Microsoft ships Silverlight 2.0

Yesterday’s release of version 2.0 of Silverlight , a cross-browser runtime for creating Rich Internet Applications (RIAs), from Microsoft Corp. has new features designed to enhance usability for the developer and designer, which will ultimately lead to a better end user experience, a company executive said.

Among the new features, the most obvious to the developer is expanded support for the .NET Framework which allows developers to build RIA applications in a wide array of languages including Visual Basic, C#, JavaScript, IronPython and IronRuby, said Microsoft Canada Co. product manager Daniel Shapiro. It’s basically “.NET under the covers”, said Shapiro, so that developers can reuse their code and visual and media assets across different devices and platforms.

“That’s really a big deal,” he said, “considering our philosophy around building applications and building infrastructure has always been the flexibility of languages.”

To enhance the video watching experience, v2.0 includes progressive and adaptive streaming features. The former is useful, said Shapiro because it means end users won’t have to download an entire video in order to watch it as some sites might require, instead “it’s just sending it to you as you need [in order] to save huge amounts of bandwidth.” The latter, adaptive streaming, is meant to ease the pain of watching videos over a weak or finicky bandwidth by “packaging up mini bits of the video into different bit rates and delivering the video in the appropriate bit rate for your bandwidth and adjusting itself accordingly.”

Progressive and adaptive streaming features will be especially useful in the near future as RIA continues its move into the realm of mobile devices, said Shapiro.

The ability for developers to monetize the RIA applications they build is another focus with v2.0. Support has been built in so that developers can plug in to known advertising networks like DoubleClick, and is also extensible to plug in to their own ad engines.

Toronto-based Internet consulting firm iMason Inc. used Silverlight to build a traffic monitoring application for The Weather Network called TrafficEye that indicates traffic congestion in the Greater Toronto Area and provides live video of different legs of highways. The TrafficEye project, live since July, is basically a desktop frame that hosts the Silverlight application, said Jim Schwartz, iMason internet architect. “So you have a desktop application that looks like a desktop application, it feels like a desktop application,” he said, “but behind the code, it’s a Silverlight application.”

The goal of TrafficEye, said Kerri McKenna, iMason interface architect, was to make the application accessible to endusers via different channels, be it Web, broadcast TV, desktop or mobile devices.

But besides accessibility of real time traffic information for the enduser, iMason also wanted to monetize the flow of people visiting the site who want to obtain this type of information especially during the winter months, said Schwartz.

Schwartz said iMason chose to build TrafficEye on Silverlight because of the separation between developer and designer in the workflow. “So designers can go in and create their animations and their graphics and focus on the user experience,” he said. “And, the developer can go in at the exact same time and hook up the business logic and tie those animations together.”

The desire for developers to work alongside designers has always existed, added McKenna, yet the tools have not.

Other new features in v2.0 include Deep Zoom for enhanced interactivity and navigation of ultra-high resolution imagery; enhanced search engine optimization techniques; and, built-in controls like DataGrid, ListBox and Slider.

Comparing v2.0 to its predecessor released last year, Shapiro said that while v1.0 “was right on the money for what we tried to deliver”, this latest version “surpassed our own expectation.”

Kevin Restivo, research analyst with Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd., said he wouldn’t be surprised to see v2.0 “greatly improved over the last version.”

However, Microsoft currently stands at number two in the Web development and design arena, said Restivo, and “is still very much up against the giant when it comes to Web design and development which is Adobe.”

That said, Restivo said the RIA world is still in its infancy and that “while Adobe may be the leader in that space by virtue of its Macromedia acquisition, Microsoft has an inordinate sway in the industry.”

Restivo anticipates the new version will be well received by the RIA developer community, especially considering Microsoft has “literally an army of developers that are willing to wait for the latest and greatest iterations of whatever products are out there.”

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