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Posted on December 3rd, 2010 by Tom Arah

Silverlight 5: Back from the dead?

Silverlight 5

At its recent Professional Developer Conference Microsoft’s Bob Muglia signalled a major change of strategy for the company’s Silverlight technology. When first introduced Silverlight was intended to become a near universal cross-platform web runtime like Flash. Now Muglia revealed that Microsoft saw HTML5 as the future for universal in-browser development while Silverlight was being repositioned as a native application development platform for Windows Phone 7 devices. Unsurprisingly, most pundits saw this as an admission of defeat, with our own Jon Honeyball asking: “Silverlight RIP?

Yesterday, just over a month later, Scott Guthrie announced the “Firestarter” launch of the new Silverlight 5 beta under the slogan “the future of Silverlight starts now”. So what’s going on?

Silverlight 5: What’s New

Silverlight 5 offers a whole host of major new features, with general highlights including support for GPU-based graphics and video handling, 64-bit support, a new web browser control for hosting HTML content, the ability to read and write to the user’s Documents folder, the ability to launch Office apps, reduced network latency and improved XAML parsing to boost performance, and a new class of trusted applications that will provide full desktop functionality within the browser.

For developers there are a number of additional advances including databinding and debugging enhancements and support for Model View, multiple window handling, Visual Studio profiling and Team Test. For designers the highlights include video improvements, smoother animation and greatly enhanced text handling with support for features such as tracking and leading, pixel snapping, multi-column layouts and text runaround promising “magazine-style handling”.

All in all it’s pretty impressive stuff, leveraging Microsoft’s Windows, Office and development strengths and taking web-based application delivery into places that HTML5 can only dream of. Moreover, while there isn’t an obvious immediate game-changer here, it’s clear that Microsoft isn’t exactly taking its foot off the pedal and is still pushing the cross-platform Silverlight runtime hard.

So what should we make of Microsoft’s mixed messages? In particular is Microsoft recommending HTML5 or Silverlight? Should Silverlight be used for cross-platform web development or native WP7 application development? And who’s in charge: Bob Muglia or Scott Guthrie?

I think the best way to understand what is going on is to think in terms of the near, middle and long term.

The war on the ground: handheld combat

Currently there’s no doubt that Apple is in the ascendant with the iPhone and iPad setting the standard for smartphone and tablet devices, and its native iOS applications conquering the planet. Moreover with his ban on the Flash and Silverlight runtimes, Steve Jobs has ensured that both Silverlight and Flash have lost their greatest asset: universality.

Unless that ban is dropped or users defect, Steve Jobs is effectively able to hold the all-important demographic of affluent early adopters hostage in his magical walled garden: the only open way to access them is via HTML(5) as indeed Microsoft has done with its Silverlight-free Office web apps.

Clearly Microsoft needs to become competitive in this handheld space that Apple has made its own and Windows Phone 7 is crucial to its plans. Making Silverlight the development platform for WP7 makes absolute sense in the near term, allowing the army of desktop Windows developers to take their skills to the mobile platform and begin making some money. Moreover, while Apple is holding back the potential of universal in-browser Rich Internet Applications, concentrating on native application development again makes sense: if you can’t beat him, copy him.

Thinking ahead: don’t forget the cloud

In the longer term however, the picture is likely to change completely. At the moment Apple is pretty much the only game in town and everyone is delighted with what their iOS native apps can deliver. Over the next few years devices are set to proliferate, not just WP7 devices but devices from RIM and Nokia and, even more significantly, from the wide range of Android and soon Chrome OEMs.

This will provide real competition for Apple but it will also mean that the advantages and economies of scale of cross-platform, in-browser development and delivery will again become obvious: better, cheaper, automatically up-to-date apps that aren’t tied to a particular device and are accessible to everyone from anywhere and everywhere.

Apple’s current dominance obscures the fact, but the future of computing still lies with universal rich internet applications in the browser (and content on the server), not with device-specific native applications. Apple can’t deliver to the world as a whole, but the cloud can and will. When this is recognised, the benefits of a native application platform that automatically extends to an in-browser runtime, and so to all supporting platforms and devices, will come into its own. And Apple’s closed approach, exemplified by its lack of a cross-platform runtime, will be exposed.

As things stand, Silverlight is certainly not delivering in the way that Microsoft or developers had hoped and expected. In particular its inability to make inroads against Flash in the browser and the emergence of Apple as the handheld superpower have left it caught in no-man’s land. And shooting yourself in the foot as Bob Muglia did at PDC certainly doesn’t help.

However talk of the demise of Silverlight is premature. Yes things are happening quickly, but the war for the web isn’t going to be won in a day. In particular while there is huge excitement among early adopters for the potential of the handheld space and in particular for Apple’s brilliant devices, they still make up only a tiny fraction of the market.

By the time that every user is looking to buy a smartphone and tablet (and early adopters their next smartphone and tablet), the situation will be very different. General understanding of the benefits of cloud-based delivery (online and offline) will have matured and the next generation of open, handheld devices optimised for both Silverlight and AIR will be able to deliver.

When these foundations are in place, users will be looking for an integrated approach to computing that spans their smartphone, tablet and set-top box. Crucially, they will also want to integrate their desktop (Windows) and their main applications (Office and other WPF-based applications). Thanks to its work on HTML5, WPF and especially Silverlight, Microsoft and its army of desktop developers will be well set to deliver.

Rather than an admission of defeat or forced retreat, Silverlight’s current shift towards WP7 native development should be seen as strategic repositioning and the opening up of a second front. Eventually though, as Silverlight 5 demonstrates, Microsoft is still betting that the war will be won in the air.

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19 Responses to “ Silverlight 5: Back from the dead? ”

  1. Peter Says:
    December 3rd, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    A Pretty convincing explanation. I for one hope you’re right. An MS “monopoly” was pretty bad, but the thought of a Jobsopoly or even worse a googopoly is terifying!

     
  2. Chris W. Rea Says:
    December 3rd, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    Re: “So what should we make of Microsoft’s mixed messages?”

    .. I think the *seed of doubt* about Silverlight in the browser has been planted. It will be difficult to undo damage done by Muglia’s remarks. Even if ScottGu is a brilliant genius (and he is), it remains an uphill battle to regain lost mindshare.

     
  3. Nicco Says:
    December 5th, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    No developer house dares invest heavily in silverlight because Microsoft is so flaky when it comes to its own product range, suddenly they cut it and any investment is voided. Microsoft will have to provide a long term roadmap for silverlight if they want people to spend money on it.

     
  4. Patrick Says:
    December 5th, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    I think development alone is orders of magnitude different. Silverlight/WPF is almost easy to make very powerful applications while HTML5 still has all the negative aspects of HTML. I loathe HTML development.

     
  5. Me Says:
    December 5th, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    The major reason that Silverlight will die is that it is not ubiquitously available on all platforms, as Flash is.

    So, I could care less until it works on _Linux_. And it would be useful if it did for the applications it supplies. Netflix runs with Silverlight; so, you can’t watch movies from Linux CPU’s/Netbooks. Moonlight provides no alternative because Moonlight has no implementation of Silverlight DRM.

     
  6. Nice Try Says:
    December 5th, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Wow. Lots of fantasyland wishful thinking here…

    “a native application development platform for Windows Phone 7″

    Funny, I thought “native” meant “compiled to the processor”, not “sits on top of a runtime”.

    “…Apple is holding back the potential of universal in-browser Rich Internet Applications,”

    Really? I’d say with their backing of HTML5, they’re an RIA developer’s best friend.

    “…the benefits of a native application platform that automatically extends to an in-browser runtime”

    HaHaHaHaHaHa! Tom, you silly little man. The browser IS the platform.

    The simple fact is that Silverlight will NEVER have the universality that HTML5, 6, 7, etc, will. Regardless of whether Silverlight has a few extra capabilities (”pixel snapping”? Really?), the only place it stands a chance is where MS controls the game, and that realm is shrinking every day. Buh bye.

     
  7. Stephen Smith Says:
    December 5th, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    I think this marks the winner as HTML 5 – it is the only cross device alternative. Things like Silverlight, iOS, Flash will just be relegated to niche markets where extra device interaction is required or special DRM is required. Otherwise we’ll see less and less of them.

     
  8. LOVE_MOSS_NOT Says:
    December 5th, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    Agree with Stephen wholeheartedly, why hold the web hostage in the same way IE6 did?

     
  9. James G Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 4:16 am

    Silverlight 2 – 4 video quality has been total garbage on XP systems. Let’s hope MS has sold enough copies of Windows 7 now to finally give us a proper fix..

     
  10. Derek Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 4:50 am

    It would be great if Silverlight became widely used on W7, WP7 and Android. It would provide a huge market for developers. In the mean time, Apple does had a closed environment. While the promise of HTML 5 apps really is a ploy to keep competitors out of their market, it must be considered the lowest-denominator for the near term (as soon a IE6 is no longer used in large corporates – why in heaven’s name didn’t IE9 have an IE6 compatability mode, so that it can quietly replace the thing…).

     
  11. Tom Arah Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 11:32 am

    @Peter: I’d go for a googolopoly any day. Imagine the future we’d be facing without Android.
    @Chris: Yes a pretty classic case of what not to do: open up a huge new market and make it sound like you’re throwing in the towel.
    @Nicco: I think Silverlight is so tightly tied in to WPF/Windows that they can’t pull out. Microsoft really is betting the company on this.
    @Patrick: I think most of the most eager proponents of HTML5 are so in principle rather than practice. I would be too if you could wave a wand and say now HTML5 does everything you could possibly want it to and is reliably supported on all browsers on all devices and you wouldn’t believe the tools that you can use to create it. Back in the real world, competing runtimes can get closest to that dream, certainly for the foreseeable future.
    @Me: Yes cross-platform certainly needs to extend beyond OSX. However I think the handheld platforms are the most important and I think the priority is for Microsoft to deliver Android support and in-browser WP7 support(!)
    @Nice Try: some more mixed messages there. If the browser is the platform, why deliberately stop it fulfilling its potential by anti-competitively banning non-exclusive, open runtimes?
    @Stephen: Yes HTML is the most important future platform by far, as it is now, but let the cross-platform runtimes extend it where people want to extend it. Maybe that’s a niche, but the web is a big place so it’s an important niche.
    @LOVE_MOSS_NOT: Not quite sure who you are saying is holding the web hostage. I’d say it’s now Jobs by refusing to support legitimate extensions (HTML was always intended to be extended hence the object tag). I’d also point out that Microsoft now deserve a lot of credit – they could sit on HTML5 in the same way that they did CSS, and promote Silverlight by doing so, but IE9 and XAML itself suggests that they are now truly committed to openness unlike you know who.
    James G: Didn’t realise there were problems with XP – that really needs to be sorted. As I wrote a while back performance generally is clearly an issue. In the long run faster and more modern systems will help Microsoft’s strategy but it needs to deliver now and not just on the desktop.
    @Derek: Seconded.

     
  12. JohnAHind Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Can I join the Stephen Smith fan club too? Tom has been chasing this argument for some time and I still do not get why he thinks the desired universal runtime has to be a browser plug-in and not the browser itself.
    The “lowest common denominator” problem Derek mentions is not specific to HTML5 but is a challenge to any universal runtime – how do you abstract the different capabilities of different devices without excessively compromising functionality or visual design values? Silverlight will probably be a great development environment for WP7, but I’ll bet it will always feel like a second-class passenger on Android and a hobo free-loading in the baggage car should it ever barge its way onto iOS!
    The alleged development difficulty of HTML is about the tools used not intrinsic to the runtime – think of HTML5 as a runtime like the Silverlight or AIR virtual machines and there is no reason why Adobe or Visual Studio quality development tools should not target HTML5 rather than proprietary runtimes.

     
  13. GnuSkool Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Yes, force these dinosaurs to use open web standards. Left to themselves they’d try to steer advantage away from us – but thankfully times have changed and so have people’s expectations.

     
  14. Tom Arah Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    @John and GnuSkool: As I’ve discussed before (see http://www.pcpro.co.uk/blogs/2010/07/01/the-fundamental-differences-between-flash-and-html-and-the-real-reasons-that-steve-jobs-wants-to-kill-it/), the core HTML runtime was written to provide the absolute basics of reflowing text that browser developers could implement as they chose fit. Flash and Silverlight both take a fundamentally different vector, object-based approach with a strong focus on presentation, media delivery and advanced programmability. HTML5 makes some moves in this direction (though you’d have to include not just CSS3 and of course JavaScript but SVG and plenty of other w3c standards), but it’s not what its strength is and it has a hell of a long way to go. Moreover it has to move at the speed of the slowest browser and then still requires a bunch of disparate developers with conflicting interests to deliver robust compatibility before anyone can actually use any new capabilities.
    As you say, it is useful to think of HTML(5) as a runtime and Adobe and Microsoft do indeed target it with their web authoring tools (unlike Apple). However it’s precisely because they realise the inherent limitations/problems of the browser runtime (and know that HTML5 isn’t a magic bullet) that they have both come up with tightly controlled, fast moving, cross-platform players not as replacements for HTML but as occasional extensions (both of which can happily coexist within the browser). By contrast, HTML5 is currently struggling to deliver a basic video tag (without any hope of specifying the advanced handling that the players can offer), so you are expecting far too much of it to just somehow magically replace Flash/ Silverlight especially as you seem to agree with Steve Jobs that this can already happen. As the history of Flash/Silverlight show taking the browser on from web page rendering to turn it into an all-purpose computing platform is not exactly trivial.
    They are certainly not perfect, but Flash and Silverlight are not some threat to the web (though they certainly are to Jobs’ monopoly and apps revenue). Rather they represent the best way to, as you put it, “abstract the different capabilities of different devices without excessively compromising functionality or visual design values”

     
  15. JohnAHind Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    @Tom – The cross platform thing is the crux of our disagreement here. I think there are two classes of apps, those that are simple enough to be cross-platform and those that are not. The simple ones are simple enough to be done in HTML (and lets not be pedantic, we all know we are talking about ‘the W3C standards portfolio’ with this shorthand). The complex ones cannot be done satisfactorily using ANY cross-platform runtime. I have not seen any convincing demonstration that there is a significant space between these two classes to be filled by the likes of Silverlight and Flash.
    But there is the elephant in the room: DRM. One of the big reasons why many media companies like Flash (and iApps) is that they enable the hiding of content away from the likes of Google. Now iApps are limited in scope and can never take over the Internet, but Flash and Silverlight could do this (if it was not for Job’s helpful, but probably accidental, obstructionism). This would be a Bad Outcome destroying the open, searchable web we know today.
    If we are going to fight, lets at least fight over the real issue!

     
  16. JohnAHind Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Just to emphasise my point about Cross-Platform: If it is conceptually possible to write an app so it automatically adapts to all platforms then it need not be done using a universal runtime. The machine code for the different platforms can as easily be cross-compiled from the same source code.
    The cross-platform problem is inherently difficult, even impossible, and trying to do it in a runtime does not help significantly.

     
  17. Tom Arah Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    @John: Yes this is where we differ. I believe that cross-platform runtimes can indeed deliver desktop-like near-native functionality, as apps like Buzzword and Photoshop.com demonstrate, and that this is Jobs’ true objection to them (one way to think of Silverlight is as a growing subset of WPF, when the two meet or you can do everything you want to in Silverlight, Windows has effectively become cross-platform). Moreover with HTML5 only a partial replacement and a pipedream for the foreseeable future (as you now seem to admit), runtimes are the best/only way for the cloud/web to live up to its full potential.
    It’s early days and I’m certainly not saying ditch native or HTML. Indeed these are clearly the best choice for most current tasks and will remain so. Jobs’ by contrast is trying to kill the very possibility of a universal cross-platform runtime by taking his ball off elsewhere. I’m not arguing against HTML or native I am arguing for choice. Maybe Flash/Silverlight aren’t ready for primetime yet (at least not for first generation non-optimised handhelds) but if you now see that HTML5 isn’t a magic bullet and might never be, how will the potential of the Cloud be realised if not through cross-platform in-browser runtimes?
    Presumably the only possible alternative would be your suggestion of cross-compiling machine code, but the fact that this isn’t already the norm shows that it’s not as simple as you imply. And I’m not sure how you imagine these being delivered in the browser. Of course cross-platform runtimes help deliver across platforms and devices that is why they were invented and why Sun, Microsoft and Adobe have spent a fortune on them.
    Regarding your concern about the closed nature of player content, again you seem to be having to bend over backwards to find a way to say that Apple is somehow in the right or doing us a favour. iOS native apps are inherently closed while Adobe and Microsoft have worked with Google to make sure that their content is searchable where its creators want it to be. I don’t see a problem with DRM, surely that’s an advantage?

     
  18. Q.C. Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    I am constantly amazed at how obviously poorly trained *some* web developers are at software architecture and economics.
    While i recognize that its not entirely fair for me to offer up this comment without a more detailed explanation (i dont want to spend my time on this), i just wanted to say that @John, you really just dont ‘get it.’
    Desktop apps were FAR more capable long ago before web apps ever existed. Web apps made sense because of their cheap and easy deployment, NOT because the technologies behind them were better – they were FAR worse and still are to this day. Which emphasized just how important it is to be able to cheaply and easily DEPLOY an application, which HTML-based website offered. But with the cloud platforms taking shape, you will see developments transition back to the far more capable and rich technology platforms. and there is NO company in the world that comes close to what Microsoft has to offer in that space. to think otherwise means you havent done your research. honestly.

     
  19. WJ Says:
    December 12th, 2010 at 1:15 am

    Delivering something and delivering something to everyone – time and cost, Silverlight/Flash == fast time to delivery with high quality, minimal maintenance, HTML x == slow time to deliver (if cater for all) average quality + high maintenance.

    You could say who should drive the need.. budget.. that could/and does start the choice.

    Optimisticly lets embrace and make the delivery world a better place and concentrate on artistic talent and creativity to realise the business need, p l e a s e.

    In my cynical world tho, someones got to control it or there cant be much money to be made, darn its come back round to back budget again for the next need.

    And marketing who always want utopia from the start and dont accept the technical world is actually diverse and a hard beast to tame. Being realistic with budget is key.

    Why waste time trying for utopia when sales ultimately have no idea how effective utopia will be. Get there in smaller steps, choosing technology on the way, each has a taget market – lets get some figures from the driver(s)… oh dont ask me that (Im a pleb), says the sales/marketing bod. Oh and I know Im right and will talk at you until you submit, round 10.

    btw looking forward to Blend for HTML 5, could be good you know to help tackle other markets.

     

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