February 04, 2008

MS/Yahoo deal: Here comes Silverlight?

Writing about web page http://www.arnnet.com.au/index.php/id;898723528;fp;16;fpid;1

The offer by Microsoft to buy Yahoo for $44.6billion has created something of a stir, mainly because it’s the biggest offer of its kind (one that even MS would have to borrow money for with reserves of ‘only’ $22billion or so).

Should the deal go through, it may also have serious implications for Adobe and Flash; The MS rival technology Silverlight is currently being adopted slowly but steadily, but it’s easy to see how Microsoft taking over the second biggest internet company on the planet would present a prime opportunity to push its own platforms more aggressively.

Yahoo recently created its Yahoo Messenger application using Silverlight but currently up until recently made more use of Flash/Flex for other major features, like Yahoo Maps. Last week Yahoo released ASTRA, a set of Yahoo-developed components and libraries and in December gave a new Yahoo Flex skin to the development community, so Flex and Flash development is clearly still alive and kicking at Yahoo. It’s easy to imagine a Microsoft-owned Yahoo adopting Silverlight more extensively in future, increasing the penetration of the platform to the point where it gathers enough momentum to become as important and ubiquitous as Flash Player.

With this in mind, I was interested just now to read this interview with David Stubenvoll, the CEO of Wowza Media Systems. Warwick University recently adopted the Java-based Wowza Media Server as its solution for video and audio streaming, as an alternative to Adobe’s own Flash Media Server. As a provider of a third-party solution to an existing Adobe platform, it would be reasonable to assume Wowza is to a certain extent tied to the Adobe roadmap, but it was interesting to see David’s predictions (made in December) for Silverlight, before the bid was even announced:

Adobe has to assume that Silverlight is going to become ubiquitous…What’s the time frame for that? I’d say nine to eighteen months

That’s much sooner than I would’ve predicted, but a successful bid for Yahoo could be a significant catalyst for Silverlight. With this in mind, it’s reassuring to see that Wowza intends to support the video delivery mechanism required by Silverlight in the future, plus mobile formats;

Wowza plans to add support for Microsoft’s media delivery format to Media Pro Server sometime next year. The upstart company also will build in support for Java Platform Micro Edition, which is the most popular video format on mobile phones.

Which is reassuring, but back to my original question – would the deal accelerate Silverlight’s penetration? Almost definitely I think, although I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, mainly because I haven’t seen Silverlight-based applications do anything significantly better than Flash – it seems to be more about allowing the vast number of .NET developers to create Rich Internet Applications without having to move to the Adobe platform. I don’t think this really affects Flash Player very much anyway; at 83-98% penetration it’s unlikely that people would adopt Silverlight OR Flash; it will simply help drive adoption of Silverlight, at which point the decision on what to use will come down to development preference and features (where different).

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  1. Andrew Ingram

    Um, Yahoo Maps switched to HTML/CSS/JavaScript a couple of months ago.

    04 Feb 2008, 21:33

  2. Steven Carpenter

    My bad, they switched on December 17th – edited :-)

    Actually Ted Patrick (who helped developed the original Flex app) posted a good entry at the time on the decisions for the change which I’d forgotten about – worth reading because as Ted points out the main reasons behind creating the AJAX version were either non-technical or driven by other influences (e.g. advertising integration and many of their key Flex people leaving to start new ventures).

    04 Feb 2008, 21:51

  3. Andrew Ingram

    I was a little surprised too, mapping is one of the few real uses that can take advantage of flash/flex without introducing many new accessibility issues (i imagine it’s difficult using a visual map if you’re blind)

    04 Feb 2008, 21:57

  4. Steven Carpenter

    Yahoo Maps was a Flex 1.5 application (one of the first Flex applications to appear) but evidently the migration to 2.0 and the other cited factors were too much in the end, which I think is also worth noting – if the goalposts move too far between versions (as with Flex 1.5 to 2.0 and to a lesser extent now with 2.0 to 3.0 where I have some issues with migrating projects) you risk losing your development community to more stable platforms – I guess it’s a fine balance between features and compatibility. Last September, Bill Scott (AJAX ‘evangelist’ at Yahoo) said “In the enterprise space, I tend to recommend things like Flex because the development is much faster to get up and going.” yet they obviously felt that this time the leap was too far.

    The real issue for me is whether we are going to see Silverlight everywhere in a year’s time and what that will mean for the Adobe platforms. The AJAX question I think is becoming less of an issue – many people (including Adobe with its Flex/AJAX bridge) now advocate a mix of AJAX/Flash, playing to the strengths of each. Flex can be much faster than AJAX for data-crunching but I think this has to balanced against load times etc.

    The accessibility thing really gets to me – Flex applications can be made accessible quite easily and old problems like back button navigation are completely fixed, but no-one seems to notice partly because they either see a Flash applicaton and don’t even try, but I suspect mainly because many Flex developers don’t realise they exist or can’t be bothered to implement them properly.

    04 Feb 2008, 22:54

  5. Andrew Ingram

    The back button isn’t completely fixed. It makes use of the same hack as AJAX by using anchors (which can be changed without a new http request) rather than proper URLs (which can’t, for security reasons). An anchor is supposed to represent a location within a page rather than a page itself. Use it as a fix for the purpose of making AJAX/Flash more accessible if you really have to use AJAX/Flash, since you don’t have any other choice. But if it gets used as a way to add complex multi-page navigation to a flash/ajax app, you’re kind of ignoring the syntax of URLs.

    The other problem isn’t that Flex apps can’t be made more accessible (they can), but rather that it’s not accessible from the start. For things like UI widgets, the system native widgets should be used as the defaults rather than forcing you to use Flash widgets which tend to behave slightly differently and use effects that make them feel sluggish. Overriding a widget should be a design decision rather than something that happens automatically.

    04 Feb 2008, 23:10

  6. Andrew Ingram

    oops, didn’t mean http request, i meant page reload.

    04 Feb 2008, 23:18

  7. Steven Carpenter

    Okay, not completely fixed, but fixed enough that it doesn’t annoy the hell out of me :-D

    I agree regarding accessibility – it should be the default that Flex applications include accessibility (although Flex 3 goes further than previous versions it still doesn’t go far enough for me). Most Flex components do support MSAA as-is, and JAWS with an additional download (for the JAWS user). I think the sluggishness thing comes down to personal taste – I quite like interfaces that animate al a iPhone; it gives an impression of weight and physics to the interface, but there’s a tremendously fine line between ‘polished’ and ‘annoyingly slow’, and possibly another category called ‘unnecessary’, but that’s another blog entry (I have a draft somewhere about the iPhone interface and its use of animation, physics and transitions).

    04 Feb 2008, 23:26

  8. Steven Carpenter

    ..but in brief, that entry noted that HCI research seems to suggest that appropriate use of animation and transition in interfaces give users useful cues that the object or screen is changing from one state to another. More later…

    04 Feb 2008, 23:41

  9. Andrew Ingram

    Oh, I’m not opposed to animations in general, I just take the view that part of my operating system choice is based on the UI, so if there’s any animation to be done on the widgets it should be done (by default) at the system level (like Core Effects in recent versions of OSX).

    I’m actually very much in favour of steps the WebKit team have taken to make animation a first-class citizen of web development.

    05 Feb 2008, 00:04

  10. Mani

    Interesting steps that WebKit team have taken to make animation a first-class citizen of web development

    05 Feb 2008, 08:20

  11. Steven Carpenter

    While deleting one of my own comments I think I just accidentally deleted one of Andrew’s comments that referred to overriding the default UI widgets with those from Flex as a design choice (that is, Andrew said it should be a design choice to override the system default).

    I see his point; an immediate thought was that widget look and feel can differs across browsers as well as OS, but what if I wanted to ensure my UI is consistent across platforms and browser, which for me is the raison d’etre of Flex? AIR also gives you the option of using the OS chrome for the container or creating your own, and while I see value in consistency I also see value in trying alternative UIs if it can be justified.

    06 Feb 2008, 17:03

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