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Silverlight's First Year: Not Just a Flash in the Pan?

A year ago, Microsoft first showcased its Silverlight cross-browser, cross-platform streaming media technology at the annual National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) confab.

This year at NAB, the company is celebrating a year of progress since Silverlight's debut by announcing updates to developers' tools that tie it to Microsoft's popular collaboration server, and plans to blow its own horn to call attention to the technology's growing momentum.

Microsoft officials have been touting for several months that downloads of the Silverlight browser plug-in are averaging some one and a half million per day. That's on the user side of the equation.

This week, the company is working on luring more content providers to join the party. After all, content providers can make or break Microsoft's competitor to Adobe Flash. Without content, there's nothing to play back, and without that, there's no reason for users to care.

On the content provider side, besides previously announced endorsements by AOL, Major League Baseball, and NBC Olympics.com, Microsoft is also trumpeting several other new partners that have adopted Silverlight. These include Madison Square Garden Interactive, Tencent, Abertis Telecom, Terra Networks Operations, SBSi, MNet, and Yahoo Japan, according to a Microsoft statement.

Microsoft has made much noise about NBC streaming the Beijing Olympics via Silverlight, but one major partner doesn't create enough momentum to carry a technology like Silverlight over the top. However, the company says that the new endorsements help to demonstrate that Silverlight isn't just a flash in the pan.

For instance, Madison Square Garden Interactive said it is using Silverlight to provide live, on-demand digital content to sports and entertainment fans. Meanwhile, Tencent, the largest Internet portal in China, is developing Silverlight-based Web services. Additionally, Yahoo Japan, which Microsoft said is the "most trafficked" Web site in Japan, has committed to rolling out video distribution and other Internet services based on Silverlight.

In the area of tools, Microsoft announced three new components it is adding to its Interactive Media Manager (IMM) tool, which the company describes as "a collaboration digital asset management solution built on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007."

One of the new components is a rough cut editor built around Silverlight 2. It lets a production team create rough edits inside the browser, prior to using a professional editing system. A second new component provides a so-called "ontology editor" that provides flexible access to metadata via a SharePoint wizard.

The third new component provides advanced search capabilities by using SharePoint Server's business data catalog to display "both rich and non-rich media," Microsoft's statement said.

The company also announced that Silverlight's new digital rights management (DRM) system, which is based on Microsoft's PlayReady technology, will arrive later this year.

A month after Silverlight debuted at last year's NAB conference, the company delivered the first beta of Version 1, which is primarily a user-oriented release. At the same time, it shipped an alpha release of Version 1.1, which was subsequently renamed Version 2 last fall.

Six weeks ago at Microsoft's MIX08 conference, the company debuted the first beta release of Silverlight 2 and said it is due in final form by the end of 2008. Silverlight 2 adds the capability to program the technology using Visual Studio languages whereas Version 1 only supports programming in JavaScript.

Microsoft shipped Silverlight 1 last summer.

Much of Microsoft's success so far has been built on Silverlight 1. However, even at a download rate of 1.5 million a day, Silverlight isn't guaranteed the winner's circle. Despite Microsoft's impressive download numbers, the more than a decade old Flash is already resident on more than 90 percent of all PCs in "mature markets," Adobe says.

That's still a huge obstacle for Microsoft, according to one analyst.

"They've got a ways to go before they undercut Flash, but the combination of [Silverlight] and SharePoint Server could be a good play," Roger Kay, president of analyst firm Endpoint Technologies, told InternetNews.com.

Indeed, chairman Bill Gates said in early March that SharePoint has now evolved into a $1 billion business with 100 million users. The ability to tie Silverlight to SharePoint could open up the floodgates, particularly with corporate customers.

"If there are people that value SharePoint – and clearly they do – it [Silverlight] gives them a visualization tool to work with it … but I think Adobe's still pretty entrenched," Kay added.