I work in a predominantly Windows oriented development shop focused around video and there’s been lots of discussion surrounding Microsoft Silverlight and VC-1 over the last year or so. We’ve looked at the technical specs, analyzed the possibilities and engaged in seemingly endless discussions comparing the technology to the Adobe Flash platform. Microsoft has come knocking on our door repeatedly pitching the technology and as a Flash developer I’m surrounded by marketing hype and blogosphere rants, experiments, and outright paranoia at times. I’m always amazed at some of the claims that I see on the web and hear during meetings with their reps–claims which seemingly go unchallenged (maybe it’s just my ignorance that’s holding me back).
One of the oft heard and most annoying claims is that Silverlight will be a ubiquitous runtime quickly. This argument posits that all that it takes to be a ubiquitous runtime is a few killer apps. These killer apps typically are either viral content repositories or social in nature and therefore will quickly reach nearly every web enabled computer on the planet. Microsoft assured us during the Silverlight launch buildup that multiple killer apps would be released with the official 1.0 launch ensuring quick and massive penetration.
This claim that all it takes to become ubiquitous is a couple of killer apps has always struck me as off. Microsoft, and even some folks in the Adobe camp, like to point to YouTube and MySpace as what “made” Flash while conveniently forgetting that Flash Player adoption was at 98% of web enabled computers long before YouTube and MySpace came along.
It’s probably much more accurate to argue that Adobe Flash Player’s high penetration is what enabled the success of MySpace and YouTube. YouTube’s roaring success validated that Flash video had already won on the web despite the fact it supported fewer codecs of lesser quality than did the other embeddable media players.
When Flash MX and Flash Player 6 hit the streets in July of 2002 there were a lot of us who bought into the potential of video when paired with Flash Player’s ubiquity and its strange but wonderful scripting, graphics and animation capabilities. We envisioned a world of custom interfaces embedded seamlessly inside our rich applications and designs. We fought battle after battle just for the opportunity to use the technology. “Back in the day” no one was a believer and video on the web was a bad joke constantly undermined by the big three’s attempts at media player domination.
The point is that 6 years ago we started building the foundation for YouTube and it wasn’t by having a few killer apps, but rather thousands upon thousands of sites with a level of richness and creativity that was unimagined (I’m continually blown away by the creativity and talent that lives and breathes in this community).
Finally, VC-1 seems to be completely dead in the water. It’s my understanding that Microsoft’s strategy of driving adoption from the top down via major media studios and broadcasters has been a major failure. Hell, back in 2002 when Flash Player 6 sported its first video capabilities Windows Media 9 was being hyped like crazy by the softies. Six years later Microsoft has the same codec sporting a new name officially standardized under SMPTE and still can’t find a date to the prom. Instead, industry support has coalesced around h.264. The h.264 tooling and licensing options are available on a variety of different platforms and are an integral part of many media technology stacks.
It’s clear that Apple’s strategy of winning the war by focusing on the content creation tools, dominant portable media playback, cross OS playback / encoding, and media purchasing has soundly beaten Microsoft in the codec / media platform war. Adobe’s decision to include the h.264 codec instead of VC-1 in Flash Player and ditch its proprietary container format should be read as a slap in the face and a clear sign of VC-1′s impotence. In one move they walk away from vendor lock-in strategies and indicate how unappealing Microsoft’s codec offering is.
Microsoft’s track record over the last 10 years lends little comfort. They’ve managed to make a media player that is universally despised and which has progressively gotten worse with each subsequent release. They have a retread codec that’s worn many skirts and names and still can’t get a date. They make a portable media player no one wants and have backed a next generation dvd format that is now officially dead. Let’s see, there’s QuickTime competitor ASF which pales in comparison and has never taken off and it replaced the universally maligned “video for windows” container–AVI. Oh and let’s not forget gems such as Windows Movie Maker and Microsoft Producer. I could go on, but you should be able to connect the dots. I actually feel sorry for the Microsoft employees when I hear them pitch this stuff–it can’t be good for the self-esteem. Note to Microsoft–maybe stop tanking in the media sector and work on making an operating system that people don’t hate.
In the end, perhaps Silverlight will take off, but I doubt it will happen overnight. If it does, it will mean a long, hard, consistent battle in the trenches where winning over the hearts of small shops and individual artists is just as important as pumping up MSDN groupies and stroking ISVs. It will mean building a community of stunning talent and incredible heart (its not a numbers game in my book). It will mean winning over the trust of a massive population trained not to trust new browser installs and increasingly cynical of Microsoft and its aggressive monopolist tendencies as a whole.
If Microsoft is able to overcome all of the hurdles in front of it, Silverlight may become more than a lifeless corpse, but until then it appears they’ll be relying on Jedi mind tricks and their silvery tongue to convince developers and consumers to ignore their repeated missteps and failures in the media sector. Good luck with that MS, you’re going to need it. ;-)