Microsoft announces Silverlight 3, Expression Blend 3 at MIX09

With its beta of Silverlight 3 and preview of Expression Blend 3, Microsoft has kicked off MIX09 with plenty of exciting news for RIA and Web application developers.

LAS VEGAS -- The buzzword may be Web 2.0, but the magic number today was 3. Microsoft announced a beta version of Silverlight 3 and a preview of Expression Blend 3 at the MIX09 keynote, its annual conference dedicated to Web technologies.

Highlights included the ability to write offline, out-of-browser applications in Silverlight 3 and a new prototyping tool for Expression Blend called SketchFlow.

With the first version of Silverlight released just 18 months ago and Silverlight 2 a year later, Microsoft's timeline for its Adobe Flash competitor has been relatively aggressive. The company released what it says will be the only beta of Silverlight 3 today, and the final version is expected to ship later this year. While the biggest improvement in Silverlight 2 was nearly full .NET support, Silverlight 3 will feature improved video streaming capabilities and the option to download applications, including user data, and run them as standalone programs.

Offline Silverlight 3 applications will run in a sandbox similar to a browser's security model, so installations won't require user permissions or authorization, said Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of the .NET Developer Platform at Microsoft. The new release will have plenty of eye candy, too; Silverlight 3 will ship with about 60 new controls, including three-dimensional skins for two-dimensional controls and hardware acceleration using computers' GPU. The runtime has been optimized for download size so aggressively that it is actually slightly smaller than the Silverlight 2 download, Guthrie said.

Among the improvements to Expression Blend 3 is a new SketchFlow tool that lets UI designers quickly prototype an application's screens and the transitions between them. SketchFlow comes with "wiggly controls" that look like back-of-the-envelope drawings of common controls like buttons and text boxes; the idea is to hammer home the fact that the design is a quick sketch and not a final product, said senior product manager Jon Harris. Although controls in SketchFlow don't have any code behind them, the tool lets designers attach "behaviors" to each control which animate a transition to another screen. This can let clients get a sense of the prototype's look and feel while keeping iterations as quick as possible.

In addition to its development tools, Microsoft announced an update today to the Microsoft Web Platform and Web App gallery, a Web site that lets administrators quickly install server applications. The Web App Gallery includes applications that don't run on the traditional Microsoft stack, like the PHP-based WordPress blogging platform; selecting those tools will automatically install any dependencies, like PHP and MySQL.

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