I am wary about writing another post on this subject in the absence of any further news, but since there is a lot of speculation out there I thought it would be worth making a few further observations.
Will Windows 8 support Silverlight and/or some other variety of .NET in its new touch-centric mode? I will be astonished if it does not. Aside from other considerations, this is an essential unifying piece between the Windows Phone 7 developer platform and the Windows 8 developer platform, which from what we have seen have a similar user interface. For further evidence, try an internet search for “Jupiter” and “appx”.
Why isn’t Microsoft already shouting about this? A good question. Part of the answer is that Microsoft wants to get developers enthused about the forthcoming build conference in September, and is holding back information.
Another part of the answer is that Windows historically has kept .NET as a layer above the operating system, rather than as part of it. We saw this in Windows 7, where to take advantage of new features like jump lists or thumbnail toolbars, .NET developers had to use a supplementary Windows API Code Pack. The Windows team delivered only native code or COM APIs.
When it comes to desktop applications, would not Silverlight or something .NET based be a better choice than HTML5? I can see both sides of this. On one side is all the effort Microsoft has invested in .NET and Silverlight over the past decade. As I’ve noted before, I see Silverlight as what client-side .NET should have been from the beginning, lightweight, secure, simple installation, but with support for C# and much of the .NET Framework which developers know so well.
On the other hand, I can see Microsoft wanting to tap into the wave of HTML5 development and to make it easy for web developers to build apps for Windows 8.
In the end, developers will most likely have the choice. That puts pressure on Microsoft’s developer division to provide strong tools for two different development models; but I think that is what we will get.
Is .NET itself under threat? As far as I am aware, Microsoft has no plan “B” in terms of web and application server technology, and its Azure cloud is largely a .NET platform though there are are efforts to support other things like PHP and Java. Further, this aspect of the Microsoft Platform is under Server and Tools which is 100% behind .NET as far as I can tell. We have also seen Silverlight crop up in the user interfaces for new server products like InTune and System Center. On the server then, there is no evidence for .NET doubts at Microsoft; and considering the trend towards cloud+device computing the server is now at the heart of most business application development.
That said, Microsoft has challenges in sustaining .NET momentum. It cannot afford to fail with Azure, yet other platforms such as Amazon EC2 have greater developer mindshare as cloud computing platforms. VMWare with its Java-based Spring framework is another key competitor. Microsoft was late to the server virtualisation party with Hyper-V. I also see declining market share for IIS versus Apache in Netcraft’s statistics, although these figures are distorted by millions of little-used domains that get shunted from one platform to another by major hosting providers.
Further, it seems to me that the fortunes of .NET on the server cannot be completely separated from what happens on the client. One of the attractions of .NET is the integration between client and server, with Visual Studio as the tool for both. Windows has lost momentum to Apple in mobile, in tablets, and in high-end laptops, making Windows-only clients less attractive. In that context, the decision of the Windows team to favour HTML5 over .NET is a blow, in that it seems to concede that the future client is cross-platform, though I expect there will be some sort of outcry when we see all the proprietary hooks Microsoft has implemented to get HTML5 apps integrated into Windows 8.
Therefore these really are difficult times for .NET. I do not count Microsoft out though; it still dominates business computing, and amongst consumers the Xbox may prove an important new platform as Tom Warren notes.
While I have reservations about Windows 8, it does demo nicely as a new touch-centric operating system and Microsoft surely has chances in the corporate world with new-style tablets that integrate with its system management tools and which run Microsoft Office.
Finally, the angst over the role of .NET in Windows 8 shows that many developers actually like the platform, including Visual Studio, the C# language, the .NET Framework, and XAML for building a rich user interface.