Web & communication software

NAB: Microsoft shows off rival to Flash, QuickTime

Microsoft on Monday showed video pros at NAB Silverlight, a new Mac and PC-compatible Web browser plug-in that provides interactive Web capabilities similar to how Adobe Flash works with streaming video capabilities superior to QuickTime, according to the company.

Microsoft will provide a beta of Silverlight later this month with plans for its general release to follow. A “technology preview” is available for download.

Silverlight lets content creators incorporate video and animation into their Web content. It provides a method for displaying vector-based graphics, text, animation, media and overlays. Silverlight doesn’t require any special back-end Web environment to deploy — it integrates with existing infrastructure tools such as Apache and PHP, JavaScript and XHTML.

Formerly code-named WPF/E, Silverlight is targeted at content providers who want to distribute video and rich media on the Web and designers and developers working with interactive applications. The software works on the Mac using either Mozilla Firefox or Apple’s own Safari Web browser. On Windows, it also supports Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7.

Already Microsoft has signed up some major players to distribute Silverlight content, including Akamai Technologies, Brightcove, Eyeblaster, Major League Baseball and Netflix.

The company has developed a companion toolset called Expression to help develop Silverlight content. Expression — Windows-only — has been positioned as an alternative to Adobe’s Creative Suite 3 software, and is expected to be released in June. Preview releases are available for download now.

Microsoft has previously positioned Silverlight as able to match Adobe Flash in more traditional rich media areas, but a recent statement from Forest Key, a director of product management at Microsoft’s server and tools division whose bona fides include a senior management stint at Flash developer Macromedia, suggested that Silverlight is superior on the video front.

Flash has “some video capabilities, and some success in that market,” Key said. But Silverlight offers “better video quality than Flash,” while the Expression tools will be “cheaper, faster and better” than Adobe’s offerings, he claimed.

Silverlight can play video at 720P high-definition quality — the same 720-line resolution supported by HD-DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. Depending on bandwidth, videos start playing either immediately or after a few seconds of caching. That ensures that picture quality doesn’t degrade, Key said.

Silverlight employs the VC-1 video codec originally developed by Microsoft as Windows Media Video 9, now available as an open standard. VC-1 is technically superior to other codecs such as MPEG-4, which is used by QuickTime, especially in the area of digital rights management (DRM), according to John Bromhead, vice president of marketing at Tarari, a San Diego-based maker of high-end video hardware that is supporting Silverlight.

Those content protection features make VC-1-based systems such as Silverlight and Windows Media Video more attractive to movie studios and others conscious about protecting their content and/or making money from it, said Kathleen Maher, an analyst at Tiburon, Calif.-based Jon Peddie Research. And while Microsoft is aggressively going past the PC to get cable set-top boxes to run Silverlight, she said, “that’s a race that Apple is just starting.”

System requirements for Silverlight call for a G3/500MHz or faster (Intel included) and Firefox 1.5.08 or later or Safari 2.0.4 or later.

Computerworld’s Eric Lai and IDG News Service’s Elizabeth Montalbano contributed information used in this report.

Editor's note: Clarified 720P resolution comparison to HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs.

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