Adobe Flash is the de-facto standard for online video these days. Everyone from CNET to YouTube to uses it to deliver full-motion, high-quality video to people all over the world. And for the most part, it's actually fairly good. But it's not without its irritating flaws. Microsoft certainly thinks so, but then it does make a direct competitor known as Silverlight, whose third iteration is out now.
Here's the problem: Flash wasn't designed to do streaming video -- the whole thing is very much a hack. Admittedly, it's a hack that has matured enormously over the years, but it still has the ability to infuriate. For example, there are bugs that mean in some browsers, video just won't play, or if it does play, it does so for three seconds, without any audio. It also crashes an awful lot, which in most browsers means you have to close and re-open them to get everything working again.
With Silverlight 3, which is available now to download, you can see all manner of incredible advances have been made. Take a look at the Smooth Streaming demo, and have a play about with the controls to restrict the bandwidth. You'll need to be patient here, because it takes a while for the video to play out of the buffer, but after a few seconds the quality will drop, but the video keeps playing. Variable quality playback isn't new, and it's not exclusive to Silverlight, but we've yet to see an example as smooth as this one.
Silverlight 3 also adds hardware acceleration, putting the strain of decoding video on to your graphics card, which was designed to handle things like that. You can watch up to 720p H.264 video with AAC audio too, which will be increasingly important in an HD world.
It's early days, of course, but we're so impressed by Silverlight 3 we can't help wondering if we'll all be using it to watch streaming video in the very near future, while Flash sits in a corner, drinking a can of cider, thinking about what could have been.