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Analysis: How Moonlight 2.0 Fits into Novell's Linux and Open Source Plans

Now that Novell Inc.'s Mono open source project finally last week released the beta version of its Moonlight 2.0 code after several months of delays, what's its potential impact for Linux users and the open source community?

It depends on whom you ask.

To Novell and its Mono Project, Moonlight 2.0 is of huge importance to Linux and open source users. As the open source version of Microsoft Corp.'s expanding Silverlight .Net development platform, Moonlight 2.0 will allow Linux desktop users to get the same capabilities as Microsoft Windows desktop users to view and experience rich Web applications created with Silverlight, which is becoming more popular with Web developers.

But to critics of Novell's moves to align with Microsoft to offer Moonlight as a way to make Silverlight-enabled content work for Linux users, the bad karma continues. Instead of this being a good thing for Novell and Linux users, critics argue, the Moonlight project helps Microsoft maintain a leadership role in a development platform that only gives lip service to the open source community, they say.

So How Did Things Get to this Point?

Creating an open source version of Silverlight became important to Novell two years ago, said Joseph Hill, Novell's product manager for the Mono and Moonlight 2.0 projects. That's when Microsoft announced that it would be using its .Net development environment to create Silverlight content, Hill said. That was important to Novell, he said, because millions of .Net developers were already out there and could then use Silverlight to add rich Web features. That scenario meant that Linux desktop users would ultimately be left in the cold because all of that .Net-created content wouldn't be optimized to give them the same rich experiences. And when Microsoft said it wouldn't build Silverlight and .Net tools for Linux, Novell worked out an arrangement with Microsoft to provide those pieces, by creating the Moonlight project.

"Microsoft said they were interested in having someone else do the Silverlight thing for Linux, so they provided test suites and licenses to the audio and video codecs that they get from third-party providers," Hill said. "We want to provide [Moonlight tools] everywhere that Microsoft is not providing it," including for BSD and other open source operating systems. Microsoft is already providing Silverlight tools for Apple Macintosh operating systems. "We are committed to the Linux desktop in particular."

Silverlight is described by Microsoft as a "cross-browser, cross-platform implementation of the .NET Framework for building media experiences and rich interactive applications for the Web."

Moonlight's goals, meanwhile, are to enable Silverlight applications to run on Linux and to provide a Linux Software Developers Kit to build Silverlight applications that will run on Linux, according to the project.

What's Silverlight's Status Today? 

According to its official project road map, Silverlight 2.0 was supposed to be released to beta in early summer, but was delayed until last week. The final launch of Moonlight 2.0 was scheduled originally for next month, but has now been moved out to this November, just in time to be unveiled at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles.

"The main reason we pushed back the beta," Hill said, was that "we wanted to have feature completeness" and needed more time to do that. "We're in an interesting situation. Microsoft released Silverlight 3 this summer," which means Silverlight is presently more than a version ahead of Moonlight. "Frankly, it presents sort of a problem" because Moonlight wants to be running only about six months behind Silverlight in terms of adding features and capabilities. The good news is that even with the gap today, the Moonlight 2.0 project now is closer to Silverlight than the original Moonlight 1.0 project was at its inception, Hill said.

The first version of Silverlight from Microsoft didn't include .Net functionality, and neither did Moonlight 1.0. Then Microsoft added .Net functionality to Silverlight 2.0, and that's now being added to Moonlight 2.0. In some ways, Moonlight 2.0 was already ahead of Silverlight 3.0, Hill said, such as having the ability to run Silverlight content outside of a Web browser.

"Our general frustration is that we don’t want to lag behind," Hill said. "We want our users to have access to Silverlight content sooner rather than later."

The focus, Hill said, is to get Moonlight 2.0 finished and into the hands of Web developers so Linux users can gain access to Web sites that are using Silverlight code, including the 2010 Olympics Games site and commercial sites such as Netflix.com.

For Silverlight, the primary competition for attention with developers comes from Adobe's Flash platform. Computer users will be able to view content created with any of the platforms, provided they have the needed plug-ins.

"We as Novell just want to make sure that Linux users aren’t going to be left out of that," Hill said.

Critics Remain Leery, However 

Not everyone is comfortable with Novell's joining forces with Microsoft to make Moonlight 2.0 work with Silverlight content. And several other software development partnerships between Novell and Microsoft in the last few years have made some critics downright angry.

Roy S. Schestowitz, a software programmer, researcher and student at Manchester University in the United Kingdom, regularly vents his frustrations about Novell, Microsoft and the Silverlight/Moonlight relationship on the Web site, BoycottNovell.com.

A long-time SUSE Linux user, Schestowitz said in an e-mail reply that his main objection to the Silverlight/Moonlight partnership is that it bolsters the "proliferation of Microsoft de facto standards on the Web (and later on the desktop)."

And because Microsoft's Silverlight tool kit is typically ahead of Moonlight's, "this leads to incorrect perceptions that anything other than Microsoft's offering is a 'cheap imitation,'" Schestowitz wrote.

Analysts Weigh In on Silverlight/Moonlight 

Dana Gardner, principal analyst with Interarbor Solutions LLC in Gilford, NH, said that the beauty of Silverlight for Web developers is that they can build applications once that can be viewed on many platforms, including Linux. "That’s all well and good, and they are progressing," he said. "The question of whether they will get any traction is a good one."

The problems – video action and user interface standards for Silverlight and Flash are still open, Gardner said, though Flash "is kind of the big gorilla." Adding to Flash's shortcomings also is that large entertainment companies, which want to find new ways to create rich media Web content, are "not necessarily happy with Flash" because of its higher licensing and software costs as you add more Flash features and tools. "Developers don’t like to be forced to use certain tools. They want to use the best of breed."

At the same time, though, "I think that Flash is pretty well entrenched and just because some people don’t like it, it isn’t going to go away," Gardner said. "But if is to be unseated, you can't do it with a closed system. To me Moonlight is actually an asset to Silverlight because they're going to need those Linux developers on board if they're going to beat Flash" and become the leading platform. "This is one case where working with your enemy is a good thing."

For Novell, the investment in Moonlight makes sense, Gardner said. "It allows Novell to make Linux more popular, which is in their best interests, and to give more features around the Linux desktop and to help create standards."

It also makes sense from the standpoint of where online entertainment delivery systems are heading, he said. "The stakes here are pretty high if you look at what Time Warner, Disney, Fox, Paramount, Viacom and other big media companies and what they're doing. The whole idea of pay-per-view movies online is not that far-fetched. How that happens and what formats and who controls it is a big deal, as well as how to put ads and commerce into that entertainment stream."

Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of research operations with The 451 Group of New York, NY, said it's a mixed bag for Novell's Moonlight project in working to bring Silverlight content to Linux users.

"At first I was really negative about the idea because in essence that was playing Microsoft's game," Kusnetzky said. "Everybody who watches the industry long enough knows that Microsoft gets people to follow their APIs and file formats and then they change them" later. "That can suck up so much research and development and then companies find that they can't follow Microsoft and [change formats and APIs] and at the same time also add new features."

Kusnetzky said he looks at the Moonlight project in a potentially similar light, but questions remain. "At this point, has Silverlight become enough of a market presence to make interoperability [for Linux] a requirement? I'm thinking that this is a technology that has not become a standard in the market."

Instead, by partnering with Microsoft and building Moonlight, Novell is "validating Microsoft's approach but is not necessarily making the world better for organizations that choose to stay with other products that do this," he said. "On the other side, there are companies that say whatever Microsoft says is the way they’ll do it and if the open source world wants to be any part of their infrastructure, then they have to play along. This would allow Linux servers and clients to fit into a Microsoft environment."

 

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