After years of institutionalized incompatibility in their browser software, office software, and video software, Microsoft has come out with with Silverlight, their Rich Internet application platform and supposed Flash Killer.

Flash is universally accepted because it is universally compatible. The same cannot be said of Silverlight at this time. It has only been out for a year or so, and has already left some computers behind. Version 2 is not available for legacy Mac computers – only for Intel-based Macs. It is a new platform, however, and to give Microsoft some badly needed credit, they have opensourced parts of the Silverlight and .Net specifications. Mono, an opensource .NET develpment framework, and Mono’s version of Silverlight "Moonlight" are being actively developed, and although not entirely compatible yet, it will be interesting to see how far they differ from the official version in a few years. Moonlight is currently only compatible with Silverlight 1.0 applications, but there is a new version in the works that should work with Silverlight 2.0.

In the learning modules I develop, I switched from a WMV standard to FLV forat for embedded videos because Windows Media is not well supported on Safari or Firefox on Macs nor on Firefox on Windows. The scripting commands necessary for captioning and detailed control of the video rely on the ability to "see" properties inside the player object, which Safari and Firefox (even on PC) cannot do. The flip4mac player which replaced the Windows Media Player on the mac is inconsistent in behavior, depending on how people set up their plugins and browsers. I have even had issues with Windows Media on Windows XP, including the fact that in IE6 with the Google Toolbar, embedded Windows Media will sometimes crash the browser.

If Silverlight fixes the scripting issues on the Mac and in Firefox, it will be worth testing for that reason alone. I’ve seen articles which see Silverlight as a very positive development, in that Silverlight has “brought Windows Media support back to the Mac” but I’m not sure that it is not already too late: Windows Media may be irrelevant on the Mac at this point Adobe has so thoroughly open sourced Flash and Flash Video that it would take some convincing to want to switch entirely, though for specific applications, Silverlight may be just right. One such application would be Deep Zoom which looks like it would be perfect for some elearning scenarios, as long as you don’t mind developing entirely on Windows.

A real world example of the gaps that still exist I am testing a new video mashup product: Ultralearn. It is based on Silverlight 2.0, and allows combinations of video, documents, images, and tracking for elearning or marketing. I installed Silverlight on my Mac at work, only to find out that without realizing it, I had installed an old version, since the latest version of Silverlight, 2.2, does not exist for G5 macs.

I next tried Ultralearn on another computer, only to find out that it ONLY imports Windows Media format video, not AVI, or MPEG, just WMV. Nearly all I have on hand are AVI’s or FLV’s, so that was a bit of a setback. I suspect that is a Silverlight requirement, not the vendor’s decision, since anyone doing video mashups would surely want to enable any type of file including YouTube or video straight from the camera. It complicates the workflow in a non-Web 2.0 manner. When I attempted to upload a WMV file on the Mac, it resulted in "cannot display this video" errors, which I’ll have to take up with the vendor at some point. It’s not clear if that is a Silverlight issue with Macs, or an UltraLearn issue.

I think that Silverlight will be a long time in catching up to Flash, but it is well worth learning to develop in for the right use.