Update: Microsoft Silverlight 3 unveiled

Partners using the rich Internet application technology include NBC Sports and Continental Airlines

Seeking an edge in the crowded rich Internet application technology space, Microsoft on Friday officially launched its Silverlight 3 platform, championing the technology at a launch event in San Francisco that also featured partners such as NBC Sports and Continental Airlines.

The plug-in technology features offline capabilities for running applications outside of a browser, as well as 3-D capabilities and advanced streaming via Smooth Streaming, in which a Silverlight client is paired with Microsoft's Internet Information Services on the back end.

[ Yesterday, Microsoft and IBM discussed software development advances. ]

The company also launched its Expression 3 platform for application design, featuring the Expression Studio 3 suite of tools. Silverlight and its accompanying software development kit actually were made available earlier this week, while Expression 3 tools ship within 30 days.

"We've got more than 300 partners delivering Silverlight applications today," said S. "Soma" Somasegar, senior vice president of the Microsoft developer division. "This is the fastest-growing plugin ever." Silverlight initially launched in September 2007.

NBC Sports, which has used Silverlight in the 2008 Olympics, announced intentions to use Silverlight for online video delivery across its sporting franchises, including the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. Microsoft had streamed content via Silverlight at the Beijing Olympics last year.

"In these 22 months [since the technology's introduction], Silverlight is enabling NBC Sports to go ahead and deliver full, HD broadcast-quality video to our users and our advertisers," said Eric Black, of NBC Sports.

Silverlight, though, must compete with the more established Adobe Flash platform, as well as with Sun Microsystems JavaFX technology. Complicating this field are HTML technologies that could eventually eliminate the need for plug-ins such as Silverlight, Flash, and JavaFX.

With Silverlight and Flash leading the field, competition between the two is "getting to be like Honda and Toyota," said analyst Ray Valdes, vice president of Web services at garnter.

"I think the key difference is the .Net compatibility and alignment [for Silverlight] and that will be a positive for some and a negative for others," Valdes said.

Microsoft said adoption of Silverlight has accelerated, with more than one in three Internet devices having installed the earlier Silverlight 2 release since its release about nine months ago. Silverlight customers being announced on Friday included the MGM "SGU: Stargate Universe" TV show and Continental Airlines, which plans to use Silverlight in a call center reservation system. MGM will allow Web users to zoom in on parts of a new show set via a Deep Zoom capability introduced in Silverlight 2.

Silverlight is a free runtime; monetizing it involves selling related products such as the Expression line and Windows Server. Microsoft is offering its Visual Studio Professional Edition and Expression Studio 3 together for $999. Featured in the Studio package is SketchFlow, for rapid prototyping of applications. SketchFlow presents "the idea that you can actually start a project without knowing what the final bits are going to look like," said Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of the .Net develoiper platform at Microsoft. SketchFlow is an interactive tool that can incorporate pen and paper sketches.

Expression 3 features the $599 Expression Studio 3 suite, with  tools including Expression Blend, for interactive design and including SketchFlow; Expression Web, for Web design and supporting CSS and the soon-to-be-discontinued XHTML standard; Expression Encoder, for video encoding; and Expression Design, for illustration and design.

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