Silverlight 2.0 and the Internet OS

by edsilverton

Scott Guthrie has announced the roadmap for a bunch of technologies including Silverlight 2.0.

The prospect of having a technology similar in many ways to Flash but with the .Net framework under the hood is a pretty enticing one. Inevitably we end up thinking about this as Adobe vs Microsoft and this is round one of a drawn-out “browser wars” style battle.

While discussing this prospect with a friend I likened (perhaps unjustly) the current state of affairs to the first days of the Apple Mac before Windows had made inroads into the desktop market. My conjecture was: If the Internet is the new Operating System, could Flash be the Mac of the Internet? Now, this is a highly contentious point and might be worth exploring a bit.

Ray Ozzie seems to get the Internet as Operating System idea and as Microsoft’s new Chief Software Architect has steered the super-tanker that is MS gradually onto a new course. If you take into account the number of key engineers that MS lost to Google and the reportedly lacklustre sales of Vista I’d say that people at the top are starting to get a bit antsy.

It seems that cloud computing is the new black and everyone’s racing to get a foothold ahead of the competition. Mobility seems to be one of the main driving forces behind this shift to the cloud. Intel recently announced their new “Ultra Mobile” chips hinting at an increasingly mobile future for computing. Google are most definitely betting on people wanting to store and retrieve their data online from their mobile devices. To anyone who thinks that people aren’t prepared to put sensitive data on the web I give you Facebook and Myspace. Are we heading inexorably for a world where our PC’s are in our pocket and all our data is in the cloud? Until someone figures out how to make a 22″ monitor and a usable keyboard fit into my pocket I think I’ll reserve judgement. Or failing that it becomes possible to interact with my machine though some form of neural-interface.

So the question from Microsoft’s perspective is: Assuming that the future is in the cloud, how do you go about beating the competition in this scary new world where you don’t necessarily hold all the keys for storing and manipulating people’s precious data? If you place any stock in Steve Ballmers frightening rants you’ll know that at MS it’s all about “developers developers developers”. MS knows that the way to win an Internet OS war is to win developers over to their platform, read Silverlight + Web Services.

Microsoft didn’t immediately understand the key importance of rich user interfaces. Apple were the first to do it for the PC and are still setting the agenda in this field, although perhaps the signs are there that Apple’s focus is shifting more toward mobile computing with the success of the IPhone, IPod and recent reports of uncharacteristic flaws in Leopard. Meanwhile Flash has evolved from a nice animation tool into something you can make visually rich applications like Word or Photoshop with. If you combine this new Flash with something like Amazon’s S3 service you’re one $100 laptop with an installation of Linux and Firefox away from cutting Microsoft out of the loop entirely. You just know that Adobe and Google are readying offers you can’t refuse to make this transition as tempting as possible. Admittedly you’re already cutting MS out of the loop using Linux or OSX, but this doesn’t to their minds currently represent a significant enough threat to their dominance. It’s the advent of the Internet OS that’s really shaking them.

For me Silverlight represents Microsoft’s entry to provide the user-interface for the new Internet OS (regardless of whether you’re using Windows, Linux or OSX) and thus reap the same rewards previously gained by controlling the user-interface for the majority of desktops. Is it even possible that Silverlight is the most important product to secure the future of MS? All I know is that Adobe are gonna have one hell of a fight on their hands to avoid becoming “the Mac of the Internet” and I look forward to reaping the innovative goodness that will hopefully come from both companies in order to win us over like the cheap tarts we are 🙂