Late last night, I watched some interesting content from the Mix ’08 show from Microsoft. I took the time to watch the two keynote presentations, firstly introducing Microsoft’s new web technologies and the second being an interview with Steve Ballmer.
Whilst I am not a developer, there are some things which do realy excite me when it comes down to web development and the new functionality which people are driving through sites like social networking and the demand for richer, faster and more integrated web experiences, and for me, a lot of the things that came up in the Mix ’08 keynotes did it for me.
Firstly, there is Internet Explorer 8. I’ve been running the IE8 beta now for some time, and I’m enjoying the performance work and efforts that the Internet Explorer team have put into the product, and the ability to have the standards compliant mode there really helps. The addition of the developer tools right there in the browser is also great as it allows developers making pages to see the code that is being served up to the client, and to dynamically affect the rendering of the page by removing elements from the code. A great example of this would be if you’ve designed a site, and the CSS isn’t working properly as one of your on-screen elements is in the wrong colour, the developer tools allow you to drill through the code not through search, but simply clicking the object on the page that is rendered. IE8 will preset the code for that element and allow you to deselect portions of that code and dynamically see the effect it has on the presentation of the page allowing the developer to make fast and effective use of the time to resolve problems with the site.
Whilst IE8 is great progress for Microsoft to bring them closer to the performance found in other browsers, this was far from the most exciting thing shown at Mix ’08 for me. This was the announcement of Silverlight 2.0 Beta 1. Silverlight, Microsofts browser plug-in to provide rich and exciting web content just got a whole lot better. 2.0 version of Silverlight introduces far more ability for off browser content to be provided to services running on the client totally seperate from the browser. A great example of this is the new Live Mesh product which was flaunted without saying as much at the show.
Two features in Silverlight 2.0 which I really liked I’ll talk about now. Firstly is Deep Zoom. This feature allows ultra high resolution images compiled of multiple images to be pieced together to give great effects. An example of this shown at Mix was the Hard Rock site, so check it out at http://memorabilia.hardrock.com/. This site shows exactly the power of Deep Zoom allowing Hard Rock to show all of their memorabilla in a single page through the use of zoom, zoom and more…..zoom!
The second feature in Silverlight 2.0 which I really liked was the adaptive streaming. You have a site with video, and the site is able to deliver multiple stream sizes for varrying connection sizes. Normally the user would be asked to select the correct stream, now for the non-tech savvy, this will be daunting and some people probably won’t have a clue what their speed is, so will just choose the biggest one and will often be disappointed by a poor experience. Silverlight 2.0 solves this by automatically detecting the correct stream based on the connection of the user, and more to this, Silverlight contstantly checks the conditions of the connection and adjusts the stream size on the fly according to the conditions. Lets say your streaming a video over Silverlight and it detected you for the best quality stream but during this, you start a HTTP download. Silverlight will detect the loss of available bandwidth and on the fly lower the quality of the stream to provide a more flowing video delivery. As the HTTP download completes, Silverlight detects the increase in available bandwidth and pumps the stream back up to the higher level, again all on the fly.
Silverlight 2.0 makes advertising far more responsive to the advertisers giving them far more information feedback from their ad campains by using Silverlight events to track some really good data such as determining if a user didn’t finish viewing some content because they browsed away, all helping to drive the content driven internet to give the users the experience they want and need.
Silverlight also gives the ability to make content super dynamic such as the example of the Hard Rock Cafe, where the content delivered can sorted and rearranged by groups, type of item, year and artist – The possibilites are almost endless. NBC are using Silverlight to for the first time make the entire Olymics available to stream online, with interactivity like never before such as notifications of events as they happen within the browser frame, viewing information about the events as they happen and again: All fast and easy to develop.
Behind all of this is IIS 7 the new version of IIS for Windows Server 2008. This version provides a whole host of new functionality and there one thing in particular I love. A lot of the time people will start a streaming video, but get bored and stop watching it. In the traditional way of doing things, as much of the video is streamed to the client as fast as possible to reduce the never for buffering. The problem with this is the wasted bandwidth. Content providers are pushing out data which never gets used. Microsoft to solve this have come up with a throttling technology in IIS 7 which says hey, lets pump out as much of this video as we can for the first 10 seconds or whatever you set, then after that point, only ever keep the stream 10 seconds or whatever you set ahead of the player. Doing this means that if a user closes the video, only 10 seconds of bandwidth has been lost instead of minutes, and to me that is a great technology idea.
To help with the release of Silverlight 2.0 Microsoft have made Visual Studio 2008 very tightly knit with Silverlight 2.0 to allwow super fast and simple creation of Silverlight content. In the demo of this, te host produced a Silverlight banner ad in less time than I can start my work laptop from a cold boot! On top of the ability for VS 2008 to produce the content like this, Expression Blend gives the designer the ablity to create exciting and powerful content easily, and whilst I’m no XBox fan, the Halo 3 ad they produced in minutes looked awesome.
Silverlight 2.0 is also promising a lot for platforms further out than just Windows XP and Windows Vista. Sliverlight 2.0 is going to drive this rich content to Windows Mobile devices, and under a deal signed between Microsoft and Nokia, Symbian Series 60 and Series 40 devices along with Nokia’s range of tablet computing devices. With the upcoming release of the Apple iPhone SDK it may even transpire that Silverlight 2.0 will find its way onto the iPhone as it’s already available on the Mac itself. This broad spectrum of devices giving developers and designers the ablity to provide such content will make Silverlight 2.0 a very fast growing and spreading meduim in my opinion.
Whilst Flash from Adobe in the world today is the de-facto standard for interactive web media I can personally see Silverlight 2.0 heavily cutting into this margin they have over the next six month cycle and I think this will be helped vastly by the somewhat lack of support for Flash on the mobile device. Sure Flash Lite is available for Windows Mobile and other platforms, but it doesn’t offer the full functionality available to the full client like Vista and that is a shame because it is restricting the abilty for the developer and designer to offer rich content to these devices. Silverlight 2.0 breaks this mould and offers the exact same functionality to the mobile device as it does to the desktop so we will be seeing a lot of content that is not trimmed down in quality and size for the mobile device, but just size, which for me as a heavy Windows Mobile user, is a great thing.
Stepping back from Silverlight and into some of the other realms discussed, we have products like XAML, .NET Framework 3.5, WPF and XMA all providing some great functionality to the users.
Look at WPF for example. This will allow designers to create sites which totally interact with the controls of the client and can produce some really cool effects without attacking CPU. In the demo shown, on a dual core laptop, the CPU never spiked over 15% showing the demo which is nice.
This event was also used to plug Live services Microsoft are trying to push to clients who aren’t prepared or able to be running massive services and server farms internally. Some of these come in the shape of Windows Live services like Office Live, Office Live Workspaces all of which are moving to give the enterprise the functionality they are used to, but moving this content into the cloud to make it more accessible. Enterprise services like SQL Data Services, Exchange Live andÃ‚Â Office Communication Live also give the products available to the enterprise internally the ability to operate in the cloud giving the ability again to make these services more accessible, and for companies who want to host these services internally still but can’t afford the server and rack space, then Windows Server 2008 provides Hyper-V functionality to allow virtualisation in the data centre far more managable while products like System Centre Operations Manager can help maintain these virtual environments running in Hyper-V to the optimum.
I’m really excitted about some of these developments as I have already pointed out and I am really looking forward to see some of these explode onto the scene and give us end-users of these sites a much better and imersive experience, and I myself and hoping to try to implement some Silverlight functionality into the Baby-Green site for the videos portion of the site. The site at the moment is running Flash for these videos, but with the ability of Silverlight 2.0 sure not all of the functionality will be available to me running on a PHP box, but I will do my best to embrace this era of the evolving internet.
I’m also really looking forward to seeing Microsoft implement Silverlight in more of their own products like Windows Live Mail (Hotmail) and other Live sites and MSN sites. I think they will pull off some really amazing things with this technology.