For Silverlight to win, YouTube must die

This title is a tale of two stories. On the one hand you have YouTube, which is the world’s favorite place to post a video on-line.   On the other hand you have Silverlight, Microsoft’s entrant to compete against Adobe Flash.   The big question is how does one affect the other.  This to me is one of those mediums where consumer behavior can dictate  technology adoption even when what they are using is inferior. In simple terms it is like beta versus VHS all over again (For those who want the more technical details I have added this link, as Stephen Shankland wrote a timely article on the issues around YouTube and Flash CNET June 30th.)

Recently I was in Denmark and I was visiting with friends in a little place called Herlev, part of greater Copenhagen.  One of my friends was someone I knew from my Microsoft days. He has since retired from Microsoft and runs his own consulting business as well has pursued his love of music.  He now plays the drums for a band in Denmark.  When he went to build his band’s website he had to select a design tool(view CeoNeo Website).  What he said was that it seemed by default the only tool to select was the Adobe tool sets.  He was not aware that Microsoft had its own set of design tools under the Expression brand name.  This despite the fact that his consulting company is a registered Microsoft partner.  This is typical of a lot of things in technology, but in particular in the developer and designer world, it’s what you know.  It also points to a Microsoft problem in promoting the Devsigner Tools.

In an internal interview for a job at Microsoft in the mobile group I remember my interviewer talking about a specific study done in business school where it pointed out tha sometimes certain companies obtain such a huge lead in a specific business that you will never catch them.  Points being Microsoft Office and Windows and Google Search.  I think that is fairly accurate.  The one exception to the rule is when the landscape shifts. The great thing about technology is the landscape is always moving.  The reason companies fail when they go head to head with an established company is they try to play by the rules that the market leader invented.  Which brings us back to the Silverlight versus Adobe Flash challenge.

I remember about 10 years ago I listened to a former ATT Bell Labs guy talk about the challenges the internet provided the traditional Telco’s.  The Telco’s created an environment where the business value they provided was in their network or in their cloud, to use a current trendy term.  With the advent of the internet more of the intelligence was being pushed to the edge of the network, to be specific the PC. YouTube is maybe one of the best, if not the best example of end users displaying their content (and content they have no rights to!) in a form beyond the reach of the traditional power players.  What these end points have done is make Flash the default means of creating and viewing online videos.   YouTube today is the third most visited site on the internet.  It would be interesting to see the average amount of time people spend on YouTube?  Is YouTube getting the advertising revenue a major television network is receiving?  Could they? Will they?

In short Adobe is the company withe the huge market share and YouTube is the primary means of accessing the online content created using eth Adobe Toolsets.  Microsoft’s response to all this has been to go toe to toe with the Adobe/YouTube monster.  They are taking the contest to Adobe on Adobe’s playing field.  The results to date have been less than stellar. Does anyone remember SoapBox?  This was a reaction to the success of YouTube.  I should note it was done before Silverlight.  It carries with it the name of online Bob.   I can understand the Microsoft mindset as in the early days it won wars like this against WordPerfect and Lotus.  But as I have said over and over again in my blog, the internet is not the place for the patient.  The rise and fall of internet empires is not measured in centuries or decades, it can happen within a five-year span.

Until either Microsoft or someone else establishes an “internet” channel that uses Microsoft Silverlight, it will always be a bit player as long as it exists.  At the end of the day an end-user when they click on a video, just really want to watch a video, that is their expectation.  It is the right expectation.  What the format is, is not really relevant.  That is for the technology companies to figure out.  It is a big challenge to create “buzz”  around specific bits of technology.  It requires marketing in the big picture view of things, which Apple seems to have perfected.  At the same time doing the grass-roots movements to get the people and companies who are going to support the technology stack to deliver the applications that people will use.  Microsoft is really good at the latter but not the former.  You need the former to generate the market excitement.  When developers and designers see an excited market they will flock to the opportunity.  How else do you explain that Apple has turned Object C into a popular programming language?  When I was with Microsoft in my last year they had a number of “evangelists” out in the field promoting Silverlight.  They worked hard and traveled all over the country.  Talking to developers at company locations, at industry events, did road shows – but they did this without any air cover.   Even if you convert five developers or designers how many have you not touched?  You need to generate the industry “buzz” through smart and directed advertising campaigns.  But to date it has not been the primary focus of Microsoft (I suppose I could dedicate an entire blog to Microsoft’s disjointed sales and marketing campaigns…so much to write)

Moving forward there will be significant challenges for Microsoft Silverlight, not just from the YouTube/Adobe Flash behemoth, but the industry push towards more open standards, specifically HTML 5.  The split between Google (and Adobe) and Apple could help Microsoft.  Microsoft can focus on the technology and not get caught up in a fight that has been very public.  The downside is people love a soap opera and Flash and HTML 5 seem to be getting a significant amount of press over this.  As of this writing the internet destination of choice for video is YouTube.  As long as that stands people will continue to use the Flash format as what they will use.  The more designers experienced in Flash the harder it will be to convert.  The reason is that the demand is there and the revenue is yet to be fully realized, but make no mistake it is there.  Until a “new” channel emerges with a huge audience Silverlight will simply remain a cool technology.  If that channel happens you could see hundreds of millions of people using Silverlight,…they just won’t know it.  The best technology for consumers is the one they don’t know about, but they just have to have it.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann June 24, 2010

Congrats to the US National Team on advancing to the next round in the World Cup!!