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Flash And Silverlight
New Staples Of Rich Visual BI Applications

by William Laurent, William Laurent, Inc.Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fighting words are exchanged daily; battle lines drawn and redrawn; relationships between programmers, architects and graphic designers torn asunder.  But does there really have to emerge a hands-down winner in the Adobe Flash vs. Microsoft Silverlight war?  After all, developers and vendors of richly visual business intelligence e-solutions now have two fantastic frameworks for incorporating interactive multimedia, graphics and animations into their applications. 

  • Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash) needs no introduction.  It is the seasoned veteran—the most popular multimedia platform for adding animation and interactivity to web pages.  Adobe’s Flash player continues to hold an impressive amount of market share; try to surf the web without having it installed on your PC and you miss out on a lot of awfully cool stuff.
  •  Microsoft Silverlight is, relatively speaking, the newcomer, offering an application framework functionally similar to Adobe’s, it is a worthy challenger.

For users of BI applications, both Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight are cross-platform, cross-browser (free to download) plug-ins that render multimedia inside a web browser via a single runtime environment.  They are both used to create complex webpage advertisements, enable the streaming movies and video content, and serve as components of richly visual BI applications.  Both support the most important computing platforms—Windows, MAC, Linux—and can be deployed as standalone applications outside of a web browser.  For programmers and developers, Silverlight and Flash offer an extensive set of tools that facilitate the design and development of rich media applications in a manageable package.

BI software vendors are now taking great care to include APIs in their development platforms and SDKs that seamlessly interface with both Flash and Silverlight.  This ushers in a Golden Age of richly visual and highly interactive business intelligence which will be open, dynamic, scalable and customizable.  We are able to witness this on a daily basis now when casually surfing the internet.  

For example, Microsoft’s ambitious Bing search engine, simply named MS Visual Search, is based on Silverlight technology; it presents internet users with a highly customizable browsing experience of images and videos, based on a user’s search engine results.  In MS Visual Search, pictures are rendered to so that they can float in the air, stack on top of each other, occupy a grid interface, revolve around in a three-dimensional circle and much more.  Based on the metadata and tags associated with each picture returned in an image search, further interactive sorting, reordering and restructuring of displayed visual objects are possible.  With MS Visual Search, Microsoft has raised the bar in the battle for search engine supremacy as well, despite lagging far behind Yahoo and Google in number of users.  While it seems difficult to imagine that Bing could someday overtake Google in market share, it has made some strides in capturing the loyalty once reserved for its biggest competitor.  I would venture a guess that the coolness factor of MS Visual Search may be one reason.

For now, Adobe Flash continues to be the leading choice for BI application developers for such things as vector and raster graphics, as well as bi-directional video streaming.  It is worth pointing out that Flash’s Action Script, with a thorough lexicon of variable types, expressions, operators and flow control logic, is similar to JavaScript in form and function.  However, while Flash seems to enjoy a slight advantage on low-level functionality provided to developers - as well as more comprehensive support for images beyond common PNG, GIF and JPEG formats - Silverlight is better positioned to reap the advantages of cloud computing thanks to Microsoft’s Azure platform.  Azure offers a scalable cloud model to host Silverlight media streams, dynamically adjusting content delivery based on real-time demand levels and the distribution requirements of the richly visual internet application at hand.

On the surface, Silverlight’s deployment paradigm resembles that of Flash because Silverlight deploys to a single XAP file (which on the surface appears to be more or less similar to Flash’s SWF file type).  In reality though, the deployment of Silverlight files is more complex than that of Flash files - all individual components need to be deployed separately as XML and DLL files, or JavaScript files, etc. depending on the situation.  These differences in deployment greatly affect how each supports search engine indexing, and thus, search engine optimization (SEO).  For Silverlight, its more modularized deployment automatically lends itself to facile search engine indexing.  In contrast, a Flash deployment package will be comprised of a single Shockwave (SWF) file, with all images, text and animations encapsulated in this file.

Historically, Flash’s small deployment footprint had limitations.  Because of its compressed makeup, the images and text inside an SWF file could not be easily indexed by search engines and therefore did not show up routinely in internet searches.  But this has changed for the better.  Case in point, Adobe’s engineers have worked closely with Google to ensure that Googlebot is able to read and index all information embedded in SWF files.  In short, skilled experts in SEO will be able to leverage the respective strengths of both Silverlight and Flash so that their important metadata will show up in web searches, no matter which development platform is chosen.

From a user point of view, I would like to see both Flash and Silverlight make noticeable improvements in the overall quality and speed of their streaming video.  Although dynamic streaming (adjusting video quality and movie bit size based on a user’s connection speed) has improved by orders of magnitude, innovation has been continuing by necessity.  In the last year, we have seen a good deal of refinement in the way a video’s pixel count can be more intelligently dynamically altered (based on user bandwidth); what is more, it is now possible for these streaming applications to examine the CPU speed of a user’s computer and fine tune video performance and buffering algorithms based on this information.  In a recent positive development, both Flash and Silverlight have deeply impressed me in their ability to zoom into images.  This has had special importance to BI applications that make use of maps or GPS functionality, adding a great deal of value to mashups which leverage geographical information or satellite photos.

Flash and Silverlight both do many of the same things well, but they each do some things better than the other.  Not wanting to get into the usual Adobe vs. Microsoft mudslinging fest, I have largely sang the praises of their similarities and not pointed out their many differences.  If you are building a visually rich BI dashboard or interactive web-based application, choosing which product to use will depend solely on your unique set of requirements, developer expertise, and other variables such as your organization’s software licensing strategy.  Despite the bickering, both Flash and Silverlight will be the leading multimedia platforms for BI applications for quite a long time.

About the Author

William Laurent is one of the world's leading experts in information strategy and governance. For 20 years, he has advised numerous businesses and governments on technology strategy, performance management, and best practices�across all market sectors. William currently runs an independent consulting company that bears his name. In addition, he frequently teaches classes, publishes books and magazine articles, and lectures on various technology and business topics worldwide. As Senior Contributing Author for Dashboard Insight, he would enjoy your comments at wlaurent@williamlaurent.com

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