RIA is a belief, Silverlight is the execution.
I interact a lot around discussions in the Rich Interactive/Internet Application (RIA) space. I read as much as I can on it and keep tabs on what I find interesting around theories associated to RIA. I also engage folks whom never have even heard the acronym RIA and it's interesting conversation to have as how do you explain it without going deep into a detailed technology discussion.
What does RIA represent really.
It's effectively an idea, on how to get maximum user experience through a browser payload initially. In that we all can agree that we'd love to balance our general ledgers via the browser as it's an easy footprint to leverage whilst at the same time we can get a sense of depth via such a small footprint.
How does Silverlight Play a role then?
Silverlight has and will always be the missing piece in the overall Microsoft Platform stack. It's been missing for years and whilst we have made substantial bold movement in the Windows Form Project space and at the same time really pumped a lot of goodness into the Web Form Project space, we still have this missing piece in the middle. It's usually filled by Flash but in reality what does that do to the overall development practices buried deep within our customer base?
It means you may have to learn an alterative technology that has similar syntax to C# / XAML but is obviously different. It also means that you're not really getting an end to end tool driven solution (Visual Studio is a fantastic productive tool, so one has to agree that if we can keep in the one space and tweak/pull code to suite life is good right?).
Enter Silverlight's existence, in that our bet at Microsoft is to enable folks to move upwards and downwards in the three tiers of platform experience (ASP/AJAX | Silverlight | WPF). Each has their own righteous approach to execution but the underlying win for the average .NET punter is that you get to re-use your skill set and understanding of Microsoft's approach throughout. In that if you were a to study C# and XAML tomorrow, this effectively becomes your passport up and down the stack right?
Furthermore, it's a natural progression in enabling customers around the world to enhance their existence online both through browsers but also soon via other client surfaces using an enriching experience. That's the overall bet anyway. Is it going to happen tomorrow? nope, it's a marathon not a sprint and simply put focus on up skilling now as that will be your safest bet.
Well, what is Microsoft's vision overall around RIA then (Silverlight + VS2008 + Expression?)
Once you've grasped the context of what RIA represents you're probably going to either want to build or give it a miss. If you chose the earlier, you're now looking down the barrel of a whole new world in which to approach. You're going to have to weigh up both your developer & designer capabilities, along side associated logistics (servers, bandwidth etc) associated to the cost in implementation.
It's a lot of variables trust me (a lot of years playing in this space telling you hehe)
The key ingredient that we believe is worth the investment in Silverlight is that you're basically buying one socket but opening up into other realms of possibility. In that down the road the overall eco-system that surrounds Silverlight is growing to a rate that I've never personally seen.
For example, Visual Studio 2008 has a lot of new features and productivity gains associated to it and Silverlight is buried deep within. You also then have Expression Studio to match, so in a nutshell you have both ends of a gradient (developer vs designer) meeting in the middle via these two suite of tools. On top of this, you then have an entire platform stack to pick from, and given some of the improvements associated with Windows 2008, this is heating up to solid solution (eg: IIS 7.0 is quite an exciting piece). It gets better though, as we are making some strategic movements associated with Live.com cloud, and one thing I've came to a crashing conclusion is that folks internally are really looking to push the Microsoft service cloud further and deeper then it is today.
Overall you have an entire ecosystem, many brands and i mean many! waiting for you to pickup and engage. Silverlight is effectively one of many points of entry and it's journey is to be the middle guy, the one that is bound by obvious security restraints but at the same time hints at strong end-user experience over the wire (Internet). Looking to do more in client surface reach as well!
Are Microsoft competing with Flash?
Honestly, no. I think there is a lot of overlap and intersection points between Silverlight and Flash but if you step back and look at the entire product spectrum you'll see to isolate the argument down to feature vs feature in Flash battle, really undervalues you the proposition put forward around Microsoft's bet in Rich Interactive Applications. Silverlight has a roadmap that differs in my opinion from Flash, and realistically it both can be fused together or if you prefer to pick one then so be it.. choice is a brilliant thing to have.
Microsoft is simply looking to complete the circle of User Experience. Any questions?