Silverlight: One small step for rich Internet application development, one giant step for Microsofts push into the design and creative professionals market.
Ian Ellison-Taylor, product unit manager for WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation) and Silverlight at Microsoft, said the companys trek from a strictly Windows PC focus to a cross-platform, cross-browser tool for delivering rich, graphical user experiences on devices and other platforms was like putting a man on the moon.
“It seemed, just a few years ago, to be this impossible task,” Ellison-Taylor said. “And we had so many internal and external detractors all along saying that [it would be an incredible task] for us to get all the moving parts in place to do something like WPF and Silverlight. But having a little bit of faith, we plowed through it. It was a six-year effort to come out with WPF, and then shortly thereafter the Silverlight part of it. It definitely feels like a marathon and something that in a small way is like putting a man on the moon.”
In fact, the Silverlight effort began back in 2001, when the Redmond, Wash., company launched its effort to deliver WPF, the predecessor of WPF/E, which was the code name for Silverlight.
“Microsoft is this big aircraft carrier, but theyre able to turn it when they need to,” said Mike Soucie, CEO of Electric Rain, in Boulder, Colo.
“It feels a little clunky when Microsoft tries to reach out to designers,” said Lee Brimelow, a designer at Frog Design, in Palo Alto, Calif. “Its a little odd at first, but I really feel like theyre putting out some powerful tools.”
Added Mark Ligameri, executive creative director at Frog Design, “Theyre definitely battling with Adobe directly, but being the center of that battle is fun.”
Ellison-Taylor said his team knew it had the right people for the platform and knew it had the right people to talk to about the tooling for the next level of the platform. But, he added, “for the designer side of things, we knew we needed help.”
So the team asked for a meeting with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, “where we outlined what we were going to do, and we made this big pitch about how we needed a new class of tools focused on designers and that it wasnt going to be something that the company had ever done before. [We said] we needed to go buy someone or build something,” Ellison-Taylor said.
The group put together a 40-page justification on why it needed to build designer tools and get in touch with designers. “Steve looked at the first slide and said: Well, thats obvious. What are you going to do about it?” Ellison-Taylor said.
That launched the effort to build Avalon, to create the Microsoft Expression line of designer tools, and to later build and deliver Silverlight.
Avalon took a little longer than was originally planned, but in early to mid-2005, “we decided that things were going well enough with Avalon and WPF that we could start thinking more seriously about cross-platform and device support for WPF,” Ellison-Taylor said. “So we started with a small set of people working off to the side, and it grew out from that. Once we shipped Vista and .Net 3.0, that freed up some resources and we started getting serious about it.”
In fact, Microsofts goal was to create a continuum that the company had begun with Windows. “Wed done Windows, and it had been very successful, but we knew that we had to refresh the graphics infrastructure” to support new platforms and the Web, Ellison-Taylor said.
“But the motivation was pretty much the same that we have for everything in the developer division, which is to produce a compelling platform that developers will target,” he added. So it became a question of degree. How much could Microsoft do in a subset of WPF? “We started this almost endless debate of size versus features. We knew we couldnt put in all the features of WPF,” Ellison-Taylor said.
Behind the scenes, the company got help from designers and developers coming into Microsoft to use the internal bits. “We brought professional artists and Web designers into the company to spend a week in the hulls with us, and to try and build cool and usable, easy-to-tool experiences and get this critical feedback,” Ellison-Taylor said.
But, from an engineering perspective, one of the challenges was how the company could get high performance for graphics in a cross-platform way. With Windows, it was easy, “but to deliver a cross-platform solution, you dont get that luxury,” Ellison-Taylor said. “You have to target these other platforms and try and eke great performance out of fewer resources.”
Browser differences became one of the biggest issues. “There are lots of subtle differences between the browsers and the different versions of the browsers, so we had to code around those things,” he said.
The team built spreadsheets of features, along with each features size and how much effort it would be to make them smaller.
“We lucked out in some cases in that the CLR [Common Language Runtime] team and the team working on the video codecs volunteered to hone down their components and strip out things that were unnecessary for these kinds of scenarios,” Ellison-Taylor said.
That enabled the company to deliver a solution that now fits squarely into competition with Adobe Systems, which has traditionally owned the designer space.
“Saying were going after Adobe is like saying we like eating apples and so do others,” said Forest Key, director of product management, Microsoft Developer Division, who used to work for Macromedia (now part of Adobe). “To explain the entire marketing opportunity in terms of what Adobe has done is not giving credit to us. This is not about going where Adobe is. Our stuff is much more far-reaching, and our strategy is more complete. It brings in our breadth and depth as a platform company.”
In addition, Key said, to describe Microsofts strategy as going after Adobe is similar to “Microsoft of the late 90s. Thats not us anymore. To win, we have to be the best solution at a competitive level versus open-source software and everything else out there. Thats why we demo on the Mac first. Thats why we try to overcompensate to show were serious about cross-platform.”
Indeed, Key said, Microsofts strategy covers multiple years and embraces SAAS (software as a service), or what Microsoft refers to as “software plus services.”
And although Microsoft is about five years into its strategy to deliver richer presentation tools and a richer experience, “were at ground zero in terms of building the business around that—were just shipping Expression and Silverlight,” Key said.
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