Microsoft Unveils Silverlight 5 Beta Features

Microsoft announced Silverlight 5, the next version of its rich Internet platform, and previewed key features of the upcoming beta technology at its Silverlight Firestarter educational event for developers. The one-day event, which was held in Redmond, was free to developers worldwide via live streaming and on-demand video.

Silverlight 5 will focus on premium media experiences and improvements targeted at business apps running in and out of the browser, according to Microsoft. Many of the advances are designed to improve developer productivity in response to feedback, which Microsoft tallied as roughly 21,000 votes for various enhancements and features. The first public beta is slated for the first half of 2011. The Silverlight 5 release is planned in the second half of the year, according to Microsoft.

The news comes in the wake of concerns about Microsoft's shifting vision for Silverlight technology after ambiguous messaging as the company heavily promoted its planned HTML5 support in Internet Explorer 9, Bing Search and Xbox 360.

"At Microsoft, our goal is to kind of provide a technology portfolio that enables developers to build the best possible user experiences," said Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Developer Division, during today's keynote. "We are going to be investing heavily in HTML5 and we want to make sure that we have the best browser out there that supports it. We are also going to invest very heavily in Silverlight and we are going to make sure that you can build the richest possible media and applications with it and we are investing in WPF [Windows Presentation Foundation] to enable you to build great desktop applications with it.

"These are all great technologies," continued Guthrie, "each one has its own strengths and weaknesses but we think ultimately the flexibility of having each of these choices is a real strength of our developer platform and our overall tool offering and ultimately it is going to enable you to build the richest possible experiences for your customers."

Silverlight 4 was released in April 2009. The final version of the Silverlight for Windows Phone platform, a subset of Silverlight 3 and 4, was available in September. More than 3,000 apps have been uploaded to the Windows Phone Marketplace since the launch of Windows Phone 7 in October.

Greater Media Experiences
New media features in Silverlight 5, the desktop and browser runtime, include hardware video decoding support, which allows you to decode video on the GPU of a system, freeing up the CPU. This enables smooth streaming (1080P HD video live and on-demand) on lower end devices such as netbooks, according to Microsoft.

Another new media capability called TrickPlay enables variable speed playback of video and audio, including fast-forward and rewind. "This allows you to play the video at different speeds but have the audio sound normal," explained Brian Goldfarb, director of Developer Platforms at Microsoft, during an earlier interview. "We automatically adjust the pitch of the audio….this is a pretty unique capability in the industry."

Improved media consumption is another area of focus in Silverlight 5, according to Goldfarb. The technology will support remote control and screensaver integration, for example, which will enable you to prevent screensavers from interfering with video and allow screensavers during video when the computer is not in use.

Microsoft released IIS Media Services 4.0 in November, which supports smooth streaming of encoded H.264 video across a wider spectrum of devices including Silverlight players and Windows Phone 7 devices, and with transmuxing, devices such as the iPhone—the iPad was shown during the keynote demonstration. IIS Media Services support is planned for Windows Azure, according to Guthrie.

Business App Development
For application developers, the Silverlight 5 public beta will offer more than 40 new features, according to Microsoft. John Papa, Microsoft senior technical evangelist, highlighted some of the new databinding and debugging features during the keynote, which bring more parity with WPF. Papa demonstrated ways to specify animations during layout transitions, the Ancestor RelativeSource binding support, MVVM markup extensions, binding in style setters, and the ability to step through XAML code and debug it using breakpoints.

In Silverlight 5, apps will get better looking with layout and text enhancements such as multi-columns and linked text containers, character tracking, leading and pixel snapping, among other improvements for greater clarity. Developers will also have more control over how to present and print information, with enhancements such as a new Vector PostScript printing API. The Silverlight PivotViewer Control for visualizing dynamic data, developed by the now defunct LiveLabs and released in July, will be built into the Silverlight 5 SDK.

Silverlight 5 developers will also be able to take advantage of accelerated hardware (GPU) for advanced data visualizations and 3D rendering, using an immediate mode graphics API or 3D API. Luigi Rossi, the CTO of RIA design firm Archetype, demonstrated a Silverlight 5 application prototype running inside of the browser showing the 3D capabilities using a spinning wireframe globe with multiple layers. He also showed a healthcare application, essentially a portal with patient information and a 3D model of the patient, in this case, Scott Guthrie in his trademark red shirt.

Silverlight 5 will offer improvements in WCF RIA Services and networking, according to Microsoft. WS-Trust security, introduced in Silverlight 4, will be extended to WCF RIA Services. A WCF RIA Services Toolkit December 2010 for use with the WCF RIA Services SP1 Beta was released today.

With the next Silverlight release, users will also be able to perform desktop-like tasks within the browser such as launching Microsoft Office and other desktop programs in Silverlight applications that use a group policy registry key and certificate. Out-of-browser trusted applications will be able to utilize multiple windows and screens, and take advantage of PInvoke, a technique for interacting with native code.

Planned performance enhancements include faster startups through improved XAML parsing and support for 64-bit operating systems, said Guthrie.

The Visual Studio 2010 and Expression Blend 4 tooling enhancements targeting Silverlight developers are primarily related to test and performance. Microsoft's Papa demonstrated the coded UI functionality released in November in Visual Studio 2010 Feature Pack 2, which is available to MSDN subscribers only. Microsoft is also working to provide profiler tools, which were demonstrated for Silverlight for Windows Phone apps at PDC10, to monitor CPU and memory usage in Silverlight 5 apps.

In and Out of the Browser
Several Silverlight apps--many based on the current technology--were demonstrated during the keynote. The Microsoft Silverlight Facebook Client announced at PDC09 and released in beta earlier this year, was among them. The development has been taken over by Telerik. Now called f!acedeck, the free tool for consuming Facebook, which supports things like instant chat, notifications, Webcams and Outlook integration, was released today.

Telerik used the drop target support in Silverlight 4 to enable users to drag and drop files from the local file system into the Silverlight client to upload photos to Facebook albums and the wall. User interface virtualization, which is supported in Silverlight 3 and enhanced in Silverlight 4, enables instant loading and smooth transitions in Facebook, according to Evan Hutnick, a Telerik developer evangelist, who specializes in Silverlight, WPF and Windows Phone.

"I think that one of the reasons so much of the focus is on Silverlight is because it is a growing and developing platform," Hutnick said during an interview. "We are seeing with every release, Silverlight is coming a little bit closer to what WPF can do, but at the same time remaining a very small download, a very small runtime when it comes down to it."

In addition to the consumer-facing Facebook client, several business apps were shown. The Business by Design browser-based UI from SAP, released last summer, enables users to browse through reports--similar to viewing your CD collection--access a sales report and drill down into data or change the data visualization on the fly from a tabular format to a chart.

A SaaS workforce management app running in the browser was demonstrated by Dave Ossip, CEO of Dayforce. The app is targeted at retailers and other industries to manage workforce scheduling, sales, budgets and employee pay. A full compliance and pay engine are run inside of the browser making use of the client CPU. Another benefit of Silverlight is no latency during scheduling and other tasks, according to Ossip.

"From a developer perspective we are able to produce code at 25 percent of the cost [compared to] when we were a Java shop," Ossip said, "so [there are] massive efficiency benefits in using the actual [Silverlight] platform and the actual tools."

Cost-effective development is a key focus of Silverlight, according to Microsoft's Goldfarb. "One of the things that is happening in the industry right now is the ever growing demand of customer expectations and the quality of the applications they want to see from the businesses they interact with," he said, "and as a result of that developers need to find technology and tools that make it possible to respond to those needs in a cost-effective way and really all the work we have done with Silverlight to-date has been in response to that need."

The final demonstration involved Project "Crescent", the codename for a business intelligence tool built on Silverlight that is planned as part of the next SQL Server "Denali" release. According to Microsoft, "Crescent" extends the self-service BI capabilities of Excel by allowing users to model data in new ways. For example, you could create storyboards based on time stamps for data shown in reports, and then load the active screens into a PowerPoint presentation. The Community Technology Preview is expected in the first half of 2011.

Microsoft is investing in Silverlight in several technologies, noted Goldfarb. In addition to SQL Server Reporting Services, the RIA technology is key to Lync Unified Communications solutions and SharePoint 2010.

"We have created an environment from the browser to the desktop to the mobile device with Windows Phone in a seamless way with a consistent set of tailored applications that optimize the experiences for the end user," said Goldfarb.