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Silverlight 3 and Developer Productivity

With us today is Matthew Rechs, Executive Vice President at Schematic, the firm that designed and built the video player for NBC's Olympics.com using Silverlight 2 that made it possible for more than 42 million fans to watch 8 million hours of coverage, making it the largest Web event ever.

Q: Matthew, can you give us an overview of what Silverlight 3 is all about?

A: There are enough major new features in Silverlight 3 that it's difficult to pick which are the most important. Let me discuss the few that I think are most relevant to the kinds of projects we work on for our clients.

First, there are a number of major enhancements related to video which is a very important area for us. The "Smooth Streaming" capability that Microsoft started developing in SL2 has been significantly enhanced for both live and on-demand streams and now supports full HD resolution. Smooth Streaming technology automatically measures the performance of video playback in real time and makes on-the-fly adjustments at the transport layer to ensure a snappy user experience.

The Silverlight player we built for NBC's coverage of the Beijing Olympics showed us how big of an impact this technology has on player usability. The new generation of players built with this technology will feel to users more and more like watching a DVD or cable TV.

Another important advance is in support for 3D effects with hardware acceleration. 3D is useful and important for a number of reasons. At Schematic we will make extensive use of this technology to enable more elegant, powerful and engaging content discovery and navigation.

We've long used 3D techniques on game consoles and in consumer electronics devices to do things like zooming and skewing of thumbnails or menu elements, or the creation of 3D spaces that contain content or application functionality. We have been able to approximate these effects in the browser (see www.schematic.com for an example) but only with a lot of very tedious programming and worrying about the run-time performance.

Silverlight 3 has much more robust capabilities for 3D and supports hardware acceleration to ensure that 3D effects render and perform much better than before. The toolset also makes these interfaces easier to design and develop in a fashion that's more familiar to our people. So look for much more cinematic, motion-oriented interfaces from us and from others in the coming year.

Q: Okay, so what's the biggest difference between Silverlight 2 and Silveright 3?

A: The biggest difference with Silverlight 3 is probably the maturity of the platform. When we were working on last years' Silverlight projects, we were doing a lot of things with it that had never been done before -- exciting but also painful at times. We've worked through a lot of those issues in partnership with Microsoft, sometimes working with nightly builds of the Silverlight run-time as our clients are preparing to release their Silverlight-powered products.

So SL3 has the benefit of being battle-tested, and also includes a big palate of pre-built customizable controls that will make development go much faster. A lot of the interface controls that we had to do from scratch last time around will now be there out-of-the-box.

Q: How do these changes affect developers?

A: Developer productivity is going to be tremendously higher with SL3, because of the maturity of the platform and the inclusion of a much larger set of pre-built controls and components. Also, crucially, the line of Expression tools that are part of the .Net framework have matured and are being updated for compatibility with Silverlight 3. These tools are going to be new to most developers, and of course there's going to be a learning curve to bring new team members up to speed with the development environment. But this is a much more robust, stable and efficient way to work than it was even 9 months ago.

Q: Having these capabilities would have meant what to you when you were developing, say, olympics.com for NBC?

A: Obviously the most significant advances for video applications are in Smooth Streaming, support for HD and for H.264 and other codecs. I think now that we have the perspective 3D capabilities, we will almost always make some use of 3D effects that we might have avoided before.

But overall, the biggest impact will be on developer productivity. We will be able to get more code written and tested, it will run faster, and it will ultimately cost a lot less.

Also, just to be clear, only the video player application that we built for NBC and Microsoft -- not the entire Olympics Web site -- was created using Silverlight.

Q: Thanks for that clarification. Is there a web site where readers can find out more about Silverlight 3 in general and Schematic in particular?

A: Of course, theres Silverlight.net and Schematic.com. Microsoft produced a video case study on the Olympics player:

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