With the imminent release of Silverlight 2.0, developers and Web designers, particularly those already working in Microsoft IT environments, will have the first viable alternative technology to Adobe Flash for building rich Internet applications, analysts and developers said.

Microsoft first released Silverlight, a cross-browser runtime for Web-based multimedia and 3D applications, about a year ago. However, the development of the 1.0 version, like many new Microsoft products, was rushed, and not even close to the vision the company had for the product.

"[Silverlight] 1.0 was a stop-gap measure -- they were late to market and wanted to get something out there early after Adobe had done an amazing success [with Flash]," said Al Hilwa, an application development software program director for research firm IDC. But Silverlight 2.0 "is the real deal -- they've put out architecturally what they've always wanted to do," he said.

Silverlight 2.0's final release is imminent. Insiders said it could be available in a few weeks. The first release candidate for developers is already available on the Web.

It may be fair to say that Microsoft moved faster with Silverlight than it ever has to get a product in shape as a viable competitor to already-established technology. In this case, that's obviously Flash, which has enjoyed great success for years as the predominant technology for adding high-impact multimedia applications and graphics to Web sites. It was this early trend that spurred the current development of more complex Web-based and business applications that make the user experience as important as stability, security or general performance.

Though it's no match across the board for the more mature Flash technology yet, people who have used early versions of Silverlight 2.0 said Microsoft indeed has made great strides with the technology.

No 'Flash killer'

However, developers should not be misled into thinking that Silverlight is meant to be a "Flash killer," warned Christopher Smith, president of Aquent Graphics Institute, a Boston training and staffing firm that works with developers and designers using Adobe and Microsoft development software.

"I don't think Microsoft is trying to go after the hardcore Flash people," he said.

Instead, Microsoft is "offering an option for designers and developers who want to build an interactive front end that will tie into their existing Microsoft infrastructure and platform," Smith said.

For that goal, developers said that Silverlight 2.0 and its companion tools -- the Expression toolset, and in particular, Expression Blend -- actually have an advantage or two over Flash for companies and developers that already use Microsoft infrastructure.

Fred Gerantabee, a training manager and instructor at Aquent who has used Flash for 11 years and also is now using Silverlight, said that because of this tie-in, Silverlight is a better runtime than Flash for data-intensive applications.

"From a data-integration perspective, Silverlight is powerful out of the gate because it uses this back end that has been proven for users," he said. "If you're in a Microsoft environment, which a lot of people are, Silverlight's capabilities [in this respect] will excel."

On the other hand, "Flash was not originally designed to be a data-intensive, application-building environment -- it became that through user demand," Gerantabee said. Because of this, in his opinion it still has weaknesses to Silverlight in this area, he said, acknowledging that "there are Flash developers who would disagree" with this assessment.