Considering Windows 8 as an HTML platform

Amongst all the fuss about whether Microsoft is deprecating Silverlight or even client-side .NET, it is easy to lose sight of the other angle on this. What are the implications of Microsoft embracing HTML and JavaScript as a new first-class Windows development platform? Here’s the quote again:

Today, we also talked a bit about how developers will build apps for the new system. Windows 8 apps use the power of HTML5, tapping into the native capabilities of Windows using standard JavaScript and HTML to deliver new kinds of experiences. These new Windows 8 apps are full-screen and touch-optimized, and they easily integrate with the capabilities of the new Windows user interface.

When Microsoft introduced IE9 with hardware-accelerated graphics, support for some key parts of HTML 5, and a new fast JavaScript engine, it was not only trying to recover ground in the browser wars. It also had in mind a new application runtime for Windows, for desktop as well as for web applications.

In order to achieve this, we can expect more hooks between the browser engine and the local operating system. There is potential security risk, but Microsoft of all companies will be sensitive to this and I would expect it to get the security right. The further implication is that some parts of a Windows HTML application will be Windows-specific. It is an “Embrace and extend” strategy, as I noted in this Register article back in September last year when former Silverlight product manager Scott Barnes broke the story of how the Windows team at Microsoft was favouring HTML and JavaScript above .NET.

The rationale for this is two-fold. First, I’m guessing that Microsoft thinks it will work better. Although .NET client apps are now commonplace, especially for custom business applications, problems like slow start-up and heavy memory requirements never really went away, though I would argue that in Silverlight they are almost eliminated.

Second, HTML and JavaScript is a universal programming platform. With the new model, any developer who can code a web page can also code a Windows app. Corporate VP Michael Angiulo said at Computex in Taipei:

Windows 8’s new application platform … is based on HTML 5, JavaScript and CSS, the most widely understood programming languages of all time. These languages form the backbone of the web, so that on day 1 when Windows 8 ships hundreds of millions of developers will already know how to build great apps for Windows 8.

These are both compelling arguments. Nevertheless, there are several reasons why making Windows an HTML platform might not be the instant hit that Microsoft will be hoping for. Here are a few:

  • Microsoft’s Visual Studio is .NET oriented. It does have a web design tool, Expression Web, which is OK but still falls short compared to Adobe Dreamweaver. Web designers tend to use Dreamweaver anyway, thanks to Mac compatibility and integration with other Adobe tools. Even Dreamweaver is not great as an application development tool, as opposed to a web design tool. Tooling is a problem, and it is fair to say that whatever goodies Microsoft comes up with in this area will likely be a step back compared to what it already has for C# or C++.
  • Standards are a mixed blessing if you are trying to sell an operating system. If Microsoft does such a good job of standards support that the same apps run with minor tweaks on an iPad and on Android, users may do just that. If Microsoft encumbers the standards with too many proprietary extensions, the universality of the platform is lost.
  • Windows plus HTML and JavaScript sounds a lot like Palm/HP WebOS, which has gained favourable reviews but has yet to take off in terms of sales. Otherwise, Palm would not have been taken over by HP.
  • The question of whether HTML and JavaScript will really take over app development is open. I certainly hear voices saying so. I interviewed Nitobi’s president André Charland, in charge of PhoneGap, and he makes a good case. On the other hand, App development today is still dominated by platform-specific development, Objective C for Apple iOS and Java on Dalvik, the Google Android virtual machine.
  • The standard in HTML/JavaScript app platforms is not Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, but WebKit, as used in iOS and in Google Android and Chrome. Microsoft did great work in standards support in IE9, but so far it has not stopped its browser share decline. Worldwide figures from StatCounter show Internet Explorer in continuing slow decline overall, and Chrome still growing and set to overtake Firefox in a year or so.

In other words, there is little evidence that embracing HTML and JavaScript as an app platform will ensure success for Windows 8.

That said, other factors count for more. Developers will go where their customers are, and if Microsoft turns out a version of Windows that wins substantial market share in the emerging tablet market as well as on traditional notebooks, the new platform will be a hit.

The risk though is that the market will continue to perceive Windows as an OS for desktop and laptop, and look to iOS or Android for mobile and touch devices. The dual personality of Windows 8 may count against it, if it means devices that are compromised by having to support both user interface models.

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Related posts:

  1. IE9 in Windows Phone will be good for cross-platform JavaScript and HTML5 apps
  2. Silverlight in Microsoft products – Silverlight the new Windows runtime, HTML 5 the new Silverlight?
  3. The Windows 8 app platform: how is it going? A few clues from developers
  4. Silverlight native extensions allow deep Windows 7 integration, but forget cross-platform
  5. Silverlight versus HTML, Flash – Microsoft defends its role

4 comments to Considering Windows 8 as an HTML platform

  • - If HTML will be default programming platform – would there any reason left to build microsoft only applications?
    - Software companies have huge investments in .net\silverlight. If MS will deprecate it, whole generation of loyal microsoft developers will never trust MS again and never advice customers to go with MS technology.

    So, from my point of view, this move can simply destroy MS monopoly on enterprise market. I was very loyal to ms development stack for 10 years and now I just don’t know what to do with my next project.

  • While HTML/Javascript is fine for the UI they still need something for the ‘guts’ of an application. .NET will still be needed for this. In theory Javascript could be used for this as well, backed by the right libraries, but the transition would be almost as big as it was coming from VB6 to .NET initially, and I can’t see that happening. They would alienate their whole developer community.

  • It is clear that Microsoft is desperate. It wants innovation, but, whichever direction it takes, the problems that arise are big.

  • asp.net mvc developer

    Hmm, I heard they pay a lot for Ruby on Rails and it’s all community-driven, so there is no desperate corporation ditching everyone for a possible profit without any respect for how much they’ve learnt.