Microsoft sheds light on Flash rival

Looking to dethrone Adobe's Web video tool, Redmond to unveil a browser plug-in called Silverlight. Image: Microsoft's 'Silverlight' browser plug-in

Microsoft's answer to Adobe Systems' Flash Player has an official name--Silverlight--and a coveted target audience: media and entertainment companies bringing video to the Web.

On Monday at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft launched Silverlight, a Web browser plug-in for playing media files and displaying interactive Web applications.

The company intends to release a beta of Silverlight, formerly called Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/E), at the Mix '07 conference for designers and Web developers in Las Vegas later this month.

Along with the public launch of Silverlight, Microsoft announced a number of media and advertising agency partners that have shown interest in using the software. Partners include Major League Baseball, online video broadcaster Brightcove, Netflix and Akamai Technologies.

Also at NAB, Microsoft introduced a digital content management tool called Interactive Media Manager. The company says the software works with its existing SharePoint Server product and is targeted at companies in media, entertainment, advertising and marketing. No price was announced.

Silverlight, which has been under development for at least two years, is a player that can display Web applications on both Windows and the Mac in Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari. The download of the player will be less than 2 megabytes.

Like Flash, it has accompanying development tools for both designers and software developers.

By launching Silverlight at the NAB conference, Microsoft is trying to spark the interest of media companies moving online. The company's Windows Media Video format is widely used, particularly for downloads. But Adobe's Flash Player has become the dominant choice for streaming video used by high-volume sites such as MySpace.com and YouTube.

Brightcove, for example, displays all of its video using Flash, but the company intends to support Silverlight as an output format later this year to appeal to customers who have shown interest in it, said Adam Berrey, vice president of marketing and strategy at the company.

"The most significant thing about Silverlight is that it basically puts the...Windows Media Video format in the browser in a really seamless way," he said. "The reason we haven't supported Windows Media Video until now is because we felt that the user experience wasn't there."

Brightcove will continue to build all its software, including tools that enable content providers to upload video to the Brightcove service, using Adobe's Flash and Flex development tools, Berrey said.

Stealing the limelight from Adobe?
With the rapid rise of Web video, the competition between Microsoft and Adobe is set to intensify.

Microsoft has existing customers in the media industry looking to introduce more online content. It is also looking to move beyond its huge base of software programmers into the realm of graphics and Web designers. Adobe's products for creative professionals represent more than half the company's income.

For its part, Adobe is looking to marry Web development with content authoring. Its recently introduced Creative Suite 3 allows designers to publish content, such as photos and videos, in print, on the Web or mobile devices.

At the NAB Show, Adobe plans to announce the Adobe Media Player, formerly code-named Philo, free software for playing Flash format videos offline. Later in the year, the company plans to release Adobe Media Player, which will let a user pick and manage RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds of video podcasts.

Forest Key, director of product management in Microsoft's Server and Tools Division, said Silverlight will offer advantages over Flash. Windows that display streaming video within a browser page can be resized because Silverlight uses vector graphics, he said. Microsoft also will offer content publishers digital rights management tools.

In addition, developers familiar with Microsoft's .Net tools for writing Windows or Web applications can use their existing skills for online video.

Later in the second quarter, Microsoft plans to release its Expression suite of tools aimed at graphics designers and Web developers.

At the NAB show, the software giant intends to demonstrate its Expression Media Encoder, a tool for preparing existing Windows Media Video files for the Web.

The user interface design for Silverlight is written using a Microsoft-developed language called XAML.

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