When Microsoft shows off the next version of its Silverlight technology at the MIX09 Web Design and Development Conference in Las Vegas next month, many commenters will use the F-word.

According to Microsoft, Silverlight is on one in four consumers' PCs - but Flash is on 98% of net-connected computers, and the latest version is breaking all records.

According to Adobe, Flash 9 reached 35% market share in the first two months of release; Flash 10 hit 55% in the same period, and it's on track to hit 80% early this year. More significantly AIR, Adobe's Flash-based application platform, hit 100 million installs in January.

Of course, you need to take manufacturers' figures with a pinch of salt - so while Microsoft claims 100 million Silverlight 2 downloads it doesn't say whether those figures are unique users, or whether Microsoft is counting pre-release downloads, beta downloads and final code downloads.

We suspect it's the latter. However, if you look at RIAStats' real-world figures for different platform's adoption it's clear that Flash really is miles ahead of Silverlight.

To address that, Microsoft is adding stacks of new things to Silverlight, sticking Silverlight into everything - it's in the betas of Windows Live Mesh and Windows Live Essentials - and releasing new versions very quickly. Version 3 of Silverlight will include vastly improved media support including H.264 video, graphics acceleration and tight integration with Microsoft's developer products.

Is that enough? Rob Sanfilippo is research VP with Directions on Microsoft, the analyst firm that eats, sleeps and breathes Microsoft. "Silverlight delivers some great technology and quick release cycles are definitely building its capabilities fast," he says. "Flash has a big market advantage for Silverlight to overcome - I believe the numbers show that installed Flash clients outnumber Silverlight clients by more than three to one - but the real measure is in developer adoption. Silverlight 2 added .NET language support, which brought about 4 million developers into the mix, and H.264 support will help the platform gain momentum too. There are many large video libraries in that format, and reformatting isn't an option for most customers."

Part of a bigger picture

Silverlight is also part of a bigger picture that includes the Live Mesh and Azure platforms for cloud computing. "Before Silverlight, Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) were a gap in Microsoft's development platform," Sanfilippo says.

"They had thin clients and thick clients addressed, but not the middle space, where RIAs fit. Silverlight is their answer to that gap, and I believe they will continue to enhance it to have capabilities beyond Adobe's offerings. WPF [Windows Presentation Foundation, of which Silverlight is a subset] has great features, and it's finding its way into more products like the Visual Studio 2010 IDE. And Silverlight/XAML apps are convenient to move from browser-hosted to the desktop. So I think technically, Silverlight won't be seen to have any shortcomings."

One obstacle that might slow Silverlight adoption is economic. When firms are sacking staff left, right and centre, boosting IT budgets isn't going to be a top priority. Microsoft will be hoping for more stories like this Netflix one: when Netflix moved from Windows Media Player to Silverlight, it no longer needed 50 support staff. Such stories are, of course, terrible news for the people concerned, but they're great news for Microsoft.

"Microsoft's 'better together' strategy may be the key, as it has often been in the past," says Sanfilippo. "Works better on Windows, works better with IE, works better with Visual Studio, works better with Live Mesh, works better with Azure, maybe - these are all good points for dev teams to consider when picking a platform, so the price tag may be worth it."

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