Microsoft has announced the next version of Silverlight, its competitor to Adobe Flash. A beta of Silverlight 5 will be release in Q2 2011 and the final version will launch in the second half of next year.

Microsoft also posted a feature list for Silverlight 5 (available below). Microsoft says there are more than 40 new features in Silverlight 5, which deliver 70 percent of the Silverlight user community's new-feature requests. Arguably the most important improvements are that it will support hardware-accelerated video decoding and 3D graphics.

Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president for Microsoft's developer division, made the announcement at the company's Silverlight-focused Firestarter event. You can watch the three hour video of the long event above (the keynote is at the beginning); Silverlight is of course required.

The new version includes features Microsoft hopes will cement Silverlight as a premier Web-media and business-application platform. Although Silverlight is used as the main development platform for Windows Phone 7 apps, it looks like this release is all about the desktop and the browser. It looks like Microsoft wants to attract more companies into building Silverlight-based applications that are not necessarily mobile.

Silverlight 5 will enable media experiences to go even further:

  • Hardware video decode: Silverlight 5 now supports GPU accelerated video decode, which significantly reduces CPU load for HD video. Using Silverlight 5, even low powered Netbooks will be able to play back 1080p HD content
  • Trickplay: Silverlight 5 now enables variable speed playback of media content on the client with automatic audio pitch correction. This is great for training videos where you want to speed up the trainer while still understanding what he’s saying
  • Improved power awareness will prevent screensavers from kicking in while you’re watching movies while allowing the computer to sleep when video is not playing.
  • Remote-control support is now built-into Silverlight 5 - allowing users to control media playback with remote control devices.

Silverlight 5 will deliver significant improvements for application development:

  • Databinding and MVVM: Silverlight 5 delivers significant data-binding improvements that improve developer productivity and provide better Silverlight/WPF feature convergence. Developers can now debug data-binding expressions, set breakpoints on bindings, and more easily determine errors. Implicit DataTemplates now allow templates to be created across an application to support a particular type by default. Ancestor RelativeSource bindings makes it easier for a DataTemplate to bind to a property on a container control. Binding in style setters allows bindings to be used within styles to reference other properties. And a new DataContextChanged event is being introduced to make handling changes easier. Markup extensions are also now support and allow code to be run at XAML parse time for both properties and event handlers, enabling cutting-edge MVVM support.
  • WCF and RIA Services: Silverlight 5 now includes WS-Trust support. WCF RIA Services improvements include complex type support, better MVVM support, and improved customization of code generation. Silverlight 5’s networking stack also now supports low-latency network scenarios that enable more responsive application scenarios.
  • Text and Printing: Silverlight 5 delivers improved text clarity that enables crisper and cleaner text rendering, multi-column text flow and linked text containers, character and leading support, and full OpenType font support. Silverlight 5 also includes a new Postscript Vector Printing API that provides programmatic control over what you print, and enables printing richer reports and documents. Pivot functionality – which enables developers to build amazing information visualization experiences – will also be provided built-into the Silverlight 5 SDK.
  • Graphics: Silverlight 5 includes immediate mode graphics support that enables developers to take full advantage of the GPU (graphics processing unit) and enables accelerated 3-D graphics support. This new support facilitates much richer data visualization scenarios (make sure to watch the keynote to see some really eye-popping ones).
  • Out of Browser: Silverlight 5 builds on the out-of-browser capabilities we introduced with Silverlight 5. Out of browser applications can now create and manage child windows. Trusted out of browser applications can now also use P/Invoke capabilities to call unmanaged libraries and Win32 APIs. Enhanced group policy support enables enterprises to both lock down and open up security sandbox capabilities of Silverlight 5 applications.
  • Testing Tools: We are adding automated UI testing support for Silverlight applications with Visual Studio 2010. This makes it easy to test Silverlight applications, and automate the functionality of them.
  • Performance: Silverlight 5 support faster application startup, and provides 64-bit browser support. Silverlight 5 also integrates with the new Hardware Acceleration capabilities of IE9, and enables hardware acceleration in windowsless mode.