No Flash on Your iPhone? How About Silverlight, Instead?

It’s been a double-edged sword, this no-Flash-on-the-iPhone business. On the one hand, we don’t get the complete Internet. On the other hand, the web pages we do get are less likely to crash or drag-along at a snail’s pace. And really, who wants to see yet another “Smack the monkey” banner ad?

Just as we bemoaned the lack of MMS functionality, some of us complain endlessly about the absence of Flash support on the iPhone. But following a demonstration at Microsoft’s (s msft) Professional Developers Conference, it looks like we may see that software giant’s Flash competitor, Silverlight, appearing on the iPhone in the not too distant future.

Reporting for Betanews.com, Scott Fulton writes:

It was an impressive demonstration, once they got it working: H.264 video streaming wirelessly (and slowly, at least during the caching sequence) using Microsoft’s Silverlight video streaming, to an Apple iPhone… You’d think Apple would have stood firm against Microsoft at least as aggressively as it has against Adobe, if not more so. How did this happen? We asked Microsoft User Experience Platform Manager Brian Goldfarb last week at PDC 2009, and the answer was a huge surprise…followed by some caveats. But it contained these four amazing words: “We worked with Apple.”

OK, quick recap for those of you who don’t know what Silverlight is all about. Silverlight was launched by Microsoft in 2007, and provides a toolset developers can leverage to build rich multimedia and interactivity into websites. In this sense, it’s like Adobe’s venerable Flash. But unlike Flash, Silverlight content is based on a flavor of XML which means…well, it all gets very nerdy from here on in, so I’ll stop there. The take-home message is that, for the most part, Silverlight is a more modern, powerful and less crash-tastic alternative to Flash. It’s also more standards-compliant than Flash, depending on who you get to build your Silverlight web apps, and that matters a lot in an age when more and more of what we do happens in the browser. (Before I get flamed in the comments, please note — I didn’t say Silverlight is standards compliant — it’s just less horrible than Flash. And yes, I do realize that’s hardly a ringing endorsement.)

It’s precisely the browser technology in the iPhone that helped make Silverlight video streaming a possibility. Brian Goldfarb told Betanews:

“The promise of Silverlight is that it’s a cross-device, cross-browser, cross-platform solution, and it works the same on Macs as it does on Windows. The iPhone is a unique scenario. We talked to our customers…and they said, ‘Look, we just need to get our content there, and it’s mainly in the media space like broadcasting, and we want to put it on the iPhone.’ They have a great solution for that; if you’re surfing the Web, and hit YouTube and hit ‘Play,’ it’ll play your video because [Apple] created an environment where they can safely play media, and they’re comfortable with that.

Goldfarb is talking about the native YouTube app found on every iPhone. The YouTube app sorta helps, but usually only for YouTube-hosted video. Want to play videos hosted elsewhere? Good luck. Some H.264 QuickTime-encoded videos will play, but as you likely already know, it’s all a bit hit-and-miss.

“So we’ve worked with Apple to create a server-side based solution […] and what we’re doing is taking content that’s encoded for smooth streaming and enabling the content owner to say, ‘I want to enable the iPhone.’ The server will dynamically make the content work – same content, same point of origin – on the iPhone. We do this with the HTML 5 tag, in many ways.”

And there’s the magic bullet right there. Silverlight works because (in conjunction with Microsoft’s Internet Information Services technology found on Windows Servers) it exploits HTML 5’s native video support — and Mobile Safari is a decent HTML 5-compatible browser. All the video encoding trickery is taking place on the remote server; it identifies when an iPhone is requesting a video stream and bundles it into a format the device can handle.

Silverlight-powered streaming video on an iPhone – image from Betanews.com

Although Goldfarb says Microsoft “worked with Apple,” he elaborated on the degree of that collaboration. Turns out, it wasn’t a lot; “We did all the work. We just made sure Apple was comfortable with it.”

Could this represent a potential lesson to learn for Adobe? Despite the enormous market penetration of the Flash player technology (Adobe claims 99.7 percent of browsers are capable of displaying Flash content) it’s widely criticised for being an antiquated, less-than-optimal platform for delivering multimedia. (Except, it seems, in L.A. Have you noticed how many Hollywood Studios doggedly insist on building their movie websites entirely in Flash?)

Who would have thought that the best solution, and lead runner in the race to provide non-YouTube video streaming for the iPhone, would be Microsoft? There’s something about that which is almost… poetic.