Microsoft extends RIA push with Silverlight 3.0 beta

Microsoft Corp. released the beta version of its Rich-Internet Application (RIA) development tool Silverlight 3.0, and previewed its user interface design tool Expression Blend 3, both equipped with new functionality for developers and designers to create ever-more interactive sites, according to one executive.

“Silverlight has been a really important investment for us, and we’re continuing that investment with Silverlight 3.0,” said Daniel Shapiro, product manager with Microsoft Canada Inc.

The announcements, made at the Redmond, Wash.-based Web technologies conference MIX09 in Las Vegas, extend Microsoft’s vision of software+services, or the idea that the interaction of software and Web services renders greater flexibility and capabilities.

Customers have come to depend on delivering great experiences to the desktop, said Shapiro. “Software+services is all about taking the power of devices and the power of the desktop and combining it with the ubiquity and the flexibility of the Web,” he said.

Among the new capabilities in the beta version of Silverlight 3.0, is support of out-of-browser scenarios so developers can build Silverlight applications “and drop them onto the desktop and run it just as they would another application without requiring the browser,” said Shapiro.

It’s just another example, he continued, “of how the lines are being blurred inside the outside of the browser but still taking advantage of the power of the desktop and the power of the internet.”

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There is also deep linking and searching/indexing capabilities that developers can build into their RIAs, so that search engines can link to specific content on those sites.

In Expression Blend 3, the sketchflow capability allows designers to visualize a design from as early as the pre-prototyping stage to deployment stage, basically having the ability “to draw a basic frame all the way to functional animation,” said Shapiro. Developers and designers can also import existing assets from non-Microsoft tools, like Adobe PhotoShop and Adobe Illustrator, “even at the layer by layer level.”

Microsoft also announced new features, as a result of feedback, to Windows Azure, its “OS in the cloud” announced last October and still in community technology preview. Features include support for FastCGI enabling support for PHP and Ruby; and, support for geolocation so developers can choose the data centre from which their applications will run.

Among Canadian customers using Silverlight is Toronto-based CTV Inc., which revealed a beta version of an HD online player that will be live during this summer and will stream popular television shows like Flashpoint and Corner Gas, making CTV the first Canadian network to offer HD online. The idea is to allow viewers to “play catch up” on their television watching, said Stephan Argent, CTV’s vice-president of digital media.

The HD online player runs on Silverlight technology, and Cambridge, Mass.-based Akamai Technologies Inc.’s content delivery network. It’s designed to run on four different bandwidths and, depending on the viewer’s connection capacity, can roll up or down seamlessly. “User experience is our business, we want to make it the best user experience it can be,” said Argent.

Another customer of Microsoft’s RIA platform, Innovapost Inc., Ottawa-based IT provider to Canada Post Corp., built a desktop application for postal outlets housed within Shoppers Drug Mart and Hallmark stores. The “crisp and uncluttered screens” have centralized functionality and are tailored to reflect the typical communication flow between customer and clerk, said Tracy Alburger, Innovapost’s director of customer channel technology delivery. Innovapost has begun to deploy the consoles, which will eventually be part of all 7,000 Canada Post outlets nationally.

Developers and designers were able to work “in parallel streams” using Visual Studio 2008 and Expression Blend, respectively, to deliver the site in just nine months “which could usually take two years if we do it sequentially,” said Alburger.

Another customer,, built Web Slice, a browser application running on Internet Explorer 8 that went live just this past Sunday, allowing job seekers to create real-time customized job search with updates of pertinent openings. “IE8 gives us a lot of cool abilities to stitch Workopolis in the fabric of the Web,” said Roy Bernhard, Workopolis’ managing director of information systems.

“There is no doubt that today’s job landscape is changing, and has changed in the last few months,” said Bernhard, adding that Web Slice is geared toward the lay and technically-advanced job seekers. There are plans, he said, for a Web Slice geared towards employers.

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