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Microsoft under Fire: Silverlight Missteps as Windows Phone Debuts

Windows Phone 7 devices reached retailers' shelves in the United States on Monday. Developers' excitement about the U.S. rollout may have waned somewhat after the recent confusion over the future of Silverlight, Microsoft's rich Internet application (RIA) and Windows Phone 7 development platform.

That uncertainty was sparked by reports of alleged internal HTML5 versus Silverlight conflicts (IE9 supports HTML5, Windows Phone 7 at launch does not); confusing blog postings from Microsoft and a de-emphasis on Silverlight technology outside of WP7 development at PDC last month.

Those sparks were then fueled by comments at PDC from Bob Muglia, president of Microsoft's Server and Tools Division, about a shift in Silverlight's strategy, which were reported by long time tech reporter Mary Jo Foley in her blog. Various interpretations of Muglia's comments went viral, which ignited a Web uproar: "Silverlight is dead for the Web." "Silverlight is the new IE6."

The ensuing panic wreaked havoc for many developers. Some reported sleepless nights; others faced tough questions after working hard to convince management and customers to place big bets on Silverlight technology. Many Silverlight devotees, however, remain unfazed.

Scott Guthrie, Silverlight lead and corporate vice president of Microsoft's Developer Division, tried to address the Silverlight questions in his blog. He reiterated what Muglia had tried to explain in a Silverlight team blog after the Mary Jo incendiary. Silverlight is a strategic technology for Microsoft. The company's investments in the technology focus on three core areas: client apps inside and outside of the browser, apps on devices (Windows Mobile and Windows Embedded), and media solutions.

Guthrie, who is currently on paternity leave (so he probably wasn't sleeping that much anyway) explained:

"Where our strategy has shifted since we first started working on Silverlight is that the number of Internet connected devices out there in the world has increased significantly in the last 2 years (not just with phones, but also with embedded devices like TVs), and trying to get a single implementation of a runtime across all of them is no longer really practical (many of the devices are closed platforms that do not allow extensibility). This is true for any single runtime implementation - whether it is Silverlight, Flash, Java, Cocoa, a specific HTML5 implementation, or something else."

At least his blog was to the point. Guthrie is expected to talk more about the technology when he gives the keynote for the Silverlight Firestarter on December 2nd, an all-day educational event that will be streamed live and also available on-demand.

Microsoft's failure to communicate that Silverlight is no longer viewed as an universal cross-platform runtime solution for .NET developers--did anyone ever really think that it would work that well beyond Windows--underscores why a chief software architect or chief technologist, who can formulate and articulate the company's vision to all of its constituents from risk adverse executives to developers to Wall St. analysts remains critical. It's time to re-evaluate the decision not to replace Ray Ozzie.

With social media and the Internet promising viral exposure of perceived missteps, a brush fire that isn't put out immediately can threaten developers' livelihoods and make many people question their allegiance to Microsoft's stack despite great technology and tooling. Silverlight developers deserve better.

What's your take on the future of Silverlight? Does Microsoft's shift in strategy affect your plans for Windows Phone app development? Express your thoughts below or drop me a line at krichards@1105media.com.

Posted by Kathleen Richards on 11/09/2010 at 12:54 PM

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Reader Comments:

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 Marc Schluper

Developers who know Silverlight do not reject it. It's awesome. Sure, it might be possible for some people to create my Silverlight applications in HTML5 but surely they cannot do it as fast as I can do it with Silverlight. Its databinding and templating are delicious. They save lots of time and allow me to add more and more features while hardly adding complexity. Moreover, I can use a mature and evolving language like C# and don't need to waste time struggling in JavaScript. And then there is the tooling. And indeed, the performance - no need to send state info back and forth, no need to use a DOM, no need to peel the data out of the mix of data and markup. It's easy (even the most obvious thing to do) to retrieve data only once and cache it on the client. And there is more: tons of controls whereas after 15 YEARS (!!) HTML still does not have any (well, there are some in jQuery, but jQuery does not even have a TreeView or a splitter control). Imagine: you could have a Datagrid in your application in minutes, and it comes out of the box with scroll bars, sorting, paging, frozen columns etc. Data visualization is a blast with Silverlight. And it's all free! So. Before you reject anything, make sure you know what it is.

Thu, Nov 11, 2010 Ray Burns

In my opinion it won't be long before we see a Silverlight impementation that targets JavaScript/HTML5 as its runtime, making Silverlight truly universal.

Thu, Nov 11, 2010 Ray Burns

Silverlight is a car. HTML5 is a bicycle. Cars can't go everywhere bikes can, but carry more people and get to the destination faster. Silverlight can't go everywhere HTML5 can, but much more powerful and usable applications can be developed, faster. There's room in this world for both cars and bikes. Silverlight won't be in any danger until another decent car model comes along. Long live cars!

Thu, Nov 11, 2010 Andrew Smith

@Kate, the fact you see silverlight as just a web development platform means you dont understand it, or .net in general. Silverlight doesnt have to run in the browser, silverlight is all about real applications, not just some fancy websites. html 5 can be used for that, and thats the point. richer web experiences with html 5, yes...rich applications, silverlight...Is Java dead? Is .NET dead? Are other programming languages dead that deliver apps / games etc on actual platforms....errr, no....Sorry, but you dont understand what silverlight is, and what it can do...far too many people have the narrow view that its just a web technology for making flashy websites....Hence, people saying its dead, because they dont know what it really is...

Thu, Nov 11, 2010 Andrew Smith UK

Typical journo rubbish and poor reporting has sparked all of this off...Sure the world has changed, but also Silverlight couldnt keep going through so many major version releases so quickly. Its done that to get in line with the complete .NET family, all now on v4.0. Silverlight is a core technology for Microsoft, it was never to replace HTML 5 and I understood that rich web apps would be implemented in HTML 5 (microsofts plans to be involved in html 5 has meant they have the most compliant html 5 browser out there in ie9). However, silverlight is more about a real technology that deliveres desktop based apps via the web. it delivers apps to multiple platforms, such as mobile etc. html 5 has its place, and silveright has its place, the two overlap in only a few places, and thats all that has been illustrated....

Wed, Nov 10, 2010 Bryan Morris

What we have here is a fundamental conflict between the desire for standards (although how anyone can call HTML a standard is beyond me since even simple stuff renders differently in different browsers) versus the desire for productivity. Given enough time, resources, and patience, you could create and maintain just about any piece of software using just about any environment and tools. However, creating increasingly complex RIAs with the brain dead HTML/CSS/Javascript/4 million libraries stack strains the time constraints and resources that companies have and exceeds the patience of professional developers used to working with even modestly productive development environments. Silverlight should be more correctly called Silverbullet because it massively overdelivers on the productivity and capability needed to create RIAs. If standards are a problem, why not just turn the future definition Silverlight (post version 5 say) over to a standards body like Netscape did with Javascript and whoever did with HTML? Then the standards crybabies would have their objections undercut and those of us who actually do professional software development could get on with our work. This whole "shift" towards HTML5 from Microsoft seems like a strategic effort to team up with Adobe and others against Apple for dominance in the mobile arena. Imagine what Steve Jobs would do if Apple owned Silverlight. First off, it would be available on every platform under the sun like Quicktime is.

Wed, Nov 10, 2010 Bob Boston, MA

Silverlight was never going to be a universal technology thanks to Steve Jobs and others. But HTML5 cannot do everything Silverlight can do and is deeply flawed because it does NOT work the same in different browsers, different platforms and never will. So developers will need to be clever and write apps multiple times, with multiple technologies.

Wed, Nov 10, 2010

I am doing all my line of business apps in Silverlight. If it runs on a phone great, but if not so what. My stuff needs at least 900 by 900 pixels so that is a lot of scrolling on a phone. I like Silverlight.

Wed, Nov 10, 2010 Sunil London

Ummm.... does HTML 5 support data access like Silverlight does ? I think not .... Does HTML5 support Line of Business apps like SL does ? I think not ....

Wed, Nov 10, 2010 Bassam

did they say its dead? no , they said a statement that is misinterpreted then corrected by emphasizing the importance of SL in the stack , in many areas , full featured UI bussiness apps where HTML5 cant dream of , advanced media , WP7 , WinEmbeded , if they decied to give HTML5 an important role that does not mean the other fully featured and currently available (not in 2022 full HTML5 standard) technology is dead , hey , some logic please , they have already interpreted the statement and said SL is super important , what do we need more?

Tue, Nov 9, 2010

Mostly dead. Microsoft once again lures developers down a technological path (how many data access strategies has MS had?) -- in the case of Silverlight, a very good one -- and then cuts them off at the knees. And just to add to the merriment, they tie the technology's future to a technology for which they're four years late and still in third or fourh place -- Windows Phone 7.

Tue, Nov 9, 2010 80's Rocker Blue Springs

Silverlight is not dead,except to those who are MS haters. Yes, Silverlight might not run in current mobile browsers, but who is to say it will not in the future. Plus as a .net developers I do not need Silverlight application to run on Andriod or IPhone. Because I can write a Silverlight application for the WinPhone7, then use MonoTouch and MonoDroid to port them to those phones (and if i wrote the code right most of the code can be shared between all three applications. Developers for Android and IPhone applications cannot day that. MS has never said Silverlight is dead, it just said that HTML 5 is also a big part of their future plans. And there is no reason to think that silverlight and HTML5 cannot be used together to make an even better user experience. There are still a lot of limitation in HTML5 that Silverlight/Flash do not have so neither are dead.

Tue, Nov 9, 2010 Kate SF

Silverlight is dead. Period. It should be obvious to everyone that Silverlight has no future as a web development platform. Most of the activity and excitement in computing these days is in mobile. Yet there is no mobile browser on any platform that supports Silverlight. That says it all. That relegates Silverlight to just being the platform for development on Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 handsets. The trouble here is that Windows Phone 7 itself isn't doing well, with reports of only 40,000 units being sold on launch day (see TheStreet data). If that figure is accurate, then Windows Phone 7 has a bleak future. The failure of Silverlight represents the failure of Microsoft to get its platforms accepted by the public. Gone are the days when Microsoft could force everyone to use its technology. HTM5 is now gaining critical mass, and exponential growth. Recent surveys have shown HTML5 to be more commonly used in mobile websites than Flash (see MeFeedia study). Vendors of HTML5 developer tools are rushing new products to market. For phone apps, Android is it, with iOS in second place. No other platform even registers.

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