Enhanced media experiences and development capabilities are among the highlights in the Silverlight 5 rich application platform, announced today at Microsoft’s Silverlight Firestarter developer event in Redmond.

The latest version of Microsoft’s rich application development and deployment platform will go into beta the first half of 2011, and will be readied for general release later in the year. Acknowledging that there has “been a lot of angst” on the topic of the future of Silverlight, Scott Guthrie, Microsoft corporate vice president, said in his keynote, “Let me say up front that there is a Silverlight future, and we think it’s going to be a very bright one.”

Much of that angst was generated by comments made by Bob Muglia, Microsoft’s Server and Tools Division president, at PDC regarding HTML5, when he indicated that World Wide Web Consortium-approved standard would be the cross-platform choice for rich application delivery. Yesterday, Guthrie said that “there are a lot of devices out there, and users demand and expect the richest experiences on them. There is not going to be one technology that’s going to be used to do all of it. Our goal is to provide a technology portfolio that enables developers to build the best possible user experiences.”

Guthrie said Microsoft is investing heavily in HTML5, adding, “We want to have the best browser out there that supports it.” In regards to adding Silverlight and WPF to the mix, he said, “These are all great technologies. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. But we think ultimately the flexibility of having each of these choices is a real strength of our developer platform and our overall tools offering.”

As for Silverlight 5, Guthrie said a key new feature is hardware video decoding support. “What this means now is instead of using your CPU to decode video, you can actually offload it to the GPU of a system,” he explained. “You can now stream 1080p HD video live and on-demand on a netbook…and your CPU and battery power are even better as well.”

Guthrie also discussed Trickplay, a technology for variable-speed playback of audio and video. It includes pitch correction for when a video is sped up. “Instead of the trainer sounding like a chipmunk, they’ll actually sound normal,” he said.

On the application development side, Guthrie highlighted data-binding debugging and Model View ViewModel capabilities. “We’re covering a lot of the WPF and Silverlight data-binding features,” he said.

As for MVVM, he said that Microsoft is adding markup extension support, so “you can cleanly author an MVVM-based solution and do it in the same way you do for both Silverlight and WPF.”

Silverlight 5 also has new automated UI testing support with Visual Studio 2010, including improved profiling support to locate application performance hotspots. It also supports WCF RIA Services, including WS-Trust for message security, the company said.

Guthrie said another area of focus in Silverlight 5 is the out-of-browser experience, specifically the addition of support for multiple windows. He explained that users can create child windows that can be managed as part of the out-of-browser experience. The new release also includes a feature called P/Invoke, which enables users to call unmanaged DLL libraries and Win32 APIs, which he said “opens device possibilities and integration with the operating system.”

Guthrie said the first public beta will ship in Spring 2011, with the final release coming before the end of the year.