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Microsoft Touts More Than Just New Features At Silverlight 3 Launch Event
Silverlight still faces an uphill battle against Flash, but Microsoft claimed 1 in 3 internet device penetration last week at its Silverlight 3 launch event in San Francisco, and more content publishers and streaming service providers are getting on board.
Mon., July 13, by IdaRose Sylvester

Last Friday, Microsoft launched Silverlight 3, and announced the availability of Expression 3 within 30 days. This is just nine months after Silverlight 2 was launched, and just two years since the initial launch of Silverlight. Several key feature improvements that notably impact functionality and potentially deployment include:

• Expression SketchFlow is now available.
• Out of Browser capability, allowing significant Silverlight functionality to be available out of the browser, both off and online.
• 3D and GPU acceleration.
• Smooth Streaming, which enables Microsoft to deliver 1080p video quality, for both live and on demand video.

(More on the new features in Silverlight 3 can be found here

Touting the platform’s commitment to support both developers and designers, the company announced that Silverlight 2 is installed on more than 1 in 3 Internet devices. In aqnd of itself, this is a solid achievement after such a short time in the market, but it also means 2 in 3 Internet devices currently do not have the plug-in. Adobe Flash, and Flash Player 10, have 99% and 85%+ penetration, respectively.

Of course, installation on a consumer device does not automatically lead to high developer usage or innovation, just as low deployment does not immediately suggest a lack of innovation. In fact, for Microsoft, Silverlight has had notable victories, particularly in live broadcast, including NBC.com’s Beijing Olympics, Wimbledon Live, and last week's Michael Jackson memorial (the later used Silverlight 3). On the on-demand content side, Silverlight’s most notable success is Netflix Watch Instantly video on demand. Microsoft has not released statistics on the increase of consumer downloads of the plug-in during these major events, which would be a leading indicator of future success.

The most recent live broadcast case studies show real success beyond the marketing headlines. Wimbledon Live delivered over 6,500 minutes of live streaming and on-demand access, with over 650,000 streams started and a maximum 20,000 concurrent sessions. For the Michael Jackson memorial, a maximum of 50,000 concurrent sessions, with an average 42 minutes per session time, was seen.

In live sports broadcast, the quality and interactivity enabled by Silverlight has a clear value proposition. Silverlight 3 is NBCSports.com’s choice for all HD premium sports broadcasts, such as the Olympics and Wimbledon, although notably it’s not the default NBCSports.com plug-in. According to Eric Black, Project Manager for NBCSports.com, HD video and interactivity—both for ads and features like PVR capability, graphical overlays (such as live statistics), slow motion replay, and picture in picture—drives monetization, and Silverlight provides these features.

Microsoft also showed an intriguing demo of MGM’s new SGU: Stargate Universe which takes advantage of the Deep Zoom and Photosynth capabilities of Silverlight to create an interactive fan site that enhances the value of the traditional video property. According to Thomas Hugher, Vice President of Worldwide Digital Media, MGM wanted to connect with the portion of the Stargate fan base that is online all the time. This is a smart strategy to simultaneous enhance the experience for traditional viewers, while maintaining interest among viewers who are drifting away from traditional broadcast.

Additional demonstrations highlighted Continental Airlines new browser-based call center reservation system and Accenture’s use of the out-of-browser capability for internal communications. Both demonstrations point to the range of applications Silverlight can enable, which is both an opportunity for innovation, yet a challenge as Microsoft searches for a strategy to effectively get Silverlight into more hands.

One challenge Microsoft appears to have already overcome in the plug-in wars is credibility. According to Randy Levine, Sr. Vice President of Business Development for iStreamPlanet, a managed webhosting company which supported both the Wimbledon and Michael Jackson memorial broadcasts using Silverlight, Microsoft’s commitment and ability to deliver new, and continually innovative, versions of the product shows the commitment developers need to see. Beyond staying power, iStreamPlanet feels Microsoft, especially with smooth streaming, understands the importance of behind the scenes issues, and a true understanding of the range of video delivery challenges.

Microsoft got quite a lot right with Silverlight 3, with impressive understanding of the power of quality live broadcasts, the value of enabling out of browser and offline experiences, and in the support of 3D and hardware acceleration, a real hat tip to developers. The real question remains the longer-term penetration of the product, and the ability of a "push" strategy to get the plug-in to the consumer PCs, and other computing devices. Selling the technology niche by niche, event by event, or specific application by application, is a challenging, time-consuming task. While Microsoft has many of the backend pieces needed for enhanced video services, including server technology, search, and cloud-based services, pulling this all together into a comprehensive package with developer tools such as Silverlight will be a challenge, as will getting the plug-in more broadly deployed.