Silverlight, Microsoft, and the Olympics

Making the web more interesting and accessible and engaging is by no means a zero-sum game where you have to take a bite out of someone else’s business to make an impression. Some competition never hurts, as long as it is done in such a way that it provides more options to developers and end users, and not more barriers and walled gardens.

Specifically, the Silverlight versus Flash debate that now manifests mainly in web video streaming. Simply put: as a company with massive R&D you should not have to ‘win back market share’ in the most dynamic and creative and vibrant market space ever to exist.

For example, Silverlight could beat Flash at hardware 3D, or better random-access streaming (without a dedicated media server), or a better install and update experience, or improved audio interface and control, or better core libraries (imagine Natal image processing built into webcam functions), or more seamless desktop integration (drag and drop to make a desktop app?). Rather than simply have a slightly different video codec or IDE, both of which have little impact on user experience

There are a lot of shortcomings and strengths that can be played off, without having the ‘advantage’ of being the same as your competitor , except for the right-click menu items. Microsoft has shown willingness to innovate with Natal and Surface and Photosynth. An example of skirting close to me-too, however, is somewhat apparent in the video service for Vancouver 2010…

CTV is the ‘official network of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics’ &tc,¬† and behind this tagline they are packing the full live streaming capabilities they have become well versed in through their specialty channels streaming systems.

They have tested Silverlight versus Flash before and gone back to flash as a primary video delivery vehicle, however Microsoft chooses their battles carefully, and have arranged for Silverlight to be the main video player within the CTV Olympic presence online (and Bing as the internal site search, branded as msn)

Interestingly the pages combine Flash for infographics and dynamic content, Silverlight for main video streaming and AJAX for navigation systems.

User expect the site they access tomorrow to be more immersive and interesting than it is today

Microsoft hosted an event to draw special attention to Silverlight’s role (which was likely subsidized in terms of technology support) at this event at CES. Notably, the Silverlight home page makes no mention of them being the official video player for the Olympics via the CTV network, however the Microsoft Canada website has it front and center.

However, they did not do a full Flash Replacement solution for the sites, rather choosing only the Video Player plugin itself as their storefront. This requires that user have Silverlight 3, Flash 9 at a minimum, and Silverlight is not necessarily compatible with Chrome browser, according to the pop-ups on the site.

Some Ideas: “If I had access to MS R&D and Marketing…”

  • An incredible Photosynth gallery of the opening ceremonies in cooperation with all the professional photographers present.
  • Add to the user experienceby using dynamic streaming system to power ‘360degree’ cameras at the events, allowing users to pan and zoom a synthetic camera of their own, combining this with the hardware 3D acceleration of the Photosynth plug-in.
  • The relatively controlled hardware and recording environment of an Olympics would have allowed them to put Surface in the announcer studios to do unique recaps with 3D maps of venues much like Avatar interfaces (Winter sports are inherently more 3D than summer sports)
  • Allow fans at the venues to interact via Natal technology with the sports experience in a more active way. Rather than waiving a few signs, they could be tracked via their Official Red Olympic Mitts and mass crowd actions could be mapped to the big display screens as collaborative mini games.
  • Olympic branded XBox games with real-time telemetry of athletes to compete against as the event is being watched and immediately after. Head to head with an Olympian in Skeleton Racing seconds after or even during the real run would be groundbreaking.

All this is possible and all this could have made Silverlight and Microsoft something totally unique and desirable. Microsoft has all the tools to do this and walk away from the competition. They have the resources to take these risks, the close relationship with networks and hardware vendors, and access to living rooms all over North America via XBox Live. They are known for not attempting to enter a market until it has reached a certain critical size, but they are not engaging in good citizenship by simply entering without something really unique to contribute from the user perspective.

All this is possible and all this could have made Silverlight and Microsoft something totally unique and desirable

From a market share-grabbing tactical perspective, locking in the video player makes a lot of sense, however the web is not composed of people that appreciate great tactical victories – it is composed of people that want a better experience, and expect the site they access tomorrow to be more immersive and interesting than it is today. I am aware that Silverlight has a different feature set with unique integrated capabilities, but those advantages must be bundled with a killer interface app where the user can say to themselves, ‘This Silverlight is pretty neat – I didn’t know you could do that online’. It may be the conservative nature of the broadcast client, however I personally doubt that considering that broadcasters are in such tight competition that any advantage in sports content delivery could make the difference.

I suppose you could wrap this up by drawing a comparison to the Olympics themselves: everyone coming together to compete in a spirit of camaraderie for the ‘enbiggenment’ of all. There is no better place to test new user interaction than this, and no better time. By the time the 2012 Olympics roll around, these ideas will have been done and done, and at this rate, it could be anybody who accomplishes it.

(And if you think we have it bad in web development land now, just imagine what it was like to have incompatible and competing electricity grids.)

Some links on the latest dynamic streaming capabilities of Flash and Silverlight:

Adobe on Dynamic Streaming with FMS 3.5 with H.264

VideoVantage on Silverlight Smooth Streaming with their MPEG4 wrapper

One thought on “Silverlight, Microsoft, and the Olympics

  1. I agree with your assessment of Microsoft’s Silverlight strategy. Right now, there isn’t much that Silverlight can do that Flash can’t do nearly as well, as well or better. (Take webcams, for instance: yes, Silverlight 4 does give us access to the raw RGBA bits, but it doesn’t give us any way to encode or stream them anywhere, so video chat applications are still out of the question.) Microsoft has done a good job of (mostly) catching Silverlight up to Flash in a remarkably short time, and Flash has helped them by (almost) completely standing still — but MS is going to need to do even better to catch up to Flash in terms of “play hours” on the web.

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