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Compiling it to managed means that you can interoperate with other managed languages really naturally. So, you can take a PHP project and add new "modules" to it that you write in, say, C#, then import the C# dll into your Phalanger project, and compile.
So, it's more than just performance (not to mention security), but, you are right, it was kind of a "let's see if we can do this" kind of thing (which many school projects are, initially) and they did! Smart kids (well, they look like kids to me).
These videos required editing, I think. He had 15-20 min. of material...
A smart client needs to have a smart element which has learning or hides unimportant data from the user or does something useful like that. It can really be done in any language (unmanaged or managed), and it ultimately has to be useful.