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Posted on September 19th, 2011 by Tom Arah

Windows 8, Flash and Silverlight: some very bad news

IE 10

In amongst the flood of details emerging about Windows 8 is the news that the IE 10 browser in the lightweight Metro front-end won’t support plugins. In the scheme of things this might sound pretty small beer, but it’s hugely significant for the long term future of Rich Internet Application (RIA) development and for the web in general.

Most immediately it’s another kick in the teeth for Flash, still reeling from Apple’s iOS ban. It’s not exactly a death blow, as the Windows 8 desktop version of IE will still support the player, but it’s clearly another major disincentive for developers who believed Flash was as universal as HTML.

Understandably all the focus has been on Flash, but even more telling and extraordinary is the realisation that the new no-plugin policy means that the Metro browser won’t even support Microsoft’s own cross-platform RIA technology, Silverlight!

So just what is going on?

Why has Microsoft changed course so dramatically, betraying its Silverlight vision and shafting its developers in the process?

Details on such a major announcement are disappointingly thin on the ground and largely based on an MSDN blog post (Metro style browsing and plug-in free HTML5). However the few reasons given to justify the decision such as they are – “the experience that plugins provide today is not a good match with Metro style browsing and the modern HTML5 web” – are very familiar. Essentially it’s the same argument Steve Jobs gave – “leaving the past behind” – when he outlawed plugins for iOS some 18 months ago. In short, it’s time for the web to move on from old-fashioned “legacy plugins”.

Regular readers will know that I have never bought this argument. More to the point, I know that Microsoft doesn’t either. After all, the company has spent the past five years arguing the exact opposite: namely that page-based HTML is great but that there are certain things that it just isn’t well suited to deliver: little things like high quality media streaming, digital rights management, interactive vector animations, device-based capabilities such as camera and microphone handling and, more generally, the richest possible, desktop-style web experience.

XAML & Silverlight

It’s precisely because Microsoft recognised the limitations of HTML – which remain true for HTML5/ CSS3/JavaScript/SVG – that the company has spent millions rethinking and entirely reworking its application development tools around XAML (eXtensible Application Markup Language). XAML is an open, XML-based markup language for building the user-facing front-end for both full-blown WPF-based desktop applications and, crucially, Silverlight-based lightweight RIAs ready for delivery via its own Flash-style cross-platform in-browser plugin.

So why has Microsoft changed course so dramatically, betraying its Silverlight vision and shafting its developers in the process?

Well of course Microsoft would say that it hasn’t. After all, the beautiful XAML-based technology lives on and thrives in Windows 8, it’s just that the end product won’t be delivered in the browser via Silverlight, but rather as standalone Metro apps. Moreover, with the promised Metro App Store, Microsoft is offering its developers a simple way to get their work out to users and to make real money from it based on the now well-established Apple model.

There’s a lot of truth to this and Metro is undoubtedly an exciting opportunity for XAML-based developers – but why not support Silverlight browser delivery too? How can Microsoft possibly argue that it can’t support its own existing lightweight Silverlight player within its own lightweight Metro front-end? In fact, if you really wanted to help Silverlight deliver on its potential, gain market share and reward your long-suffering developers, why not build Silverlight support into the Metro version of IE10 while relegating Flash to the desktop version?

It’s business – as usual

I think that the real answer to this question is also the real answer behind Steve Jobs’ decision to ban Flash: follow the money. Cross-platform, in-browser RIAs extending the universal browser to deliver rich and protected apps and content directly between producer and consumer aren’t a legacy problem to be solved; rather, they are a leading-edge, cloud-based threat to the platform-dependent empires that Microsoft and Apple have built up, and to the App Store and in-app content empires that they are currently building.

Keep the lid on the universal, browser-based user experience by killing off the in-browser RIA technologies and restricting the web to HTML5 and you get to deliver the full RIA experience outside the browser via your iOS and Metro apps, and via your platform-specific App Stores and in-app subscriptions. Not only is your all-important operating system and software ecosystem protected from third-party, cloud-based, cross-platform alternatives; you also get to take 30% of all paid-for app content, with no possibility of competition within your platform.

Look at it like this and Microsoft’s decision to effectively sacrifice its in-browser Silverlight vision makes absolute sense. The RIA vision behind Flash and Silverlight in which the web delivers on its full potential as a cross-platform, universal, open and truly rich connection direct between producer and consumer is a wonderful dream, but this is business.

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Posted in: Real World Computing, Software, Windows 8

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20 Responses to “ Windows 8, Flash and Silverlight: some very bad news ”

  1. LaughingJohn Says:
    September 19th, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Tom,

    Nice well balanced article, and I think your reasoning is pretty spot on.

    I also think Microsoft may end up shooting themselves in the foot as they are well entrenched in the enterprise space where the full desktop experience and tools like Silverlight are pretty important.

    Slates/Pads have only specialist use in the enterprise, so I think the very consumer focused changes, or should I say lack of enterprise improvements in Win8 are a bit of a disappointment to that market.

    I’ve just started developing Silverlight (timing was never my strong point) because I’m using it to customize a Microsoft CRM online solution and at the moment it’s pretty much the only viable solution they offer(CRM Online restricts what can be run on the server). Of course CRM also only runs on IE which is another story …

    I actually really like Silverlight and for enterprises it’s a great compromise between the richness of desktop applications and the convenience and easy ‘distribution’ of web applications.

    It won’t be much fun writing financial applications in Javascript/HTML ….

    MS are notorious for changing they’re mind and I think it’s a real shame they have been de-emphasizing SL and .Net which are great and have even greater potential.

    I’d love to have seen a managed (.Net) Windows OS and Managed version of Office.

    Ho hum..

    LJ

     
  2. Jim Says:
    September 19th, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Whats odd is that Microsoft services such as Home Servers remote playback requires Silverlight and this is just the sort of integration I would want on my Windows Slate.

     
  3. Jon S Says:
    September 19th, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    As long as there are set standards and everyone is working towards a great user experience thats gotta be the most important thing.

     
  4. Kevin Partner Says:
    September 20th, 2011 at 10:11 am

    Using the iPad and Touchpad brings this issue into sharp relief. With the Touchpad I can load up the standard BBC site and follow any link I like knowing that whatever page I end up it’ll work whether it includes Flash video, a live audio or video stream or a game. On the iPad, I have to use an app for each site and only get access to those bits compatible with that app.

    It may not sound like a lot, but on a consumer device being able to go to Facebook, for example, see a post about the new Hobbit film and JUST WATCH IT or see a post about a new game and JUST PLAY IT is much more enjoyable than the disjointed equivalent on the iPad.

    I think Tom’s completely correct that this is all to do with preserving control of revenue and bollocks to the users.

    Having said all that, I fully accept that Javascript (especially through libraries such as JQuery) has come on in leaps and bounds and the gap between its capabilities and those of Flash/Silverlight is closing. HOWEVER, I’m not sure I understand how running a heavyweight Javascript app is any more desirable than a plugin.

    Finally, AIR could provide a loophole for Flash developers but a clunky one.

     
  5. Andrew Says:
    September 20th, 2011 at 10:30 am

    I think the move makes a lot of sense, as a company that delivers Silverlight based application, we don’t have them running in the browser, rather we opt for the OOB experience in any case.

    The web doesnt deliver an architecture that really supports full on rich applications, and thats why we have plugins in the first place. Apps are the way forward, and the web should deliver HTML as it was designed too, and HTML 5 brings the basic HTML websites up to user expectations. Sure at the moment there are issues with players and streaming, but HTML 5 will deliver this functionality.

    Apps, within a marketplace, is the way forward, and if you notice, the apps for Windows 8 are pretty much Silverlight / WPF in any case. The terms used may have changed, but the acutal libraries are now built within WinRT so as a developer there are some tiny changes that need to be made to move a typical WPF or Silverlight App over to Metro (and these are basically to support touch better).

    As for FLASH, well it will run on the desktop side, but Metro will not suppport it, not even AIR. AIR will have to run on the desktop side of things in anycase…

     
  6. David Wright Says:
    September 20th, 2011 at 11:36 am

    @Kevin Partner But there is no “need” for Flash to view video. There are plenty of alternatives available to websites today.

    A Flash video is hardly an RIA.

    For me, this is another of the historic “misuses” of Flash. There are other, better ways of doing that now (along with menus and adverts, my two pet peeves with Flash abuse).

    RIAs are a different matter.

    To be honest, I agree with Andrew, the OOB experience is better and adding Silverlight Metro tiles is a “cleaner” solution – even if it is protecting MS’s revenue stream.

    And you can always drop onto the Desktop tile and run the “full fat” IE 10, or Firefox, Chrome etc.

    Reading Mary Jo’s column this morning, ARM prototype tablets do have a “Desktop” tile, so it looks like full fat IE should also be available on ARM devices.

     
  7. Tom Arah Says:
    September 20th, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    @LaughingJohn – Thanks and I don’t think you’ve necessarily made a mistake developing cross-platform Silverlight in-browser apps, it’s just that you’ll actually end up developing Windows-only Metro standalone apps. Windows 8 / Metro is clearly going to be massive.

    @Jim – and imagine how much better the Office web apps would be if they were Silverlight boosted. Having said that, it’s not Microsoft’s fault that they wouldn’t work on iOS so they are going to have to go down the dual HTML5 / native apps route.

    @Jon S – But there was a set standard for the best web experience – Flash – and Apple and now Microsoft are doing their best to kill it.

    @Kevin – Exactly. And after the 10.1 player the previous argument that you couldn’t do plug-ins and Flash in the browser on lightweight devices has been shown to be rubbish. And that’s now – clearly Flash and device performance will only improve.
    And yes HTML5 will certainly start doing things that Flash does now where that’s possible (and there are lots of areas where it’s not). Funnily enough this is starting already with the banner adverts that the Flash haters think Adobe invented. And, if you think Flash is a buggy, performance hog and security nightmare that is difficult to create and to run reliably across multiple platforms then let’s see what HTML5 is like when you try to push it outside its comfort zone.

    @Andrew – I’ve absolutely no problem with OOB apps. They have a lot going for them including the app stores and a viable business model for developers. It’s just that there’s no reason that they should be the only option available and, when you look forward to the cloud-based future and bear in mind Kevin’s comment it’s very bad news that the only way to deliver the full RIA experience is going to be via the Apple and Microsoft toll-booth gateways rather than directly between producer and consumer which is what the web is all about.

     
  8. Butler Reynolds Says:
    September 20th, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    You could look at it one way and say that with WinRT, Silverlight, and other technologies, Microsoft has all of the bases covered.

    From the view of an enterprise, it is probably relatively easy to choose which technology to use. But from the developer’s perspective, it’s hard to figure out which technology to choose for the future of his career.

     
  9. Tom Arah Says:
    September 21st, 2011 at 10:20 am

    @David – as you know I have no truck for Flash for menus (neither does Adobe or any Flash developer who knows what they are doing) as CSS now handles this far more efficiently.
    As for banner ads the removal or demotion of Flash won’t make them go away, the new HTML5 versions will just be less efficient and unblockable.
    As for video you are right that this can now be done by HTML5 which is good, but you are wrong that it can be done better. To take just one example, one of the recent additions to Silverlight was the ability to speed up video but with the audio pitch corrected – it will be a long time before HTMLX specifies that and even longer before Opera X implements it.
    More importantly, Flash provides a way for content producers to show everybody their video without giving it away but without going through an app and app store. The open HTML5 video formats are like MP3s and aren’t protected. That is one of the major reasons Jobs wants to kill it so he can charge his 30% on tv and films in the same way as he does for music (and, by killing Flash for tablets) e-print.
    Regarding OOBs I think they are great too and better for lots of scenarios – but that is no reason to ban cross-platform in-browser RIAs, especially when you understand that the whole concept of RIA blurs into rich and protected content like streaming video.
    Ultimately why argue for less choice? Let producers and consumers decide via the open, competitive, direct web market, not Apple and now Microsoft via anti-competitive, anti-web practices.

     
  10. ihsan Says:
    September 21st, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    @Tom

    What I find most puzzling about your whole stance surrounding Flash is why you take such huge umbradge with the actions of Adobe’s competitors. In their taking competitive action against the virtual monopoly that is the proprietary platform – Adobe Flash/AIR?

    To use an analogy: No doubt we would all love to have the ‘choice’ to be able to play PC games or PC software on our games consoles (Regardless of how ill a fit that might actually work out to be in the real world..). But could you imagine proclaiming that, say Nintendo are being ‘anti-competitive’ for ‘banning’ such options on the Wii? Or for not allowing PS3 or xbox 360 games on there?

     
  11. Tom Arah Says:
    September 22nd, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    @Ihsan – I think this is an excellent point and I’m glad that you’ve given me the chance to expand and clarify.
    Firstly I’m sure it’s true that I can come across as an Adobe fanboi and Flash zealot. I’m not a professional Flash developer and am often very critical of the platform (though I think it’s worth pointing out that Flex is actually open source meaning that you can develop SWF-based RIAs for free).
    Indeed given the choice (soon to be sabotaged) I would prefer working with the far superior Expression Studio producing the technically superior Silverlight (a point I am currently writing about for my next rw column)
    In short I am a fan of both Flash and Silverlight in so far as they embody the whole RIA principle of delivering the best possible web experience to the widest possible web audience directly between producer and consumer.
    One of the many beauties of the web is that it is open and extensible via HTML’s object tag and HTML5’s embed tag. Crucially you don’t have to choose between plug-ins to view such content: the end user doesn’t have to choose Flash rather than Silverlight (or a cross-platform iOS runtime if Apple had so chosen). Thanks to the nature of the web they can all coexist and compete within the browser to deliver the best web experience.
    To take your analogy, what we already have with the Web is a universal player that can, by its very nature, deliver both Nintendo and Wii games through RIAs (Flash and Silverlight). What’s more, it can do so directly in the browser (ie universally accessible, no need to install, just jump around, always up-to-date) and directly between content producer and content consumer (ie no gateways, no app stores, no 30% tax on paid-for content, and much wider and richer content creation eg ordinary users being able to include interactive PowerPoint presentations on their site, not just professional developers producing apps via IDEs)
    What we have now is Microsoft giving up on that open dream, embodied in Silverlight, and following Steve Jobs over to the dark side by driving RIAs out of the browser and into the app stores for the reasons discussed in the piece.
    I think it’s appalling, hence my umbrage.

     
  12. Peter Rafferty Says:
    September 23rd, 2011 at 9:20 am

    It seems to me that Windows have developed this software with tablets and smartphones in mind, as opposed to pc’s and laptops. the touch capabilities of the new ose are brilliant so perhaps we won’t see the full potential of windows 8 on pc’s until touch screens become more of a standard feature.

     
  13. Stokegabriel Says:
    September 26th, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    Am I missing something here, I’m running Win XP on a netbook and I get Flash, Silverlight, Air, and plug-in’s with Firefox right now.
    Since when has the future been less?

    @laughing John, I think you mean Microsoft will shoot themselves in the other foot, one’s still in plaster from Vista and I sense another disaster on the horizon.

    The more I see of these future proposals for the Web and new OS, the more I see my future being with Linux.

     
  14. Tom Arah Says:
    September 27th, 2011 at 11:15 am

    @Stokegabriel – you’re right that the whole idea of deliberately moving the Web backwards is pretty extraordinary.
    However the move to tablets is a paradigm shift and the loss of in-browser capabilities is more than made up for by the new native-code out-of-browser apps. If you can move forward two steps, end users will put up with moving back one. Witness the iPad – everyone is delighted with their new apps and think that the disjointed and poorer web experience without Flash (or Silverlight) must be an inevitable and worthwhile price to pay and that Steve Jobs is somehow doing them a favour and that the sooner the web is free of Flash the better. The point is that they could have the rich experience both OOB and in-the-browser and move forward three steps, but it’s not in Apple or Microsoft’s interests to enable it.
    Of course there’s always Android (thank God or this would be a done deal), but the brilliance of just banning the players is that the web is above all a universal space. If Apple and now Microsoft simply won’t play along then the only way to reach everyone is to lower what you can deliver, drop Flash/Silverlight and stick to HTML5 which leaves native OOB apps as the only way to deliver the rich experience.

     
  15. ema Says:
    October 6th, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    In essence IE10 for browser and phone will follow a more Apple/XBOX model, while windows will continue as normal. Is this really a surprise? Is this really news?

     
  16. ema Says:
    October 6th, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    correction to last comment: Should have been Tablets and Phone. MS are going HTML5 and XAML, so I cant see them going full XBOX and Apple on us. Especially since they have outstanding competition like MS.

     
  17. vplusplus Says:
    October 13th, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Open standards!!!

    MSFT kicks out Silverlight off their browser (METRO/ARMS)…
    Now Google is pitching-in for DART…

    Now, will MSFT change course, embed .Net runtime (and XAML support) natively in IE, along with promoting “HTML5/CSS/holy-standards” image?

    Or should MSFT wait and watch DART as they did on tablets, mobile, android, and more and more…

    MSFT has great assets. MSFT can be more successful when they stop chasing others’ tails.

     
  18. Peter Cottle Says:
    October 31st, 2011 at 10:51 am

    The direction of travel is pay per click

     
  19. Jordan Stevens Says:
    December 5th, 2011 at 5:43 am

    Web Developer with experience with everything since 1982: XAML – You are awesome; You rule, Silverlight, WPF, it doesn’t matter – You are a thing of beauty and genius. Flash – Actionscript come on is that for real? CSS – not impressed. HTML – You suck really bad. Javascript – You suck entirely; you are a disgrace. Java – You are good – but come on, you’re all over the place and falling behind. NativeClient – I only wish you would take over… Then all problems would be solved. Come on Google, save us, cause Microsoft’s design is awesome, but business model sucks, cause Apple’s business model also sucks, cause Sun is dead. Google, you are all we got. Save us with NativeClient and the Xaml library you promised us. Please!!! I can’t stand the stupidity out there!!!

     
  20. Ben Hoe Says:
    December 21st, 2012 at 8:50 am

    Good article. Flash and Silverlight developers can just create apps, which I prefer since you don’t have to waste hours pissing about with internet explorer. It’s not the end of the world! Pun intended

     

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