Will Silverlight shine or is the web too Flash?

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Will Silverlight shine or is the web too Flash?

Can Microsoft compete with Adobe?

As the number of online shoppers increases, competition to keep customers hooked on e-commerce web sites is being driven by eye-catching, user-friendly designs written using rich internet application (RIA) systems such as Adobe's Flex and Air offerings.

However, competition in e-commerce site development was boosted in July when Microsoft launched the latest version of its browser client Silverlight 3 and RIA system Expression 3.0.

The latest retail sales figures suggest business conditions are improving - as the global turnaround is pushed back into 2010, firms' e-commerce sites need to be ready for that upturn.

So do Microsoft's new versions of Silverlight and Expression have what it takes to overhaul RIA market leader Adobe? Butler Group senior research analyst Michael Azoff said there are a number of questions to be answered when developers are deciding which environment or platform to use for building internet applications.

"If it's a business that's bought into the Microsoft stack and you're building RIAs, it makes a lot of sense to go with Silverlight. It's a very good plug-in for the browser. So it's a natural choice for Microsoft developers – they have the Visual Studio environment, and it is a nice way of extending their capabilities for something that matches Adobe's Flash player," said Azoff.

Quocirca principal analyst Clive Longbottom said firms that use Microsoft-based applications - as opposed to applications that come from Microsoft per se - would use Microsoft's RIA technology.

"A lot of suites that integrate with Active Directory will drive enterprise take-up of Silverlight," he said.

Perhaps the biggest problem for Microsoft is that adoption of Silverlight on desktop PCs, even by its own figures, is only about one in three. For large firms wanting their web site accessible globally, that take-up needs to move much closer to 100 percent.

"The big issue here then is, can they actually create a completely agnostic platform – like Adobe have – where it will work in Safari, Firefox, Chrome and so on," said Longbottom.

Azoff added: "If I was thinking of something that could be accessed globally – I'd think twice about choosing Silverlight as my vehicle. Microsoft is always going to face the issue of platform portability."

Azoff said firms might still decide to build web sites accessible by Flash and for Silverlight, but it would mean a duplication of effort.

In defence of Silverlight, Microsoft's general manager for presentation platform and tools Ian Ellison-Taylor said one of the things he has seen with this kind of technology is that take-up is non-linear.

"The hard part is getting going. As time goes on more customers deploy it and more developers then target it – so you get this virtuous cycle where once you get past a certain point, uptake accelerates," he said.

The other contender in RIA is Java FX, owned by Sun Microsystems. However, the effect of Sun's planned acquisition by Oracle creates uncertainty.

"Firms may be wondering about how this pans out, and what decisions Oracle make about what they'll push forward with," said Azoff. "But I think Oracle will be a lot sharper monetising it than Sun was."

itweek.co.uk @ 2010 Incisive Media
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