Silverlight 3 is the latest release of the rich internet application runtime platform from Microsoft, which is becoming a more competent competitor to Flash, adding support for H.264 video. This recognises that H.264 is increasingly becoming the online format of choice, although Silverlight developers will still have to use the VC-1 format developed by Microsoft if they wish to use encryption. It also seems that licensing issues will prevent H.264 becoming part of the HTML5 standard.

The latest release of Microsoft Silverlight, previously in beta, provides support for H.264 video with AAC audio in MP4 format, allowing media providers to standardise on a single open standard format to reach the widest range of devices. Encryption and digital rights management is still only supported for the VC-1 codec, although apparently Microsoft is looking into support for H.264.

Silverlight supports smooth streaming, used with a Microsoft IIS Media Services server, theoretically enabling 1080p high-definition video with rich interactivity for both on-demand and live services. Essentially, this delivers video in chunks over standard HTTP protocols, dynamically switching quality based on available bandwidth and processing capacity.

An online demonstration worked well, although the material was relatively unchallenging animation and appeared rather soft.

Other new features include support for 3D and hardware graphics acceleration. The new release also allows applications to run outside a web browser, directly on the desktop, both on and offline, in a similar manner to Adobe AIR applications, although running in a more restricted sandbox.

In less than nine months since the last version of Silverlight was installed, Microsoft says that more than one in three internet devices now has the platform installed, although it still lags a long way behind the latest version of Flash.

“In a record amount of time, we’ve gone from being the industry newcomer to achieving a remarkable rate of industry adoption,” said Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of the .NET Developer Platform at Microsoft.

NBC Sports, which used Silverlight for its online video coverage of the Beijing Olympics last summer, will continue to use Silverlight for online video across its sporting franchises.

“NBC Sports has evaluated many different technologies for delivering high-quality experiences online, and none have delivered the video quality, scalability and business value that Microsoft Silverlight has consistently brought,” said Perkins Miller, senior vice president of Digital Media at NBC Sports.

“As we look forward to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver as well as other major championships in 2010, we will be using Silverlight as the preferred technology to deliver the best in next-generation online high-definition video experiences.”

Beyond that, it seems that most major online services have tended to prefer Adobe Flash. Major League Baseball notably switched allegience from Silverlight to Flash.

The main reason for using Silverlight has been as a cross-platform means of delivering securely encrypted media. The Microsoft solution also has mature software development environment that will appeal to developers, although its design tools are less comprehensive that those from Adobe. As its installed base rises and its capabilities increase, Microsoft Silverlight is becoming a more convincing competitor to Flash.

Meanwhile, hopes that the latest version of the standard markup languages for web pages, HTML5, would provide native support for video appear to have stalled. The major players have been unable to agree on a common set of codecs to support. H.264 requires payment of patent fees, while another candidate codec, Ogg Theora was deemed to be insufficiently mature. Support for specific codecs will therefore be left undefined. Browsers may opt to support standards such as H.264 directly, but it seems that there will still be a need for plugins like Flash and Silverlight.