Microsoft (s MSFT) launched a site dubbed the MSN Video Player in the U.K. Thursday that aims to be something of a U.K. version of Hulu, featuring TV shows like Peep Show, League of Gentlemen and Doctor Who. It’s pretty standard fare, as far as British online TV content is concerned. In fact, the recently-launched Seesaw platform offers an almost identical catalog. However, there’s one feature worth noting: MSN Video Player uses Microsoft Silverlight to stream video if possible, but it defaults to a Flash-based player for users without Silverlight.
That’s an important departure from Microsoft’s earlier habit of forcing users to download Silverlight to access any content at all, and it acknowledges that Silverlight is still far from being as omnipresent as Adobe’s (s ADBE) Flash.
MSN Video Player isn’t the only site that has adopted such a dual strategy for Silverlight and Flash, and Adobe has been making inroads with content providers previously signed up with Move Networks as well. YouTube (s GOOG) and some other sites have recently been experimenting with HTML5, and Apple’s decision to ship the iPad without Flash has gotten some people to wonder whether a big switch to HTML5 and H.264 is on the horizon. But for the time being, it looks like Adobe is stronger than ever.
Visit the MSN Video Player site without Silverlight installed on your machine, and you’d barely notice a difference to other Flash-based platforms. Videos start in Flash without any hiccup, or warning message for that matter, and playback in full-screen mode isn’t an issue either. Granted, the site does feature a small button labeled “MSN Video Player works best with Silverlight” somewhere in its upper left corner, but honestly, it’s barely noticeable, and there’s no explanation as to how installing it will improve the experience.
The MSN Video Player site isn’t alone with offering Flash as a substitute for Silverlight. March Madness On Demand, a CBS-affiliated (s CBS) site that is expected to serve tons of live streams as the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament goes underway starting this Sunday, also offers a Flash stream, albeit with a lower bit rate than their Silverlight player is going to offer. One reason for CBS’s reluctance to go all out with Silverlight could be that NBC (s GE) has been taking a beating for forcing users to install Silverlight ever since the 2008 Olympics.
Biut what about HTML5? Google rolled out a test of the standards-based way of playing video straight in your browser without any plug-in in January, and Wikipedia is gearing up for a major HTML5 video roll-out across its site as well. However, differences about the codec used in various implementations have delayed the adoption of HTML5, and advertisers haven’t signed on to the format yet either, making it unlikely that it will be chosen as a default solution by any of the big commercial platforms any time soon.
Flash, meanwhile, continues to make inroads. This week, ESPN announced that it is dumping Move Networks for MLB Advanced Media, a switch that includes transitioning from Move’s video plug-in to Flash. ESPN (s DIS) isn’t alone in abandoning Move for Flash — Fox.com left the erstwhile high-flying start-up in January for Flash delivered by Brightcove, and ABC.com (s DIS) is reportedly working on a similar transition.
The fact Move lost all these high-profile customers may have a lot to do with issues related to pricing and the overall direction of the company; the fact however that those customers went right back to Flash, and not to Silverlight, should give HTML5 supporters pause. It was easy for the FSF to get headlines when it recently suggested killing Flash. Following through with that goal could prove to be much harder.
Related content on GigaOM Pro: What Does the Future Hold For Browsers? (subscription required)