With MIX08 less than a week away and, in turn, the expected arrival of the Silverlight 2.0 beta, I thought it would be fun to ponder how Microsoft is planning to use their new browser-based, cross-platform plug-in. After all, history reveals that many Microsoft platforms have their roots in satisfying internal Microsoft project needs (we owe the "X" in Ajax to the Outlook Web Access team), so it's only fair to assume that from the get-go Microsoft saw the opportunity to use Silverlight to build (or enhance) new products. The question is, which products will get the Silverlight treatment and when?
To create my "Top 5" list, I've scoured the Internet for clues, pondered the skunk-works projects in Microsoft's Live Labs, analyzed Microsoft's competitive landscape, and tossed-in a dash of "gut feeling." Clearly, a thorough scientific process. What follows is my best guess at the products Microsoft is planning on building on Silverlight in the next few years.
- Microsoft Office Web Edition
This is the inevitable purpose of Silverlight: to enable Microsoft to deliver the full Microsoft Office experience via the browser. Do you think Microsoft intends to sit idly by while competitors like Google threaten its Office cash cow online? You'd be crazy to think so. I think the reason we haven't seen a serious online Office attempt from Microsoft yet is because they're waiting for a mature Silverlight platform to make the jump. And assuming the next version of Office for Windows is going to be WPF/XAML based anyway, it makes all the more sense to build for Silverlight.
The key barrier to an online Office experience with Silverlight is obviously local file system access (which Silverlight lacks for security). But given Microsoft is already experimenting with a Windows Live Drive, that is a problem easily solved with cloud storage. I think there is no question that Office running on Silverlight is a question of when not if.
Arrival: With Office 14 (Note: There will be no Office 13, for obvious naming reasons).
- Radically new online mapping tools
The online competition for mapping tools has really reached a plateau. Google Maps and Microsoft's Live Maps add new features every now and then (like the Google's cool ability to adjust your route), but nothing has been "earth shattering" for a number years. The move to Ajax-based ZUIs (Zoomable User Interfaces) was the last "big" transition for online mapping and that's several years old now.
If Microsoft introduces a Silverlight version of Live Maps, though, we could start to see a slew of new features delivered to online mapping. For starters, with the .NET framework running in the browser, routes could be quickly calculated and adjusted without the need of significant help from the server, leading to more powerful routing tools. Then, with the strong animation support in Silverlight, routes could be previewed similar to the experience you get with today's GPS units (and similar to a feature Ask.com has, but with more "richness"). The possibilities with a plug-in based tool are endless.
Even more interesting, though, is the mounting evidence that Silverlight 2.0 will include a technology from Microsoft Live Labs called Seadragon. Seadragon is a technology Microsoft purchased in late 2006 that enables huge amounts of visual data to be smoothly browsed over a network, regardless of bandwidth. According to the research site, Seadragon provides transitions that are "smooth as butter" with performance tied only to the pixel-to-bandwidth ratio. With this technology in Silverlight, the map ZUI that we've come to love could get a big boost.
Arrival: Within a year
- Cross platform .NET IDE
Before you scoff at the idea, hear me out. One of the key "problems" with .NET is that the only way to really develop .NET is on Windows with Visual Studio (there are other "less elegant" ways, but really...come on). With Silverlight making the push to build the .NET framework on OS X and Linux, there will be new reason for developers on those platforms to want to use .NET to build applications. If Microsoft can create a simplified Visual Studio IDE running on Silverlight for those developers, they could start to increase .NET adoption in the traditionally non-.NET Linux and OS X dev crowds.
Clearly, this task is not without its challenges. Even more so than Office, a Visual Studio product that doesn't have direct access to the file system would be a hard sell. Maybe this product could drive an innovative and secure way to grant a Silverlight application access to a user's PC- I'm sure Enterprises are going to want that functionality sooner rather than later, anyway. Beyond that, an IDE would also assume the availability of the full .NET framework (something Silverlight isn't delivering in 2.0). This opens up the speculation that maybe future plug-ins could quietly stream (with user permission, of course) a full, cross-platform .NET framework to their PCs so future Silverlight apps could take advantage of all .NET framework features. Time will tell...
So while a browser-based IDE is a stretch, even simple tools with IntelliSense support would be a step in the right direction. Hopefully Microsoft will make some .NET dev tools- Silverlight or otherwise- available cross platform as the .NET framework moves that direction.
Arrival: Beyond Silverlight 2.0
- Accelerated Software + Service
Assuming the full .NET framework eventually makes it to Silverlight, and assuming something is done to make local file system access possible, Silverlight could very quickly enable Microsoft to accelerate its path down the Software + Service road. If the Yahoo! deal isn't evidence enough, Microsoft's actions over the last couple of years should make it clear that they are trying to reinvent themselves as an online company capable of competing with Google on its home turf. So far their progress has been slow and largely unsuccessful (thus the Yahoo! deal). A new .NET-enabled platform like Silverlight could help Microsoft quickly port a number of its consumer applications to web-based versions.
The "software" in the Software + Services model in this case would be the light-weight and flexible Silverlight plug-in. The "services" would be the applications delivered via the plug-in, likely sold on a subscription model or supported via ads. While Google could in theory do the same with Flash, the key difference is that Microsoft already has a large and successful portfolio of consumer desktop applications. If Microsoft can convince those people to try online versions of the tools they're used to, they may capture a large portion of the market Google can't reach. And if you're Microsoft, everything these days seems to be about beating Google.
Arrival: 1 - 2 years
- Cross platform data mining
This is less of a possible Microsoft "product" and more of a possible Microsoft "use" for Silverlight. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time Microsoft is releasing a tool that will work on all three "major" OS platforms- Windows, OS X, and Linux. It's also one of the first browser tools from Microsoft that works in all three "major" browsers- IE, Firefox, and Safari. Combine that with the Silverlight plug-in's ability to automatically update itself- which implies "phone home" capabilities- and you have a plug-in that will give Microsoft an unprecedented look at the usage patterns of different browsers and operating systems.
For example, as the Silverlight plug-in reaches the masses, Microsoft will have millions of plug-ins checking-in to see if new versions of plug-in are available. Clearly, to check for the right version, that "ping" will need to include browser and OS information. By analyzing that info, Microsoft can track first hand the fluctuations in the popularity of different browsers and operating systems (vs. what analysts report). Is that a privacy concern or a big value for Microsoft? Probably not, but it will be interesting to see what they do now that they're supporting "enemy" browsers and OSs.
So there you have it. The five things Microsoft is most likely to do with Silverlight in the next few years. Clearly, this doesn't cover at length the ways I expect Microsoft enhance Silverlight over the next couple of years or how I expect other companies to use this emerging technology. That's fodder for a different post.
Do you think I'm on track or have I missed the mark? I guess we'll start to know more next week at MIX!