Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Public Facing WSS Sites + Silverlight

Last night was another interesting Sydney SharePoint User Group. There were two presentations, one on using Windows SharePoint Services as a public facing CMS site given by Jon Matthes, and another by Michael Kordahi on Silverlight (+ SharePoint!).

Jon gave a very interesting talk about using WSS to rewrite a legacy web application for The Scottish Banner, an online community newsletter for Scots abroad. His aim was to improve on the old PHP website, retain its general design, allow online feedback forms, and produce minimal impact on end users in a cost effective way. He also hoped it would be an opportunity to learn about WSS 3.

The way he approached the site migration was to replicate as much of the existing structure as he could, with the only exception being the addition of the WSS administration area. He created anonymous access to a list to allow people to make submissions to the site while not logged in. An additional feature was the use of image libraries to serve as a simple product catalog, which was a new feature for the site.

Best of all, none of this required code. This turned out to be a good thing, as Jon had no access to the server and the US-based ISP was difficult to reach due to the time zone differences. Unfortunately he was unable to use Themes so some options were unavailable to him while he was doing the redesign.

Jon suggested some take-away lessons from his experience. He pointed out how important it is to use a hosting provider who has knowledge around SharePoint (and preferably one in the same time zone!). Research on what WSS could do and not do out of the box was important, and he also recommended making end user training an important component of any moves to SharePoint.


Michael Kordahi (http://delicategeniusblog.com) from Microsoft then presented Silverlight for us. This is Microsoft's intended Flash killer.

Its selling point is that it's a cross-browser/platform implementation of .NET for "building and delivering the next generation of media and rich applications for the web". Michael explained that its value is intended to lie in its flexible programming model combined with its ability to create rich media experiences.

A key component is its use of XAML, which will be the next generation declarative XML syntax for separating presentation from code and is already used in Windows Presentation Foundation. The goal is to have designers do their creative work in tools such as Expression Blend, and then have developers take the XAML code and code to it in Visual Studio.

There were some pointed questions from members of the user group. Flash can do all of these things currently, but it seems that the case for Silverlight might appear more convincing over time. Version 1.1 allows .NET code to be written on the server, and no doubt future versions will add increased functionality and productivity options. Already in version 1.0, it is easy to create animations and manipulate design objects, and then code to the Silverlight canvas using JavaScript.

Some people also remained unconvinced that the developer/designer split would be solved by this technology - after all that was an intended goal of code-behind. I haven't worked directly with enough designers to assess this problem for myself so I'm reserving judgement.

What was particularly cool about this presentation were all the demos Michael showed us. Tafiti is a neat experiment in changing the search interface to amalgamate multiple search content types. Inkable Search Tip uses the Vista handwriting recognition technology to do freehand searches on Google. Top Banana allowed browser-based video editing. A Chess Game written by Scott Guthrie rounded out the demos.

You can view many of these showcase applications at http://www.silverlight.net. Most of them are proof-of-concepts and showcases of what Silverlight can do, rather than real-world examples. 

All in all, it seems to be a very cool technology and one that'll become a very big deal. Silverlight 1.1 is currently in Alpha release and a preview version of Expression Blend 2 is available to MSDN subscribers.  For more information, Scott Guthrie has some excellent posts on Silverlight at http://weblogs.asp.net/scottgu/archive/tags/Silverlight.

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