Silverlight: Did Microsoft just do something cool?

When Microsoft announced the renaming of WPF/e to Silverlight two weeks ago, it was a first indication that maybe there was something different about this new Microsoft product.  A name that “gets it”, one that defies the ridiculous Microsoft naming techniques of the past, where ‘Softies refuse to call their products by their “real” names because the code names they developed them by were so much cooler.

And yet Silverlight was right in line with many recent Microsoft products: another me too product going up against a market leader, what the pundits were calling a “flash killer”, like the Zune (iPod killer), Live Search (Google killer), and Spaces (MySpace killer). Another example of coming too late to the party, with not enough new or different or cool to make much of a difference.

That is, until yesterday.

The Mix07 keynote introduced a whole new Silverlight, turning the product from an also ran to an eye-opener.  Just look at what was announced yesterday:

  • Silverlight is cross-platform, running equally well on Safari or Firefox on a Mac as Firefox on a PC, and of course on IE.
  • A single 4mb download that installs in less than 20 seconds is all you need to run Silverlight content.
  • Silverlight is a .Net technology, meaning that developers can write web applications in C#, VB.Net, Python, Ruby, or other languages of choice.
  • Since it’s .Net and compiled, Silverlight will run somewhere between “300 to 1000 times faster” than an AJAX  web application.
  • Silverlight is tightly integrated with Visual Studio and Expression Studio, and while it’s not necessary to write Silverlight apps in these products, doing so means big gains in productivity, in end-to-end application development, and ultimately in creativity.
  • Silverlight Streaming by Windows Live offers free or low cost hosting of video content, with all the advantages of scale that Microsoft hosting can provide.

So what does all this mean?  Of course the big front end advantages are to the web developer/designer, especially to those that are familiar with .Net.  It will take a while for many web app shops to make a transition, but if it is as good and fast and tight as we’re hearing, using Silverlight will be a compelling alternative to Flash.

And yet there are going to be other advantages, many of them for the end user.  Silverlight may very well change the way that Microsoft itself produces not only web content but tools for the web.  Applications written in Silverlight might just change the look of the web, both in new-looking web applications, and behind the scenes.  Look what Danny Thorpe wrote on his blog yesterday about his plans for right after Mix:

…and then perhaps get cozy with Silverlight to see how it can be used to assist and accelerate our JavaScript web controls under the hood.  I doubt we’ll take the hit to rewrite the Contacts or Spaces control in Silverlight, but it seems very likely that one of our next web controls might be built first in Silverlight.

Will Silverlight “Light up the web”?  That of course remains to be seen.  Does Silverlight mark the beginning of an era where Microsoft “gets it”?  We certainly hope so.