YEAR END - Microsoft to heat up battle vs. Flash in '08

Microsoft and Adobe will both experience challenges in 2008 as they wrangle for market and mind share in the burgeoning rich Internet application space

Every good general knows that even the biggest army is useless if you can't get it on the battlefield.

Microsoft and Adobe will both experience a version of this dilemma in 2008, as they wrangle for market and mind share in the burgeoning RIA (rich Internet application) space, according to close observers of the companies.

"They both have their own power positions," Forrester Research analyst, Jeffrey Hammond, said, citing Flash's installed base, which has been pegged in the 90 percent range.

"The one place that Microsoft holds a wild card is with developers. There still are not that many Flex developers out there," Hammond added, referring to Adobe's toolset for RIA applications. The company is also developing the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), which lets Web developers build RIAs that can run on the desktop.

Of course, Microsoft's worldwide legions of programmers don't pose a great advantage if not enough users install Silverlight, its cross-platform browser plug-in for RIA applications.

"They need to get Silverlight on 70 to 80 per cent of the Internet-connected machines," an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, Greg DeMichillie, said.

One of the quickest ways to do that would be to ship the next version of Internet Explorer with Silverlight already embedded. But Hammond said this is unlikely, because doing so would likely prompt cries of outrage from competitors and perhaps antitrust lawsuits against Microsoft.

Microsoft has instead has tried to seed usage of Silverlight through other tactics, such as getting high-traffic Web sites like NBA.com to use it. That in turn compels site visitors to install the plug-in.

Silverlight 1.0 focuses largely on streaming media and therefore has more relevance for consumer-facing projects than enterprise IT shops.

That all changes with the next version, which is expected in beta form early next year. "Silverlight 2.0 is where it gets interesting," Hammond said.

The next release includes a subset of Microsoft's .NET Framework, meaning the company's vast base of developers can program against it using familiar .NET languages as well as tools like Visual Studio. The company has also aimed at Adobe's sweet spot -- graphic design applications -- with its Expression line of products.

Adobe, on the other hand, may not have an adoption problem for its plug-in, and already has won the hearts and minds of graphic designers everywhere, but is not nearly as strong in tools as Microsoft.

"The biggest thing Adobe needs to bring FlexBuilder up to date with modern developer tools," DeMichillie said. "I would say they are two years behind Visual Studio."

"The other thing not to underestimate is the value of Microsoft's programming languages," he added. "C# and VB -- they are real programming languages," he said. "[Adobe's] ActionScript has certainly grown up in the last year or two, but you won't find people building industrial-strength applications with it."

While a wealth of smaller companies and startups have crowded the RIA platform space, DeMichillie said he expects only Adobe and Microsoft will emerge as true players.

"When you build a platform you need so many pieces," he said. "The other player trying to do this is Sun [with its JavaFX platform], but I don't think they have all the pieces."

Hammond is somewhat more conservative. He also sees Adobe and Microsoft as the eventual leaders, but joined by between five and 10 smaller RIA vendors.

For all the gamesmanship that is sure to unfold between Microsoft and Adobe in 2008, there is an overarching issue the firms must overcome, DeMichillie said: Convincing corporate developers that user interface development is just as important as the mainline systems that power their organization's core business processes.

"Their biggest problem is the backlog of applications they've got to build," DeMichillie said.

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