Microsoft’s Silverlight dream is over

Remember “WPF Everywhere”? Microsoft’s strategy was to create a small cross-platform runtime that would run .NET applications on every popular platform, as well as forming a powerful multimedia player. Initially just a browser plug-in, Silverlight 3 and 4 took it to the next level, supporting out of browser applications that integrate with the desktop.

The pace of Silverlight development was unusually fast, from version 1.0 in 2007 to version 4.0 in April 2010, and Microsoft bragged about how many developer requests it satisfied with the latest version.

Silverlight has many strong features, performs well, and to me is the lightweight .NET client Microsoft should have done much earlier. That said, there have always been holes in the Silverlight story. One is Linux support, where Microsoft partnered with Novell’s open source Mono project but without conviction. More important, device support has been lacking. Silverlight never appeared for Windows Mobile; there is a Symbian port that nobody talks about; a version for Intel’s Moblin/Meego was promised but has gone quiet – though it may yet turn up – and there is no sign of a port for Android. Silverlight is no more welcome on Apple’s iOS (iPhone and iPad), of course, than Adobe’s Flash; but whereas Adobe has fought hard to get Flash content onto iOS one way or another, such as through its native code packager, Microsoft has shown no sign of even trying.

In the early days of Silverlight, simply supporting Windows and Mac accounted for most of what people wanted from a cross-platform client. That is no longer the case.

Further, despite a few isolated wins, Silverlight has done nothing to dent the position of Adobe Flash as a cross-platform multimedia and now application runtime. Silverlight has advantages, such as the ability to code in C# rather than ActionScript, but the Flash runtime has the reach and the partners. At the recent MAX conference RIM talked up Flash on the Blackberry tablet, the Playbook, and Google talked up Flash on Google TV. I have not heard similar partner announcements for Silverlight.

Why has not Microsoft done more to support Silverlight? It does look as if reports of internal factions were correct. Why continue the uphill struggle with Silverlight, when a fast HTML 5 browser, in the form of IE9, meets many of the same needs and will work across the Apple and Google platforms without needing a non-standard runtime?

Here at PDC Microsoft has been conspicuously quiet about Silverlight, other than in the context of Windows Phone 7 development. IE9 man Dean Hachamovitch remarked that “accelerating only pieces of the browser holds back the web”, and last night Microsoft watcher Mary-Jo Foley got Server and Tools president Bob Muglia to admit that “our strategy has shifted” away from Silverlight and towards HTML 5 as the cross-platform client runtime, noting that this was a route to running on Apple’s mobile devices.

The Silverlight cross-platform dream is over, it seems, but let me add that Silverlight, like Microsoft itself, is not dead yet. Microsoft is proud of its virtual PDC streaming application, which is built in Silverlight. The new portal for Windows Azure development and management is Silverlight. The forthcoming Visual Studio Lightswitch generates Silverlight apps. And to repeat, Silverlight is the development platform for Windows Phone 7, about which we have heard a lot at PDC.

Let’s not forget that IE9 is still a preview, and HTML 5 is not a realistic cross-platform application runtime yet, if you need broad reach.

Muglia’s remarks, along with others here at PDC, are still significant. They suggest that Microsoft’s investment in Silverlight is now slowing. Further, if Microsoft itself is downplaying Silverlight’s role, it will tend to push developers towards Adobe Flash. Alternatively, if developers do migrate towards HTML 5, they will not necessarily focus on IE9. Browsers like Google Chrome are available now, and will probably stay ahead of IE in respect of HTML 5 support.

I hope these latest reports will trigger further clarification of Microsoft’s plans for Silverlight. I’d also guess that if Windows Phone 7 is a big success, then Silverlight on the Web will also get a boost – though judging from the early days in the UK, the new phone is making a quiet start.

Finally, if Microsoft is really betting on HTML 5, expect news on tools and libraries to support this new enthusiasm – maybe at the Mix conference scheduled for April 2011.

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  2. Silverlight in Microsoft products – Silverlight the new Windows runtime, HTML 5 the new Silverlight?
  3. Silverlight versus HTML, Flash – Microsoft defends its role
  4. Silverlight 2.0 is released, Eclipse tools for Silverlight announced
  5. Silverlight 5 is done. Is Silverlight also done?

19 comments to Microsoft’s Silverlight dream is over

  • Alan Cobb

    Good post Tim, although you might have ended your headline with “…sort of”.

    I agree the long-shot dream of a significant cross-platform Silverlight appears gone. But I guess that was unlikely anyway.

    The cross-platform goal may be good for app developers, but there is not enough economic incentive for platform builders. MS doesn’t even have enough resources to fully build out and support their own WPF and SL-on-Windows at the same time, let alone finance an Android version of SL. If MS was able to do iPhone/iPad and Android versions of SL, that would give buyers even less reason to gamble on MS’s own Windows Phone.

    SL will be a Windows-centric development option, in the same way Objective-C is for Apple and Java is for Android.

    I’m glad MS is taking “HTML5″ seriously, but I don’t look forward to working with it. “HTML5″ is at the same pie-in-the-sky, dream stage that SL recently was. The eventual reality will probably be more of the current write-once, debug everywhere, mind-numbing fun. But it will run on the iPad and Android. Wonderful :).

    Alan Cobb

  • Merennulli

    I can’t agree with the “…sort of”. Honestly, if Windows Phone 7 doesn’t support HTML5 and soon, it will be as dead as the Kin. They’ve gotten a lot of energy behind it, mostly from people who are pro-MS or .NET developers, and hoping for a reprieve from the dismal Mobile 6.x that Windows 7 seemed to provide to those plagued by Vista. Even among those, many are dissuaded by the decision to copy Apple’s mistakes, both in badly limiting multitasking and in a license agreement that has made a lot of developers curse the wildly successful iPhone. Without that “wildly successful”, Microsoft already has CHOSEN to be the redheaded stepchild of the mobile market. And if they do fully support HTML5, developers are more often going to spend their time making hacky ways of getting HTML5 to do things rather than learning Silverlight’s quirks just to use a butchered version of C#.

    With Windows Phone 7 as the flagship of what is left of Silverlight, Silverlight isn’t dead yet, but it’s bleeding heavily with no help in sight.

  • Bob F

    It seems a little early to me to be holding SLs funeral. HTML 5 may eventually be fine for lightweight web apps, but many complex apps will still require SL/Flash. And I’m expecting more, not fewer, advanced web apps. And how many web developers will want to go back to the “write once, tweak everywhere” development environment HTML 5 will bring? Adobe doesn’t appear to be throwing in the towel on Flash just because HTML 5 is coming because they understand there’s a place for both. Surely MS must understand that too.

    MS is holding a “Silverlight Firestarter” conference on Dec 2. One of the sessions is entitled “Silverlight Today and Tomorrow”. I’ll wait for that before making judgement.

  • tim

    It seems a little early to me to be holding SLs funeral. HTML 5 may eventually be fine for lightweight web apps, but many complex apps will still require SL/Flash.

    I agree, but if Microsoft itself is losing faith it becomes hard to recommend as a platform in which to invest.

    That said, clearly Microsoft is not abandoning Silverlight; but it does seem to be moving from the centre to the periphery of its development strategy.

    You will get different stories depending who you talk to unfortunately.

    Look forward to your report from the Silverlight event :-)

    Tim

  • Stephane Rodriguez

    1- Remember that IE9 is intentionally tied to the underlying OS. It’s Windows 98 all over again. The spirit of planned obsolescence is still alive in Redmond.

    2- Silverlight vs HTML : the fact that Microsoft, in a conference, positions HTML in front of Silverlight is just marketing speak. Are not we used to it?

    3- HTML is just markup not a runtime : to do interaction and effects it requires components that have always been ActiveX controls. Silverlight is an ActiveX control. To say the web will be governed by HTML even though HTML itself cannot render video (to say one example) is funny to say the least.

    4- Microsoft has a history record for messing with HTML markup making it more optimized for their platform. So even “settling on HTML5″ does not preclude gazillions of non-standard ways to handle pieces of markup.

    5- Silverlight is based on .NET, therefore subject to a more complex layering of code than say native components. Microsoft isn’t positioning Silverlight forefront because they know very well that a piece of UI made in .NET will always be less responsive than a native counterpart, especially as the complexity grows. And this goes to the detriment not only to Windows Phone 7 but also to .NET developers out there. Windows and Office are written with native code : that means Microsoft still does not believe .NET is credible replacement of native code even on a device where the number of simultaneous running tasks is smaller and the number of things to render is smaller too.

  • George

    Tim, I think you’re jumping to conclusions here, based only on the latest marketing push you’re hearing. SL has only recently gone through a major upgrade to 4 and also for WP7, both have been pushed hard but they need to highlight other areas this time. That doesn’t mean SL is dying! Look at the stats to see how many developers are now targeting SL and WPF.
    Apple’s iOS proves that cross platform is not the Holy Grail, people are happy to develop new apps for a rich client platform that suits their market, and for many that platform will be Silverlight or WPF.

  • tim

    @George I agree, Silverlight is not dying, and said so in the post, but it seems it is headed for a lesser role than was once envisaged.

    Tim

  • Iggy

    Microsoft is most likely going to acquire Adobe, that’s why they are changing their stance with Silverlight. I am not sure what the fate of Silverlight will be after MS gobbles Adobe, but am sure Flash will die faster than it was dying after the merger\acquisition.

  • The silverlight team gave their view on this.

    http://team.silverlight.net/announcement/the-future-of-silverlight/

    My view is that I couldn’t be happier if javascript would just die already, the development tools are nowhere close to the SL tools, the language is error prone compared to C# and the performance of SL is many times faster than even the new highly JITed javascript engines in the browsers.

    Why load the UI over the wire for every page refresh when you don’t have to? HTML is a document markup format that has been bent into something it was never meant to be.

    Release the SL engine as an open platform, monetize on the tools.

    Also there is both monotouch and monodroid, you have to reimplement the UI, but I actually think that is a good thing, the UI should be tailored to the platform it is running on.

  • Ken Jackson

    Crazy idea… what if Silverlight ended up being the development platform for rapid development of HTML5/CSS/Javascript applications? Think the VB6 of desktop apps.

    Then you get the goodness of the Silverlight development platform, but the run anywhereness of HTML(5).

    If MS announced that, it would tie together all of the loose ends.

    I personally would rather program on that stack than ASP.NET or ASP.NET MVC. But it seems like a pipedream.

  • Tim,

    >Look forward to your report from the Silverlight event

    Apparently everyone, worldwide will be able to view the Dec. 2nd, 2010 Silverlight Firestarter event via a live video stream. (Search for Silverlight Firestarter). Hopefully it will have less viewing glitches than this week’s first-ever 100% streamed PDC.

    Scott Guthrie will start with a keynote at 8am. In addition to the technical talks, there is a session at 1pm titled “Silverlight Today and Tomorrow (Special Guest Panel)”. I assume that and the keynote will speak to the Silverlight positioning issues.

    I’m happy the session list is not dominated by SL-on-WP7.

    Maybe they should rename the Dec. 2nd event to: “Silverlight: I’m not dead yet!”.

    Alan Cobb

  • Grzegorz Maj

    Silverlight is dead already. Apple is cool now, MS is not cool. Apple sets rules of engagement, MS has to bend itself to it. That is the way it works now. When Apple says: HTML5, every site drops/or has plans to drop flash.
    MS is strong in corporations, but some of them consider Apple’s products, some of them see this(or overall trend) and do not want to lock itself. 3D(in browser by SL) could bring MS edge, Apple, and HTML have nothing as an answer. Or SL rendering HTML5 and JS when no plugin is detected. BTW Apple has Java on sight now.

  • marvin

    Well, silverlight is a very good technology. Do you believe IE9 and HTML5 will success? The future is Chrome, do you believe? MS should say IE is dead and make Silverlight to compete with HTML5.

  • My first experience with silverlight was with the bing toolbox. To be honest I quite liked it as it was lightweight and easy to use. If MS is planning to exit from the silverlight, maybe there will be an update soon to the toolbox with maybe html5.

  • Thanigainathan

    Its very sad to hear a news like this. But the reality is its been almost three years now since Silverlight was out but only a few companies are supporting Silverlight ,may be because of Adobe Flash. Within this time HTML 5 comes into picture and steals the show. Now my passion towards silverlight is hit. Why Microsoft suddenly took a decision like this ? Why cant they proceed with both Silverlight and HTML 5 with same aspiration ?

    Thanks,
    Thani

  • ae

    I think the way to look at this is that Silverlight never gained enough traction against Flash to really remain competitive now that HTML5 is on the scene. I don’t think that Silverlight will go away, but I think that the meeting that happened between Adobe & Microsoft was probably related to Microsoft’s announcement this week. Is Microsoft going to buy Adobe–I doubt it. But I think that both companies have a vested interest in competing with Apple and I’m guessing that they intend to work together on doing just this in the future. So having a strong competition between Silverlight and Flash wasn’t in their combined best interests.
    Flash on the otherhand, isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact demand for its tool set is increasing with the AIR 2.5 release. It is the UI for the new RIM playbook. It is on the Samsung TV, and it works good now on smart phones.

  • Herb

    I requested a deployment strategy where SilverLight(SL) could be installed in complete isolation. My directory, my QA team, my stability. Whilst I got agreement from their so called evangelists, it seems that good old bureaucracy can kill any good thing. MS could have stilled owned the install for folks that don’t bother with full QA stability, but please give developers and organizations like mine the ability to not have to take your upgrades if my application is working just fine with an older version.
    So it will die, no source code released, and to what end? Our next approach is to modify Google chrome and use HTML 5 for local client UI work. Good job Microsoft, and better yet, good job Scott Gu (you moron) way to kill a technology and deny developers who wanted to use it flexibility.
    Thank you Google.

  • Bruce

    After talking with programmers this past year, MANY were very interested and excited about Silverlight and they were just starting to “put their foot in water”. The common concerns were “Will Silverlight gain traction and will Microsoft continue to support this technology.” Now that MS has backed away, I think most people will just walk away from this technology.

    Personally, I think if MS had stayed with Silverlight and really made it cross-platform, Silverlight would have ended up very successful.

  • David

    We can only dream:
    Dream No. 1: Cross platform mobile development with Silvelright and VS 2010
    http://vsdreams.wordpress.com/