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Are catalogs the killer app for Silverlight?

Silverlight's Deep Zoom offers a way to view magazines and catalogs in a way that's much more akin to physical media than traditional Web sites.

LAS VEGAS--Just like its predecessor a year ago, Silverlight 3 is clearly one of the stars of the Microsoft Mix conference under way here this week.

Silverlight is a Web browser plug-in for Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser. (Silverlight also supports Firefox and Safari browsers and Mac OS X in addition to Microsoft Windows. A primarily Novell-developed plug-in, Moonlight, runs on Linux.) Its initial iteration was narrowly focused on media. However, Silverlight's direction is toward enabling a broad class of "rich Internet applications."

So, for example, Silverlight 3 will allow developers to create lightweight Web application experiences that exist outside the browser and offline. Although it retains a strong focus on media, Silverlight is thus starting to look more like a full-fledged rich Internet application.

I'll discuss Silverlight generally in more detail in a future post. More immediately, I want to focus on one demo that I found to be particularly compelling because it addressed a problem that no one has yet cracked in the Web space yet.

The demo, given by David Anthony of Bondi Digital Publishing and Scott Stanfield of Vertigo, came during Wednesday's keynote speech (see video). Bondi has been working with various publishers to put the back issues of magazines online. Vertigo designs and codes software for Microsoft environments; it has been particularly emphasizing visually rich applications built with Silverlight.

Last year, Vertigo's Hard Rock Cafe memorabilia project was a big hit. It used Silverlight's Deep Zoom feature to allow users to dive into and around a digital display of photos, clothing, art, letters, and so forth connected to a variety of rock musicians. Give it a try; it's easier to experience than to explain.

This year's demo also featured Deep Zoom--combined with Silverlight 3's support for deep linking. That is, bookmarking a page within a rich Internet application. (Technically, deep linking is a server-side feature associated with .Net that Silverlight 3 simply exploits.) This demo may not have had quite the "ooh" factor of the Hard Rock one, but I think that it suggests more interesting and more generally useful possibilities.

This year, the project was putting back issues of Rolling Stone magazine online. The basic concept was to show an "entire issue as though pages had the staples torn out of them" with the addition of search and bookmarking features. Thus, you could "flip" through an issue, and dive in to look at detail, if something caught your eye. It's essentially an attempt to replicate the "zero boot time and random access" of a paper magazine as closely as possible.

That's all very nice, though I have to wonder what sort of business model there is around viewing back issues of magazines.

But this--or something like it--could have enormous potential for things like catalogs.

Think about it. What's the nice thing about the user experience associated with a paper catalog? Well, one big thing is that you can flip through it and dive in for a closer look, if a photo or a description catches your eye. Essentially, catalogs are great for browsing.

Contrast this with the typical online catalog. They're great for searching. If you know more or less what you want, search can quickly filter out the almost infinite things that you're not looking for. But casual paging, seeking serendipity? Not so good.

To give just one personal example, I like to flip through the many catalogs that Sierra Trading Post sends to my home, advertising the various overstocks and otherwise heavily discounted products that it sells. I find trying to do the same on Sierra's Web site a poor substitute, unless I'm actively seeking something in particular.

The sort of experience I saw on the stage with Deep Zoom would seem to combine some of the best of the browsing and searching experience. It improves on aspects of a paper catalog; it has search, and the amount of low-level detail isn't constrained by the limits of the printed page. At the same time, it brings browse ability of the digital domain.

It's sometimes a mistake to attempt to mirror the physical world in our computer software. But the way we interact with physical objects is often more than just ingrained. It can just plain work well too. And if we can augment that physical experience in the process of translation, all the better.

[UPDATE 3/19/09: Clarified Silverlight platflorm support.]