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.

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