Morgan Stanley: why we didn’t use Silverlight for Matrix

I attended an online briefing about Morgan Stanley’s Matrix [warning: lots of Flash with sound effects], a tool for financial trading which has been written in Adobe Flex.  Adobe’s Andrew Shorten has more information here, and notes:

Matrix was developed by Morgan Stanley with user experience consultation from Adobe Professional Services and technical delivery by Lab 49 in partnership with Adobe Professional Services and others.

Unfortunately I missed the first part of the briefing thanks to streaming issues (I wasn’t alone), but things settled down after 15 minutes or so. Hishaam Mufti-Bey, Matrix founder and global director at Morgan Stanley, spoke about the application and the technology it uses. He emphasized the value of zero-install:

The technology is out of the way, no-one has a problem with running the application. It’s now about how tight our prices are, how good our content is, which is always what we wanted to have happen … we want to deliver our franchise to the client without taxing their systems, or having to get past firewall issues, or install software and IT security will get in the way and it takes months to deploy.

I couldn’t agree more. The app itself looks great, though details of how it works were sketchy, I guess for commercial reasons. We were also told little about the server side of the application. Performance is said to be good, despite what is apparently 600,000 lines of code (I’m not 100% clear if this is all Flex code running on the client):

We’ve seen up to 40 currency players running on the screen and getting up to about 400 updates a second

claimed Mufti-Bey, though he added later than lack of multi-threading support is an issue. Next, he took a pop at Microsoft’s Silverlight:

Going out to clients and not installing software, that is a major show-stopper for Silverlight. If Silverlight turned around and offered that one day, that I didn’t need to install stuff on the client’s PC, then it would be a head-to-head. Flash is on 97.7% of the world’s browsers. That was a major consideration for us.

It’s an interesting point, though I’d have thought his comments need some qualification. Flash and Silverlight are both browser plug-ins, so the install issue is similar: if the plug-in is already installed, the app will just run in the browser, but if it is not installed in the right version, the user will need to install the plug-in first. According to riastats.com Flash is up to about 74.5% for version 10 and 20.5% for version 9; I’m not sure if Matrix requires version 10, but if it does then Mufti-Bey is exaggerating a little. Matrix currently uses Flash 9 (see comments). Silverlight by contrast is on 30% for version 2 and 1% for the just-released version 3.

Installing a browser plug-in is easy for most of us, but in a locked-down corporate environment may be problematic, and there is always some percentage of installs that will be troublesome. I’ve found installing Silverlight a smooth and quick process; but undoubtedly Flash is a de-facto standard whereas Silverlight is not. Microsoft can only address this by persuading more of us to develop Silverlight apps, and using it more in its own sites and products – like the forthcoming Office 2010 web applications, for example.

Still, the need to install the Silverlight plug-in where necessary is far less burdensome than either a classic Windows setup, or a requirement for the full .Net Framework; and Microsoft has also removed the requirement to run Windows itself by supporting Intel Mac. It sounds as if Microsoft is going in the right direction, even if catching Flash is a tough challenge.

That might not be enough, according to Mufti-Bey. Asked about the importance of designer-developer workflow, he remarked:

You have to look at the people that use that technology. The design community. That’s the biggest problem that Microsoft has. The designers all carry around Apple laptops, they all use the Photosuite [sic] set of software tools. It’s like asking structural engineers to stop using CAD applications. That’s the tool that they use, and if you can’t convince them to switch away from your software suite you are going to get a limited number of designers that will use Microsoft’s toolset … if you can’t get the designers to switch, to learn a new language, then how can you possibly ever get some traction?

Well, it wasn’t the answer to the question posed, but an interesting point nevertheless. Let’s presume that he is right, and nobody will switch from Photoshop. Is it so hard for Mac-wielding designers to work with .NET developers? There must be something in it, bearing in mind the effort Microsoft has made to improve Photoshop import in Expression Blend 3.0.

Overall I would like to have heard more about the process and challenges of developing a large Flex application, and less about why not to use Silverlight, interesting topic though it is.

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24 comments to Morgan Stanley: why we didn’t use Silverlight for Matrix

  • Hi Tim,

    The Morgan Stanley Matrix application currently requires Flash Player 9 and hence the reference to zero install for the majority of their clients.

    Adobe has started publishing statistics (compiled by Forrester) relating to the availability of Flash Player within enterprise environments. The results from the most recent survey show 96.8% of corporate users can view Flash Player 9 content. More information on my blog at: http://www.ashorten.com/2009/07/10/enterprise-flash-player-penetration-statistics-published/

    Thanks,

    Andrew
    (Adobe Platform Evangelist)

  • … and it’s much less risky to install a new browser plugin than to install a new browser… the browser chrome is part of our navigational habits. The WhatWG’s approach to Internet Explorer’s majority status seems to be missing something big.

    (For creative tooling, I’m not so sure… Microsoft wouldn’t need to replace Photoshop so much as play nicely with it. They’ve already got one-way import and so can support toss-it-over-the-wall workflows.)

    The Morgan-Stanley project sounds fascinating. I’d like to learn more about how people use it — how they first approach it, how they become powerusers, how they’d like it to change. They’re a very important test audience.

    jd/adobe

  • Microsoft doesn’t need to replace Photoshop. If developers want to build Silverlight apps, they can directly import Photoshop and Illustrator files into Expression Blend. They can even manipulate them (add live data, etc.) without modifying the original PSD.

    I think there’s a great story around Adobe and Silverlight that people haven’t seen.

    Check out this demo for an example:

    Integrating Microsoft Expression Blend with Adobe Creative Suite

  • Fallon Massey

    This is the biggest weakness of Silverlight… runtime distribution.

    Silverlight is the obvious choice of anyone building a modern RIA, not that Flash/Flex is a bad choice, but without threading, it’s, well, ancient.

    Having said that, Silverlight won’t get my public facing development until it commands a lot more browser share.

    You simply can’t have paying customers install yet another plugin before you can do business with them.

  • Joshua Ochs

    You can talk all you like about how the install process is similar, but you’ve already lost.

    Flash is installed on 98% of PC’s. Silverlight is not. Therefore the Flash
    “install process” doesn’t exist for 98% of users. Done.

  • Darren

    @Tim, you could have done some research and found that, assuming that a company like Morgan Stanley is not developing with beta software, the current version of Flex targets Flash 9. Why would you even bring up the possibility that Mufti-Bey was exaggerating when there was no reason for doing so? Implying that maybe he was telling a little white lie when he was doing nothing of the sort?

    @Fallon, “Silverlight is the obvious choice of anyone building a modern RIA” – well, except for people who actually build RIAs, very few of whom choose Silverlight. Is threading the most important factor? I’ve never found that the speed and responsiveness of a well-written Flex app has been an issue. What is important is the breadth of the component set and the developer workflow. When Flex 4 and Flash Catalyst are officially released in the coming months, Adobe will be even further ahead in these areas.

  • tim

    @Darren there’s a wider issue though – which is that the version matters as well as the fact that Flash is used. Sometimes this gets confused – it’s a particularly important point if you want to use it as a stick with which to beat Silverlight.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Tim

  • tim

    @Joshua surely the Flash install process exists for users (I’ve done it myself countless times), just not for your particular app unless you are unlucky?

    Tim

  • John Allwright

    It’s great to hear Morgan Stanley and other enterprise customers acknowledge that Silverlight and Flash/Flex are both credible options for delivering Rich Internet Applications only 22 months after the first version of Silverlight was released.

    Silverlight penetration is growing at an unprecedented rate and with customers I speak with it’s no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the install base will equal or exceed that of the Flash plug-in. Microsoft continues to be is fully committed to Silverlight and a recent report by Evans Data show that the rate of adoption by developers and thus applications is set to accelerate based on their future plans.

    For applications deployed within an enterprise deployment of the plug-in is a non-issue as the install can be automated centrally using SMS.

    For Financial Services, Lab49 are also working with Silverlight and you can see Daniel Chait (MD of Lab49) co-presenting on our recent ‘Visual Kitchen’ TV show (http://www.seethelight.com). Lab49 are one of the first RIA companies to work with the new Sketchflow capabilities in Expression Blend to rapidly deliver real client projects in Silverlight (without Microsoft Professional Services afaik!).

    RIAs need both User Experience Design and Development skills – at Microsoft we avoid stereotypes preferring to innovate tooling flexibly around design and development that still interoperates with existing tools.

    As well as SketchFlow, the latest version of Expression Studio added comprehensive integration with Adobe design tools such as PhotoShop and Illustrator as well as tight integration with Visual Studio and Team System source control for developer collaboration.

    Matrix is great news for the industry – we need more high profile, public RIAs to fuel the debate and to show Enterprises and customers just how rewarding investment in User Experience can be.

    John Allwright
    Silverlight Product Manager
    Microsoft

  • Hi John,

    Silverlight adoption appears (from the third party sites that monitor such things) to be growing slowly but steadily. For example riastats shows the adoption curve for Silverlight to be flatter than the adoption curve for Flash Player 10. So I don’t understand why you would say it is growing at an “unprecedented rate.” Do you have some information or context you can share with us that shows it is unprecedented in some respect?

    Also, where can we get a copy or detailed summary of the recent Evans report regarding the rate of adoption amongst developers.

  • Jo

    @Darren, not sure what you mean by implying Flash 10 is beta. It was released October 2008 therefore it was entirely feasible that the product was developed to target the v10 runtime at release. I don’t think Tim was exaggerating here.

    Regarding use of flex vs silverlight for enterprise RIA applications, I suggest you have a read of Alex Vandenberg’s post at http://codertron.blogspot.com/2009/05/flex-3-versus-silverlight-3-in.html. Maybe you can work out which flex application he recently worked on…

  • Jo

    @Darren, sorry forgot to include link re: Flash 10 dev in Flex 3 –
    http://opensource.adobe.com/wiki/display/flexsdk/Targeting+Flash+Player+10

  • The unfortunate problem Microsoft faces in the RIA space is that technological superiority – code quality, reliability, maintainability, size, performance, etc – is basically worthless.

    For most customers evaluating Flex and Silverlight side-by-side, all of Silverlight’s strong points don’t matter because 98% of their customers have Flash and 5-15% at most will have Silverlight. Even Flex/Flash’s numerous crippling flaws and design mistakes can’t outweigh the fact that everyone has it installed.

    As mentioned in the post, ultimately the only way for MS to overcome this is to get Silverlight installed on more machines and incentivize people to use it to create more content.

    Offering a competitive feature set is a start, but I suspect they may need to go further and start distributing the plugin via Windows Update. No doubt that would draw antitrust complaints from numerous tinfoil hat wearers, but it’s probably the only way for them to start gaining market share rapidly enough to present a threat to Flash.

    Honestly, even if doing that required that they also deploy updated versions of Flash Player for ‘fairness’ it would probably still be a worthwhile business decision in order to establish a level playing field.

    Adobe’s recent track record with Flash and Acrobat clearly demonstrates that they could take a nap for 5 years like Microsoft did with IE, or even actively sabotage the quality of their own product and still hold on to the majority of their marketshare due to inertia.

  • John Allwright

    The Evans Data report is referenced in quote a few articles – here’s one : http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Application-Development/Silverlight-Adoption-Expected-to-Triple/

  • junihor

    “The unfortunate problem Microsoft faces in the RIA space is that technological superiority – code quality, reliability, maintainability, size, performance, etc – is basically worthless.”

    Then how come TVs could ever beat Radios some decades ago given that Radios had 100% of penetration rate back then while TVs started out from 0% and cost lot more? If you only count on penetration rate to fend off SilverLight, good luck. I don’t think every browser comes with a PDF plugin in it yet it hasn’t stop people from installing one and reading the PDF files online, has it?

  • Clyde Davies

    Then how come TVs could ever beat Radios some decades ago given that Radios had 100% of penetration rate back then while TVs started out from 0% and cost lot more?

    A better question might be to ask why DAB Radio has been such a miserable failure compared to analogue radio, given its manifest improvements in quality and technical advantages?

  • The comparison between Flex and Silverlight is pretty simple.

    Flex benefits: Almost all browsers have flash installed.

    Silverlight benefits: Vastly superior technology and development tools.

  • Hi Craig,

    I don’t believe the comparison between Flash/Flex and Silverlight is so simple.

    While the browser installation rate is critically important for many applications it is not always so important in organizations that control the desktop AND are primarily .Net shops. Similarly, some organizations will always be less risk averse if there is something else driving them to use Silverlight.

    On technology and development tools there are still things you can do with Flash 10 that you cannot do with Silverlight 3 including sophisticated text flow, peer-to-peer data, audio, and video transfer, and local audio and video capture. On the other hand Silverlight’s raw code execution performance is clearly better. So things aren’t really so simple. Tools for developing entire projects – including things like Flash, Flex framework, Flash Catalyst, Flash Building, CS4 and so on – again its not so simple.

    Of course both Adobe and Microsoft continue to improve their products so that what seems true today is certain to change next year and the year after.

  • Josh

    I was at Morgan when they were developing this, and I have to say it’s amazing, but the irony is that most banks and other large financial companies don’t support Flash at all. I’m on IE6 as I write this. I’m not an expert like the ones on this site, but it seems to me that .NET can do a lot of the same stuff without any dependency on web browsers — wouldn’t that be better for enterprise technology like this?

  • Arch

    It’s amazing how much weight is put on a 30 second download. The download of silverlight (or flash) plugin is a non-issue. But if this is the only lifesaver the flash folks can hang on to, I guess they will… for dear life. Take a look at the job reqs on dice.com, etc. The number of Silverlight positions are going through the roof.

  • AJ

    I don’t understand the installed / not installed argument. When my content requires Flash 10 what do you think I’ll do? The installed argument doesn’t carry much weight in my book. Silverlight will gain acceptance as Flash has.

    I suspect that Flash 10 is increasing its penetration due to the prevalence of Flash in general. Its installation can’t really be compared with the success of Flash or Silverlight. It would be better to compare new projects.

    Flash is commercially more expensive. I hope Silverlight penetration at least reduces the TCO for Flash applications.

    I also find it hard to ignore the .NET integration.

    Personally, I believe they both have a place at the table as do the AJAX technologies. I doubt I’ll ever see a compelling argument to alter the dynamics of my technology organisation to accommodate one over the other. External factors will drive adoption.

  • I am a Silverlight Developer and about these comparisons, all I can say is compare the applications that have been built using Silverlight or Flash. About Morgan Stanley Matrix application, the UI looks very interactive and engaging. On the business side, may it be silverlight or flash as long as it is serving me something and giving me anything that I need, I WILL DOWNLOAD THE PLUGIN. On the developer side, FOR ME, the latest silverlight version can almost do anything including this Morgan Stanley Matrix application. Or even a better one.

  • AG

    Plug-in dependency: you are missing one key point regarding the Silverlight plug-in at banks. Although you (mostly developers) can download/install plug-ins on your PCs, most bank users and institutional clients do not have Admin access to their PC, so cannot download & install on demand. They have to request an Administrator or Help Desk to do this and make take days. Many clients will lose interest if they have to go through this process.