There can be no substitute to enjoying the Olympics in Beijing later this year than being inside the arenas as a live spectator, a possibility only for the lucky or the privileged. But the next best option for the billions of others may no longer be television broadcasts but rich, interactive access on the Internet.
Log on to NBCOlympics.com this August to view the games like never before. You can watch any of the events live on the site, of course, but this is only for starters. You will be able to open up to six windows on your desktop for simultaneous viewing, somewhat like the PIP (Picture-in-Picture) option that some television sets come with. You can listen to live commentary on any of these, and receive alerts for other live events even when these are not showing on your screen. You can replay any missed action. Video-on-demand will allow you access any of the archives of more than 2,200 hours of recordings of the games captured over 17 days.
Allowing all this is Silverlight 2.0, a technology championed by Microsoft. The world is awaiting with bated breath after its trailer-like beta version was unveiled by Ray Ozzie, Chief Software Architect for Microsoft, at Mix08, the company’s annual Web designer and developer conference held in Las Vegas earlier this year.
An update on the first version launched in 2007, Silverlight is being positioned as something that may well bring down the curtains on Adobe’s Flash, the dominant platform for rich media we have been using so far to view videos, animation and more. Silverlight is a browser plugin that allows web applications to be developed with features like animation, vector graphics, and audio-video playback - features that characterize a rich Internet application. Silverlight competes with products such as Adobe Flash, Adobe Flex, Adobe Shockwave, Java FX, and Apple QuickTime.
“The year 2008 will be the one when we deliver on the promises of last year,” Ozzie said at the launch of the latest version.
He may not have a choice but to ensure that his company does so. The NBCOlympics site is one the most ambitious Internet projects to date. Not only for the sheer magnitude and the operational logistics involved, but also for the time-frame available: the broadcaster will have all of 150 days to have the site up and running successfully. If they manage to, it may be the watershed moment when the broadcasting and entertainment industry graduates to its most significant generation yet.
For businesses, this is just one of the many possibilities offered by Silverlight. Take the Hard Rock Cafe chain of restaurants and hotels, which is also one of the leading sellers of music memorabilia. They have adopted the Silverlight platform to showcase hundreds of items on their memorabilia homepage (http://memorabilia.hardrock.com) all together as a series of stamp size images arranged in a tile format. One can progressively zoom in and out and pan on any of these images to get more detailed views.
Where was the challenge?
“That’s two billion pixels on this one page, which would normally have taken more than two large sized video screens. Just one of the images of a guitar was stitched together using 57 photographs to be able to zoom in to get the finest details possible,” said Sean Dee, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Hard Rock International. This effect had to be created without loss of browsing speed while giving the desired results; only Silverlight could make it possible, say its proponents.
If a guitar used by the Beatles is not on your shopping list, maybe an Aston Martin is. And if you are undecided how you want to customize it, go to their Silverlight-enabled site, choose from over 2.5 billion colours, select the accessories you like, save it, send to friends for their opinion and even discuss with the dealer online. Once satisfied, all you need is sign the cheque and the car will be delivered as you visualized it.
All these may sound exciting, but do these come with technical challenges? Not necessarily. “Silverlight offers the highest quality with the smallest file size when compared to other competing platforms. This converts to cost savings and faster downloads as the required server space is reduced and bandwidth requirements are lowered,” says Keith Smith, Director for Product Management, Developer Tools Division, at Microsoft.
“In fact, one has greater flexibility with Silverlight and it allows for higher quality work to be done, all within a much shorter time frame,” he adds.
Weatherbug.com, a site offering weather updates every two seconds from all over the world, added special effects like snowflakes for its mobile version within three weeks.
“We could not have done this using any other software, and certainly not so fast,” says Tamir Melamed, Vice President of Engineering, WeatherBug. Microsoft also announced plans to deliver Silverlight for Windows Mobile and has tied up with Nokia for the same for its range of handsets.
Despite its strengths, will Silverlight be able to break Flash’s stronghold on the market? “Silverlight is currently seeing 1.5 million downloads a day, but Flash is doing 12 million in comparison. But our numbers also mean it is meeting consumer needs to get these many downloads,” says Smith.
There is a chicken and egg situation here too: the number of downloads will go up as more websites adopt Silveright. Microsoft knows this, and is going all out to offer any additional support and incentives to developers to work on this platform according to some developers.
India, too, is seeing a fair bit of action on this front. According to Tarun Gulati, General Manager of Microsoft India’s Developer and Platform Evangelism, “Our customers are very excited by the immense possibilities that Silverlight along with Microsoft’s new tools for designers and developers (Expressions Suite and Virtual Studio ‘08) present. While there are some very interesting projects underway, some of those that have successfully taken off include the Indian Cricket League, Naukri.com, and Sulekha.com. In the near future, we will see several of India’s top companies and websites also using Silverlight to improve customer experience and to drive marketing to scale.”
Rediff and Sify are two other companies that are early adopters of this technology.
“Our challenge has been to provide a navigable experience for over 43 million users to browse more than two million books from 4,000 authors. We believe that with Microsoft Silverlight and vector-based graphics and animation we will redefine the experience at Rediff Books, in terms of offering an expansive view of the massive collection, while being able to navigate through it with great ease,” says Manish Agarwal, Vice-President, Marketing of Rediff.com
Adds Bhaskar Saiapparaju, Chief Technology Officer at Internet portal firm Sify, “We are looking at ways to redefine user experience for our consumers by introducing rich interactive elements, vector graphics, animation and High Definition TV experiences, and with the advent of rich Internet application platforms such as Microsoft’s Silverlight we will be able to do it effectively.”
“All web applications will benefit from Silverlight 2.0. However, the highest demand areas are in media, rich interactive UIs (user interface) and forms, gaming and Intranet solutions,” says Gulati.
If you are not going to be on a flight to Beijing this August, make sure you sign up for a broadband account. The net broadcast may be worthy of a gold medal—if Silverlight delivers its promised shine.
(The author is an independent technology writer and publishes a blog, TechGazing.com)