Silverlight versus Adobe/AIR: the battle for the RIA space

From Tim Sneath blog, in response to Adobe’s comment on Silverlight

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Any good politician, regardless of leaning, knows that the language you use to frame a topic is key to how it is perceived. By repeatedly using superlative terms to describe your own position and pejorative terms for your opponents, you start to move a debate onto your own terms. Of course, those with a little more critical insight can see beyond the rhetoric, and note that the act of saying something is just wishful thinking if it’s not actually backed up by facts.

I was therefore somewhat intrigued to read Adobe’s latest commentary on Silverlight, which implies that AIR is in huge demand and that interest in Silverlight is waning. It’s obviously in Adobe’s interests to try and create this perception – they want to protect their Flash market share by shutting out new market entrants – but just saying something doesn’t make it true.

Let’s look at the record. Adobe claim that they have 100 million downloads of AIR, and that “the vast majority are being driven by great, popular applications”, listing the likes of Adobe Media Player, Tweetdeck and Twhirl as the most popular examples. Yet they have been actively bundling AIR with Adobe [Acrobat] Reader, one of the most downloaded applications on the Internet, and you don’t even have an option to opt out of its installation. Can it really be true that “the vast majority are being driven by great, popular applications”? By framing AIR in this way, Adobe are hoping to create a self-fulfilling prophecy – but the reality is rather less positive.

Similarly, the idea that Silverlight is in anything other than rude health is more to do with what Adobe would like to be the case, rather than what actually is the case. The suggestion that “Silverlight adoption has fizzled out in the last 6-9 months” is pretty risible, in fact. For starters, Silverlight 2 shipped four months ago, and in just the first month of its availability, we saw over 100 million successful installations just on consumer machines. That doesn’t sound like “fizzling out” to me – in fact, it makes Garrett’s comments seem as if he’s living in a fantasy world.

Let’s look at the kinds of applications that use Silverlight 2 to great effect. We’ve already talked a lot about how the NBC coverage of the Olympics took full advantage of Silverlight, delivering five times as many video streams as the 2004 event in HD quality. Since then, we’ve seen many similar sites go live. Just looking at the media space alone:

  • The Democratic National Convention (covering the nomination of Barack Obama as the Democrat presidential candidate) and the official US Presidential Inauguration sites both chose Silverlight, and delivered seamless smooth streaming of the events despite huge traffic.
  • Netflix switched their Instant Watch video-on-demand service over to Silverlight 2, taking full advantage of the in-browser content protection support to offer a solution palatable to both content owners and consumers on Mac and PC.
  • Today Home Shopping Network released an upgraded Silverlight 2 version of their player that offers live and on-demand broadcast of their offerings.
  • In Europe, Silverlight is making huge strides. Sky (one of the largest satellite broadcasters in the world) launched a VoD service in December. As Planetstream notes, Silverlight “has already been adopted by some major European broadcasting & web companies, with live and on-demand content being offered by, amongst others, ITV, MSN UK, Radiotelevisione Italiana, RTL (Europe's largest TV, radio and production company), SBS, Setanta, France Television, L'Equipe TV and TF1. The implementation of Silverlight continues to grow significantly in European markets”.
  • Again today, the largest Italian television broadcaster, RAI, launched their new TV portal built entirely with Silverlight 2 and Windows Media Services, offering smooth streaming of VoD content across seven channels.
  • In Japan, the public broadcaster NHK has teamed up with other partners to launch JIB TV as an international TV portal. In Korea, SBS has built their own portal using Silverlight.
  • There’s a lot more coming (as you can imagine, we’ve got plenty of big announcements saved up for MIX09). And I know I’ve missed plenty here – this is just a quick skim of the ones that come to mind.

Of course, Silverlight is more than a media player – with a rich WPF-based application framework, enterprises and web sites are starting to use the new capabilities introduced in Silverlight 2 to build powerful RIAs. AOL Mail is just one very early example of this, but there are plenty of others in development that we’ll talk about in due course.

In short, we’re delighted with the progress of Silverlight, just four months after the release of Silverlight 2. While we’re not complacent about the work ahead, it’s almost amusing to read about stagnation when we’re seeing the Silverlight ecosystem really build momentum.

Don’t let Adobe’s attempt to frame the debate confuse you about the reality of the marketplace; instead, pick the tools that match your needs and skills. Whether you pick Flash or Silverlight, know that you’re choosing a technology that has broad market adoption and a vibrant ecosystem.