Can Microsoft make Silverlight shine?

The would-be Flash killer works on Windows and Mac OS and is headed to Linux, but Web developers want to see it on lots and lots of machines before they'll commit.

When Microsoft's Brian Goldfarb talks about Silverlight , he is usually having one of two types of conversations.

One is centered on market share and the fact that Adobe Systems' Flash is nearly ubiquitous on Internet-connected PCs, while Microsoft's rival technology is still on only a minority of devices.

That conversation typically starts out something like this: "You're not on 98 percent of machines like Adobe, so why should we care?"

The other is a debate on Silverlight's technical merits vis-a-vis Flash. "Obviously the second conversation is the one I really want to have--why Silverlight is better," said Goldfarb, a group product manager in Microsoft's developer division.

Silverlight's Deep Zoom feature
One cool Silverlight feature is the Deep Zoom, which lets users browse images and zoom into the ones they want, in this case the memorabilia collection at the Hard Rock Cafe. Dan Farber/CNET News.com

Goldfarb, like Microsoft, is keenly aware though, that until Silverlight fares better on the first front, many Web developers won't spend much time worrying about the second question.

Microsoft is taking several approaches to trying to boost Silverlight's distribution, ranging from striking third-party deals like its pact to power the NBC Olympics Web site to bundling Silverlight into other Microsoft products.

Although Goldfarb didn't use the word "bundling," he did say Microsoft is actively trying to get other product groups within the company to adopt Silverlight in some way and then distribute it as part of their product.

"We are working with a broad cross section of our product groups," he said, adding that evangelizing Silverlight across the company is still a challenge, even though CEO Steve Ballmer has highlighted the technology as key to its future. "It's a big ship to start turning around."

One of the earliest examples of Microsoft distributing Silverlight with other products: the new version of Office for Mac that shipped earlier this year.

Goldfarb acknowledges that there are many considerations in trying to decide which products to include Silverlight with, noting that people are sensitive to having software thrust upon them.

"What I want to avoid is arbitrarily pushing things on people's machines," he said. "Apple just jammed Safari 3.1 down as part of iTunes ."

The tie with Office is somewhat tenuous, however. Silverlight is part of the standard installation of Office 2008 for Mac. Office itself doesn't use Silverlight, although the highest-end version of Office now comes with a product called Expression Media, which does make use of Silverlight, Goldfarb said.

Over time, Goldfarb said there's the possibility of further integration, such as having the help videos in Office 2008 use Silverlight.

Microsoft also uses Silverlight as part of the latest version of the MSN Toolbar, using it to offer display dynamic content, such as RSS feeds.

Another potential vehicle for distribution is convincing computer makers to preload Silverlight onto new PCs.

"Microsoft is already talking with leading (computer makers)," Goldfarb said, adding that the company has developed software that PC makers can use to preinstall Silverlight on new machines. Microsoft also signed a deal with Nokia to distribute a version of Silverlight for mobile phones .

"Overall, our intention is to use the Web to distribute Silverlight which offers an easy download experience that takes less than 10 seconds to install but we will also work closely with channel distributors to preinstall Silverlight as appropriate," he added.

Attracting mainstream developers
Greg DeMichillie, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, said that if Microsoft is willing to pay, computer makers will be willing to include Silverlight.

"The OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) will preinstall anything if you pay them," he said.

DeMichillie said that whatever its strategy, Microsoft needs to get Silverlight on more than three-quarters of Web-connected PCs to really get mainstream developer attention.

"The magic number seems to be something like 80 percent," he said. "I've heard that from various Web developers."

While Microsoft showed some impressive technologies at its recent Mix '08 conference, DeMichillie said most Web developers want to see a lot more eyeballs before they are willing to consider an alternative to Flash. "If Flash is on 98 percent and Silverlight is on 10 percent, you don't even get to the merits of Silverlight. You just pick Flash."

Goldfarb wouldn't say what percentage of machines he thought were running Silverlight, pointing to the momentum numbers given out at Mix that Microsoft was generating 1.5 million downloads of Silverlight per day.

Goldfarb said the response from Web developers convinces him that Microsoft is on the right path. "We've already started to change the dialogue," he said. "People are believing. It's not a matter of 'if', it's a matter of 'when,' and 'when' isn't that far away."

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About the author

    During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried has changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley. These days, most of her attention is focused on Microsoft. E-mail Ina.

     

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