Microsoft's Silverlight Literally is a Game Changer

By Julie Craig

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Journalists are not particularly noteworthy for being early risers, and there isn't much that can induce me to roll out of bed before sunup. However, the prospect of interviewing Joel Cherkis, Microsoft's technology point man at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, had me upright and drinking my first cup of coffee in the dawn's early light.


While congratulating myself on my achievement, after talking to Cherkis I felt like a slacker. Microsoft production teams packed up gear in Beijing, transported much of it to Denver, then unpacked just in time for day one of the Democratic National Convention on August 25.


His official title is, "General Manager, Industry & Incubation Unit, U.S. Public Sector". His role is coordination of Microsoft's technology response at the Democratic Convention. Microsoft is one of twenty three "official providers" chosen by the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) to coordinate the convention effort.


Partnerships are essential to an undertaking of this magnitude, and coordination among these providers makes the extensive coverage of the Democratic National Convention a reality. The DNCC's goal in selecting technology partnerships, according to Aaron Myers, Director of Online Communications, was to take "advantage of the most cutting-edge tools available to ‘bring down the walls’ and open up the Convention to more people than ever before". So far, this vision appears to have gone off without a hitch.


Official providers are listed on the Democratic National Convention provider page (http://www.demconvention.com/official-providers) and include:


Providers share a common Network Operations Center (NOC) at the Pepsi Center. Cherkis tells us that many high profile convention participants, including the Clintons, have come by the NOC to take a tour and meet the team. The day I interviewed him-- Wednesday, August 27-- was particularly busy because the team was preparing to pack up again. They were moving equipment to Invesco Field for Barack Obama's acceptance speech on Thursday.


I became intrigued with Microsoft's Silverlight technology during the Beijing Olympics. Microsoft provided a demo to analysts on August 6 before the Olympics had officially begun and noted that they had already streamed more Olympics-related content to the Internet than had been provided during the entire 2004 games. Silverlight is the technology behind the crisp, clear video streams delivered over the Internet.


When Microsoft mentioned that the DNCC had chosen them to be the Official Software and High Definition Web Content provider for the Denver Convention, I was in the front row asking for an interview. For me, it was a matter of rolling out of bed and catching the light rail into downtown Denver. For the Microsoft team it was a matter of relocating infrastructure from Beijing and setting up in Denver in time for the start of the Convention. And when they finish up in Denver, they are de-camping to Minneapolis for the Republican National Convention, from September 1 to 4.


As a member of the technology press, there were a number of questions I was hoping Cherkis could answer for me. Did the same technology team work both the Olympics and the Democratic Convention? What are the differences between standard TV broadcasting, and broadcasting over the Internet? Was the same equipment used at both the Olympics and the convention? And finally, who or what is Silverlight?


In answer to the first question, the answer is no. Joel's role as GM for the U.S. Public Sector means that he handles mostly U.S. government-related projects. Different teams worked the two events, although much of the infrastructure used in Beijing was also used in Denver. In addition to Joel's 15 member video production team, another eighteen Microsoft technology experts supported email, delegate voting, and credentials management for the Denver Convention.


Regarding Internet and standard High Definition TV (HDTV), both are shot using HD cameras. After video is captured, it goes through multiple steps before being made available on the Internet. First, the video feed is streamed to the production team for near real time editing. Once edited, it is sent to a production truck and encoded into multiple formats. Each format supports specific types of transmission networks, user devices, and download speeds. Once encoding is complete, the file is passed to content delivery network providers for high speed transmission to distribution centers. The providers then make it available to Internet consumers.


Which brings us to Silverlight (http://www.microsoft.com/silverlight/). Microsoft describes Silverlight as "a cross-browser, cross-platform, and cross-device plug-in for delivering the next generation of media experiences and rich interactive applications for the Web." For the technology minded, Silverlight is an extension of .NET, and is, in effect, a programming language that supports very rich Internet content.


For the rest of us, Silverlight is an exponential improvement over the Internet technologies that drive, for example, the clips posted to YouTube. YouTube, of course, is the video sharing site that has become a household word based on viral growth. YouTube videos have their disadvantages, the primary one being the time delays that occur as the video content streams to a user's PC. Those delays are one of the problems that Silverlight solves in a remarkably elegant manner.


Silverlight content starts to play immediately, because it is automatically optimized for the user's device. It employs "adaptive streaming" to determine both the bandwidth available to the device and the device characteristics, then automatically adapts to that device.


While the average user might be familiar with the various screen resolutions available to his/her particular PC configuration—1024 X 768 pixels, 800 X 600 pixels, etc.—PC settings are static. Once set, they typically don't change without manual intervention. In contrast, Silverlight automatically displays at different resolutions as the video content loads. Initially, although the video is visible, it is displayed at lower resolution because high resolution requires either more bandwidth or a longer loading time. As the video stream continues to load, resolution improves to the point where, once loaded, the display is of HD quality. Throughout the process of playing the video, users can watch resolution changing, however the overall effect is of a feed that starts instantly and continues to play with no perceptible delays.  


Silverlight is also starting to become ubiquitous, as millions of users have tuned in to the Olympics, the Democratic Convention, or both. On a side note bordering on the astounding, Silverlight 2 Beta 2 is just that—still in beta! Apparently, both the DNCC and the Olympics Committee had enough faith in Microsoft to build their sites around Silverlight technology. This is proof that risk does carry its own reward. Check out the competing Republican National Committee site (http://www.gopconvention.com/), which is not Silverlight-based. Such a comparison is evidence that Silverlight does, in fact, have a major impact on quality of experience.

Cherkis tells us that Microsoft developed Silverlight with three key goals in mind. The first is to adapt to a variety of platforms and environments, as described above. The second is to offer a richer, more interactive Web experience. The third is "deep zoom".


Deep zoom provides simplified access to massive amounts of information with minimal impact on the device being used. Perhaps the best way to understand deep zoom is to see it in action, on the Hard Rock Café Memorabilia site (http://memorabilia.hardrock.com/). The site first presents a collage with pictures of all of the Hard Rock memorabilia from the various Hard Rock locations worldwide. Users see the slogan, "Turn on, zoom in, zoom out." Selecting and zooming on one of the graphics, users watch resolution go from low (blurry) to high (absolutely clear) in the space of a few seconds. The really exciting feature here is that, due to the fact that Silverlight is built over HD technology, deeper zooms provide extraordinarily high resolution. When drilling into Bo Diddley's guitar, for example, it is possible to see fingerprints under the strings.


Microsoft has no plans to stop with PC-based experiences. The logical end game for Silverlight is to provide very rich content to resource-constrained devices. Like my BlackBerry. I love it, and couldn't do without it. But the only time I use the BlackBerry browser is when I'm lost (BlackBerry Maps) or if I'm sitting in an airport and am really, really bored. I'd love to watch the Democratic National Convention online and have a quality experience on my BlackBerry. And hopefully, by 2012, I'll be able to do just that.


Julie Craig is a senior analyst with Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates (www.emausa.com), an industry research firm focused on IT management. Julie can reached at jcraig@enterprisemanagement.com