Monday, May 12, 2008

Codex Sinaiticus and Microsoft Silverlight

Wieland Willker, owner of the New Testament Textual Criticism list, recently posted there that the 43 leaves of the important 4th century manuscript Codex Sinaiticus housed at the University of Leipzig have been made available on-line. He added, "You have to install a little Microsoft tool for the zooming functionality first" and then provided a link to the site.

Besides my interest in main subject of the posting, I was curious about this "little Microsoft tool" and quickly discovered from a response on the list that the site requires a Silverlight browser plug-in, Microsoft's alternative to Adobe's Flash. The author of the response lamented that Silverlight requires relatively recent versions of either Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X, with no provision for Linux, only a few browsers are supported, and the plug-in's proprietary nature ties it to Microsoft, which can't be trusted.

I responded to the list with some comments which I present below in edited form for those who aren't subscribed to that e-mail list and who might be curious about Silverlight.

Although Professor Willker referred to the plug-in only as required for zooming functionality, in fact the entire site is inaccessible without it. The specific OS and browser requirements can be found at Microsoft's web site. With some exceptions, it's currently supported only on Windows Server 2003, XP, and Vista on Internet Explorer and Firefox, and on Mac OS 10.4.8 and up on Firefox and Safari. Linux users are expected to be able to view Silverlight content sometime around the middle of this year via Moonlight.

Ars Technica has published a few articles about Silverlight and Moonlight, and this recent one about a presentation by the developer of Moonlight talks about some of its advantages over not only simple image presentations but even over Flash. In at least some cases, though, as at the Library of Congress money figures into the equation:

You're probably wondering why the LOC is using Silverlight instead of something more widely supported, like Adobe's Flash. The answer is, of course, money. As we reported back in February, Microsoft gave the LOC $3 million to put exhibits online using Silverlight...

The FOSS community in general is not fond of Silverlight. A couple of examples of arguments against it can be found here and here, although a response to the latter by Moonlight's developer should be read.

One Windows Vista user reported to the list that his computer showed a runtime error with both Internet Explorer and Firefox, but an XP user had no problem with it.

I was not able to install the Silverlight plug-in on my Mac OS 10.2 machine; as the system requirements I linked to above show, the minimum on that platform is 10.4.8 (the current version of 10.4 is 10.4.11; the most recent version of the OS is 10.5.2).

I succeeded with my 10.4 machine, although with a minor glitch. My main browser is Firefox, and after a quick download and painless installation of the plug-in, I restarted the browser and discovered on trying the site again that I was offered the same "Download Silverlight" semi-error message I'd been getting before I installed it. I logged out of my account and logged in and tried it again without success. I thought to check the site with Safari before restarting the computer prior to another attempt and it worked perfectly.

I had a guess the responsibility for the problem with Firefox might lie in an add-on. My first instinct was to suspect NoScript, but I don't run it on that computer. Scanning my other extensions I noticed Flashblock. I disabled it and restarted and that time the site loaded perfectly. It was ironic but reasonable that something designed to block the use of Flash also blocked Microsoft's "Flash-killer" (as Silverlight is commonly called, with greater likelihood of eventual accuracy than the Zune becoming an iPod-killer, as Microsoft had hoped).

A curious side-note is that Safari took me to an English-language interface for the web site and Firefox to the original German-language version. Neither seems to provide the capability to switch to the other language, although presumably anyone interested in the MS images wouldn't be likely to be seriously handicapped by that.

Unfortunately (although unsurprisingly given the few browsers explicitly supported) Silverlight doesn't work in Opera, nor in the last version of IE for Mac, now 6-1/2 years old and exceedingly long in the electronic tooth.

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