Microsoft Lights up the Web with Silverlight 3.0 BetaNo doubt you’ve heard of, and even anticipated, the release of Microsoft Silverlight 3. The third version of the runtime comes a mere eighteen months after the initial launch in 2007.

Such a quick turnover has understandably made a few folks skeptical, as has the rumor that this will be the only beta before the official Silverlight 3 ships later this year. But so far positive reviews are coming in by the truckload, securing Silverlight in the ring with Adobe Flash for what will likely be a pretty good fight.

Third Time’s a Charm

Announced at MIX09, Microsoft's annual conference for Web developers, designers, and enthusiasts, Silverlight 3 beta is smaller, faster, and chock-full of updates. There are 60+ new controls with source code and 50 new features, if you want to talk in numbers. Here are some highlights:

An Out-of-Browser, Offline Experience: Much like Adobe AIR, Silverlight 3 users can now place their favorite Silverlight applications directly onto their computer. No additional runtime or browser plug-in required. And although off the grid isn’t something many of us wish to be these days, it’s notable that the update enables Silverlight applications to work whether or not there’s an Internet connection available.

An Upgraded Visual & Audio Experience: H.264? Check. MPEG? Check. AAC? Check. This is big considering Silverlight 2 lacked such support. Additionally, Microsoft has added hardware-based 3-D graphics acceleration, animation features, and traditional video recorded functions like playback, record, rewind and slow-mo.

"When you walk out of your house in the morning and you've left your beautiful 52-inch HD television at home, and you sit down at your desk and want to grab some video from the Olympics that day, it's going to mirror that experience," said Perkins Miller, senior vice president for digital media at NBC (the station is using Silverlight to cover the Olympic Games once again).

 It’s Party Time for App. Developers: With the release comes over 60 fully skinnable and customizable controls like autocomplete, treeview and datagrid. Accompanying the controls are nine themes with source code that can be modified or utilized as-is. Deep linking enables bookmarking a page within a Rich Internet Application (RIA) and Search Engine Optimization capabilities mean users can automatically mirror database-driven RIA content into HTML for easy indexing.

It’s Fast: Silverlight 3 will reduce the size of applications by caching data on the client. Support for Binary XML will also allow improved communications with servers by using compression.

Still Room for Improvement

Despite the impressive upgrades and sheer popularity, Silverlight 3 is still lacking. Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of Microsoft's .NET developer platform, acknowledged the solution will not initially have a few sought-after features -- notably printing, microphone and webcam support, though he said in a Q&A that his team is working on those capabilities.

Nevertheless, Silverlight has made a name for itself with its technical merit, and Microsoft has definitely proved its dedication to the development of the tool. Programmers with .Net experience will certainly have a good time with it, as will designers who know XAML. Whether or not it will truly be the Flash Killer everyone expects it to be, however, remains to be seen.

Care to give us your two cents? Test drive Silverlight 3 and tell us what you think.