mind-numbing… And Flash Player 10’s adoption should be even faster.
Few would argue that the FLV has become the de facto standard for video on the web. Adobe knows this as well and is pushing to make it a player off the web as well. Flash Video turned Flash into a mechanism for delivering media with far more potential than any other solution. Once video was added to the picture, the validity of the SWF took a much greater hold. Silverlight will (naturally) be using the WMV and I have no doubt that Silverlight will add to the use of the WMV file format. The problem is, from my perspective, is that using the WMV video format essentially makes Silverlight useless for the vast majority of video websites such as YouTube. Sure, online video sites could encode their videos as WMV as well, but why?
Flex 3 and Tamarin
The largest (and most valid) gripe that many standards-centric web developers had about Flash was that it was built on proprietary pieces of software. Well, that is no longer the case with Flex 3 turning open source and a couple interesting projects moving Flash Player towards open source as well. Adobe’s movement towards open-sourcing pieces of the Flash suite has nothing to do with their love for the free, open software and everything to do with solidifying their presence within the web development community. Flex 3 is a very large olive branch to what was a very hostile segment of the development community. This gives many in the web development community just one less reason to choose a Microsoft product.
I think it is very safe to say that Microsoft will never open source any of their products related to Silverlight. I know how much the standards community has disliked Flash in the past, but it is time to stop.
Remember the last Flash competitor? Enough said.
Web Developers/Designers Are Through With Microsoft
If Internet Explorer 6 began the web developer/designer hate-fest towards Microsoft products, Internet Explorer 7 sealed the deal. Microsoft has shown time and time again that they care less about improving their product for front-end developers and designers. This is clear from their lack of improvement on standards-compliant HTML/CSS rendering. Designers and developers on the web would be fools to go down that road again – especially when Silverlight (unlike IE6) is not going to have a large initial user base. We were forced to support IE6, but this time we have a choice to not support Silverlight.
The past mistakes from Microsoft have left the web community feeling burned and frustrated. Those very web developers and designers became extremely vocal online which led to…
Web Users Are Beginning To Agree With Web Developers/Designers
The general public is beginning to show they prefer non-Microsoft browsers as well. From my perspective, I think this sentiment will carry over to Silverlight. Microsoft is dealing with an uphill battle in user-trust – something that Internet Explorer 7 could have helped mend if it would not have been such a failure. From a user’s perspective, why would you be willing to trust a Microsoft browser plugin when their last two browsers were so horrible?
One of Silverlight’s Most Distinguishing Factors Is a Sinking Ship
Silverlight’s use of the WMV video format will allow support for DRM (Digital Rights Management). While DRM may be looked upon very favorably in corporate board meetings, the general public detests it. There is no doubt that corporate media providers are foaming at the mouth for such technology – Netflix has already showcased such a Silverlight-powered video player with DRM. That being said, you can candy coat a bad idea all you want, but it will continue to be a bad idea. Apple has finally understood DRM is not in its best interest and seem to be attempting a slow move away from it. If Microsoft is hanging their hopes on DRM to push the success of Silverlight, I think they are going to be in for a very rude awakening.
Microsoft Just Does Not Get Media… Adobe Does
Microsoft still has a lot to learn about media in general compared to other software companies in the market. Windows has never had a solid native media player which, from my view, says quite a lot. Silverlight will no doubt have some great features, but I feel that, along with many other Microsoft products, the polish will not be there. If anything, Flash has become very refined through its new versions – I have a hard time believing Silverlight will even begin to compete in that regard for the first few years.
All That Being Said…
We are talking about Microsoft here. The amount of resources and PR they will be able to throw at this sort of project will make Adobe look like some fly-in-the-night business. The DRM capabilities of Silverlight are bound to get some media companies excited in the short-term and create plenty of buzz. Even with the recent disasters of the Zune and Vista, I guess with that sort of money, no one can count Microsoft out.
Update: Due to the discussion generated, I wrote a continuation of this topic that goes into more detail on my opinion.