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Silverlight 2.0: The Wait Is Almost Over

The beta of Microsoft's long-awaited RIA platform is weeks away. Are you ready for the .NET runtime in a browser?

The first public beta of Silverlight 2.0 is expected from Microsoft in the next few weeks. By all accounts, those that have seen the private beta report that the features outlined by the General Manager of Microsoft's Developer Division, Scott Guthrie, in a November blog posting are pretty much on track.

Silverlight 2.0 will provide a subset of the .NET Framework and Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) so that developers and designers can build rich Internet applications (RIAs). Silverlight 1.0, which shipped in September, is primarily a media player for video and other content that uses a JavaScript programming model.

The first public beta of Silverlight 2.0 (renamed from 1.1) is expected to drop close to the start of the MIX08 conference, Microsoft's Web development event that's planned to run in Las Vegas from March 5 to 13. Silverlight was introduced for the first time at MIX07.

This year, the big guns-chief executive Steve Ballmer, chief architect Ray Ozzie and Scott Guthrie -- are planning to make keynote appearances as Microsoft delivers a slew of new technologies: Silverlight 2.0 with Visual Studio (VS) 2008 tooling support, a refresh of the ASP.NET Model View Controller (MVC) Framework with its first VS 2008 tooling, and new APIs for the Windows Live Platform, among other goodies for developers.

As expected, many companies will show demos of unique uses of Silverlight 2.0 at MIX08. Infragistics Inc. will present a demo that integrates Silverlight 2.0 charts and gauges with sample data (Northwind) and Windows Live services, according to Dean Guida, the company's chief executive officer. He says there's a lot of excitement around the technology, but it's still a ways off. His company expects to release Silverlight 2.0 components 60 days after the final version is released, hopefully before the end of the year.

WPF's Little Brother
"The expectation is that Silverlight is going to follow something close to the page model in WPF, which is not the same as the Web page model or the Windows model," says Rockford Lhotka, Microsoft MVP and principal technology evangelist for consultancy Magenic Technologies Inc.

In fact, Silverlight 2.0 is a lot closer to WPF than many people think, asserts Guthrie, who describes the technology as a compatible subset of both .NET and WFP in a recent Channel9 video.

"Everything that we've added is designed to be system.namespace-compatible with .NET," he says.

That includes the subset of the Common Language Runtime, core base class library, Language Integrated Query (LINQ), the networking stack and the XML stack. Unlike JavaScript, Silverlight version 2.0 supports cross-domain network access, which allows an app to callback to servers other than the one from which it was downloaded.

Silverlight 2.0 also promises a much richer UI controls framework, according to Guthrie. Developers can use the familiar server-side .NET controls model (WinForms, ASP.NET) with the vector-based graphics model of WPF. Version 2.0 includes layout, templates, styles, databinding and list controls, among other features. VS 2008 tool support for databinding is expected in the MIX08 timeframe, according to Guthrie.

"Everything that's in Silverlight from an API perspective is in WPF," he explains, including properties, methods and syntax. "It's still a subset, but a much bigger subset than people were imagining."

Robby Ingebretsen, director of creative development at IdentityMine Inc., who has built WPF and Silverlight 1.1 apps, says: "My experience has been that there's a lot of shareable knowledge between those two technologies, so if you have familiarity with one, you'll have familiarity with the other -- so [you can] borrow concepts like dependency properties or the same animation systems." He adds, "Knowing WPF, I'm much better-equipped to write great Silverlight code."

Lhotka, who has spent a lot of time working with WPF, says the desktop app UI technology was slow to take off due to a lack of tools.

Adobe's Blend

As Microsoft dazzles .NET developers with promising Web technology, Adobe Systems Inc. is showcasing new tooling that's exciting loyal Web designers. At its Chicago MAX conference, Adobe showed a video demo of a pre-pre alpha of a new RIA design tool code-named "Thermo."

It allows designers to create working applications from artwork and wireframes without code by using dummy data. Designers can turn a Photoshop illustration into a List control, for example, and see exactly what it'll look like when it's live in a Web application.

Like Blend, Thermo is being designed to facilitate designer/ developer workflow by sharing the design source code with a Flex IDE application.

"Thermo is really, really similar to Blend," says Robby Ingebretsen, director of creative development at IdentityMine Inc., who saw the Chicago MAX demo. "I'll tell you, Adobe knows how to make tools. It was pretty impressive."

Facilitating the Handoff
Blend is a great tool that solves a problem in a new way, Ingebretsen says, but Adobe Designer and Adobe Photoshop are "generational" tools that designers are used to working in.

"With Blend, I think they're still figuring out their workflow a little bit," he says. "I think nobody makes Blend their primary design tool yet. Most people use Blend in conjunction with another tool. For example, a designer might use Illustrator to integrate their design and make it XAML-ready."

When asked about Thermo, Wayne Smith, senior product manager for Microsoft Expression Blend, says, "I think it's really an acknowledgement of understanding this need of developers and designers to work together. It really is important. Everybody understands the need."

He adds, "We're doing it based on our own Microsoft technologies."

-- K.R.
"Now VS 2008 is out, Blend is out. At Magenic we're seeing a lot more interest," he says.

VS 2008 and Blend
Some Silverlight 2.0 VS 2008 tooling is expected when the beta 1 bits are released in March. The somewhat-limited Silverlight 1.1 alpha for VS 2008 works well, according to several developers who have used it.

The roadmap for Silverlight support in Microsoft's design tool suite, Expression Studio, is unclear, other than general assurances that the technology will be supported. Announcements are expected at MIX08, which is marketed as a Web developer and Web designer conference.

The first release of Expression Blend supports only WPF. Expression Blend Service Pack 1, in late November, added project integration with VS 2008. The Expression Blend 2.0 December preview supports Silverlight 1.0-based applications.

"We've built Silverlight for people who want to stay in the Expression Studio," says Wayne Smith, Microsoft senior product manager of Expression Studio. "We're very clear in our recognition of how designers work; whatever fits your workflow."

While everyone loves vector-based graphics and animation, Microsoft (XAML) and Adobe Systems Inc. (Shockwave Flash) each use proprietary technology that's at odds with the World Wide Web Consortium's open Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) standard. The mantra that Adobe was killing SVG, among vocal people in the industry, has now ballooned to include Microsoft, especially as former Adobe execs now head the Expression team. Microsoft's response is that XAML was created for WPF, a desktop graphics framework.

Beijing Boost
In the RIA race, time may be on Adobe's side, as the ubiquity of Flash on desktops -- and soon, mobile devices -- remains basically unchallenged. But Microsoft is lining up exclusive partnerships that will get Silverlight players downloaded one way or the other. And the technology had better work, because the stakes are high.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Microsoft announced that it has an exclusive agreement with NBC Universal Inc. to partner on NBCOlympics.com to provide Web content related to the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China. The coverage will start on Aug. 8, 2008, on MSN.com using Silverlight 2.0 technology. The plan is to provide video content via Silverlight streaming with video search, pop-up overlays, meta-data, event alerts, maps and the like, offering viewers access to any and all information related to the games.

The company also has a high-profile agreement with Netflix Inc. to support streaming content. But will the Silverlight 2.0 technology be ready? Guthrie says it will ship before the end of the year.

"The one issue that we've been dealing with lately with a couple of customers is that they're trying to decide between Silverlight and WPF," says Magenic's Lhotka. "In many cases they want Silverlight; the question is, when do you use the full thing or the little brother? Until we get some practical experience, the issue is that people are going to start using Silverlight, and then they're going to hit limitations."

About the Author

Kathleen Richards is the editor of RedDevNews.com and executive editor of Visual Studio Magazine.

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