Category Archives: Web

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Microsoft remakes WCF for REST and the web

WCF is Windows Communication Foundation, the part of Microsoft’s .NET framework that handles service-oriented architecture. When WCF was first designed Microsoft was betting on SOAP web services. SOAP is still widely used but since then the trend has been towards more web-friendly services based on REST (Representational State Transfer) and JSON (JavaScript Object Notation). Microsoft has always argued that WCF is flexible enough to support such alternatives.

That said, a project which I have become aware of here at QCon London is the WCF Web APIs, presented here by Microsoft’s Glenn Block. WCF Web APIs focus on support for REST, JQuery clients, and programming model simplicity for a variety of other clients such as Silverlight and Windows Phone. The bit that surprised me is that WCF Web APIs are not just another wrapper for WCF; it is a completely new library that does not build on the old WCF Service Model. The fact that it is called WCF at all is confusing, though of course it belongs in that space within the overall .NET Framework.

I have not had time to look in detail at the WCF Web APIs, but from what I have seen and heard they are well worth exploring, even if you have found the old WCF somewhat impenetrable.

nginx market share growing faster than any other web server

According to the latest netcraft web survey nginx market share is growing faster than that of any other web server, even though it is still small relative to Apache or Microsoft IIS. In December 2010 nginx share grew by 0.88% to 7.5% – which can also be expressed as a 13.3% increase.

Apache 59.13%
Microsoft 21.00%
nginx 7.50%
Google 5.53%
lighttpd 0.68%

I did not take much notice of nginx until hearing Ryan Dahl evangelise it at Cloudstock, a Dreamforce event, last month. Now I plan to install it at itwriting.com when I find the time.

Microsoft WebMatrix released: a simple editor for ASP.NET Razor and more, but who is the target user?

Microsoft has released WebMatrix, a free tool for creating web sites for Microsoft’s web server. It uses the Web Platform Installer and installed smoothly on my Windows 7 64-bit box. What you get is a cleanly-designed tool which lets you start web sites from templates or from standard installs of popular applications including WordPress, Drupal and Moodle.

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Yes, you can use PHP and MySQL as well as .NET web applications, though the common factor is that all are configured for IIS, Microsoft’s web server.

With many ISPs already offering instant installs of apps like WordPress, it is more interesting to look at the site templates in WebMatrix, though the selection is smaller.

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What is interesting about these is that they create sites based on Razor, an alternative view engine for ASP.NET. Microsoft VP Scott Guthrie describes Razor here. It is odd though: Razor is a feature of ASP.NET MVC 3, currently in release candidate phase, but you cannot create ASP.NET MVC sites in Web Matrix.

Once a site is created, you can modify it in the WebMatrix editor.

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You can run the site on IIS Express with one click. WebMatrix will show you all the requests as you run, which could be handy for tracing problems. There is also a database management workspace which uses SQL Server Compact Edition, a reporting workspace which will analyse your site for problems, and the ability to publish a site using  FTP or Microsoft’s Web Deploy.

I like the clean look of WebMatrix, and that it is lightweight and fast; but who is the target user? It appears to be aimed at non-professionals; but this is a techie product that will not appeal to users looking for an easy to use web site builder. There is no visual editor; users are just chucked in at the deep end editing raw HTML and C#. There is not even any intellisense code completion. Clicking Online Help just brings up a Microsoft search form. There is no debugger to speak of; you are expected to upgrade to Visual Studio. Which raises the question, why not just get Visual Web Developer 2010 Express, which is also free, and has a better editor and debugging features? Of course you could use the two together; but Web Matrix is not adding much value. Features like the SEO analysis seem to be be based on the existing Search Engine Optimization Toolkit, which you can install without Web Matrix.

WebMatrix has been available in beta for six months, but its forum is relatively quiet.

Still, if nothing else Web Matrix is a handy way to take a look at Razor, which deserves attention. Shay Friedman has a technical introduction here.

Guthrie has a detailed look at the WebMatrix beta here.

Ten big tech trends from 2010

This was an amazing year for tech. Here are some of the things that struck me as significant.

Sun Java became Oracle Java

Oracle acquired Sun and set about imposing its authority on Java. Java is still Java, but Oracle lacks Sun’s commitment to open source and community – though even in Sun days there was tension in this area. That was nothing to the fireworks we saw in 2010, with Java Community Process members resigning, IBM switching from its commitment to the Apache Harmony project to the official OpenJDK, and the Apache foundation waging a war of words against Oracle that was impassioned but, it seems, futile.

Microsoft got cloud religion

Only up to a point, of course. This is the Windows and Office company, after all. However – and this is a little subjective – this was the year when Microsoft convinced me it is serious about Windows Azure for hosting our applications and data. In addition, it seems to me that the company is willing to upset its partners if necessary for the sake of its hosted Exchange and SharePoint – BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite), soon to become Office 365.

This is a profound change for Microsoft, bearing in mind its business model. I spoke to a few partners when researching this article for the Register and was interested by the level of unease that was expressed.

Microsoft also announced some impressive customer wins for BPOS, especially in government, though the price the customers pay for these is never mentioned in the press releases.

Microsoft Silverlight shrank towards Windows-only

Silverlight is Microsoft’s browser plug-in which delivers multimedia and the .NET Framework to Windows and Mac; it is also the development platform for Windows Phone 7. It still works on a Mac, but in 2010 Microsoft made it clear that cross-platform Silverlight is no longer its strategy (if it ever was), and undermined the Mac version by adding Windows-specific features that interoperate with the local operating system. Silverlight is still an excellent runtime, powerful, relatively lightweight, easy to deploy, and supported by strong tools in Visual Studio 2010. If you have users who do not run Windows though, it now looks a brave choice.

The Apple iPad was a hit

I still have to pinch myself when thinking about how Microsoft now needs to catch up with Apple in tablet computing. I got my first tablet in 2003, yes seven years ago, and it ran Windows. Now despite seven years of product refinement it is obvious that Windows tablets miss the mark that Apple has hit with its first attempt – though drawing heavily on what it learnt with the equally successful iPhone. I see iPads all over the place, in business as well as elsewhere, and it seems to me that the success of a touch interface on this larger screen signifies a transition in personal computing that will have a big impact.

Google Android was a hit

Just when Apple seemed to have the future of mobile computing in its hands, Google’s Android alternative took off, benefiting from mass adoption by everyone-but-Apple among hardware manufacturers. Android is not as elegantly designed or as usable as Apple’s iOS, but it is close enough; and it is a relatively open platform that runs Adobe Flash and other apps that do not meet Apple’s approval. There are other contenders: Microsoft Windows Phone 7; RIM’s QNX-based OS in the PlayBook; HP’s Palm WebOS; Nokia Symbian and Intel/Nokia MeeGo – but how many mobile operating systems can succeed? Right now, all we can safely say is that Apple has real competition from Android.

HP fell out with Microsoft

Here is an interesting one. The year kicked off with a press release announcing that HP and Microsoft love each other to the extent of $250 million over three years – but if you looked closely, that turned out to be less than a similar deal in 2006. After that, the signs were even less friendly. HP acquired Palm in April, signalling its intent to compete with Windows Mobile rather than adopting it; and later this year HP announced that it was discontinuing its Windows Home Server range. Of course HP remains a strong partner for Windows servers, desktops and laptops; but these are obvious signs of strain.

The truth though is that these two companies need one another. I think they should kiss and make up.

eBook readers were a hit

I guess this is less developer-oriented; but 2010 was the year when electronic book publishing seemed to hit the mainstream. Like any book lover I have mixed feelings about this and its implications for bookshops. I doubt we will see books disappear to the same extent as records and CDs; but I do think that book downloads will grow rapidly over the next few years and that paper-and-ink sales will diminish. It is a fascinating tech battle too: Amazon Kindle vs Apple iPad vs the rest (Sony Reader, Barnes and Noble Nook, and others which share their EPUB format). I have a suspicion that converged devices like the iPad may win this one, but displays that are readable in sunlight have special requirements so I am not sure.

HTML 5 got real

2010 was a huge year for HTML 5 – partly because Microsoft announced its support in Internet Explorer 9, currently in beta; and partly because the continued growth of browsers such as Mozilla Firefox, and the WebKit-based Google Chrome, Apple Safari and numerous mobile browsers showed that HTML 5 would be an important platform with or without Microsoft. Yes, it is fragmented and unfinished; but more and more of HTML 5 is usable now or in the near future.

Adobe Flash survived Apple and HTML 5

2010 was the year of Steve Jobs’ notorious Thoughts on Flash as well as a big year for HTML 5, which encroaches on territory that used to require the services of a browser plug-in. Many people declared Adobe Flash dead, but the reality was different and the company had a great year. Apple’s focus on design and usability helps Adobe’s design-centric approach even while Apple’s refusal to allow Flash on its mobile computers opposes it.

Windows 7 was a hit

Huge relief in Redmond as Windows 7 sold and sold. The future belongs to mobile and cloud; but Windows is not going away soon, and version 7 is driving lots of upgrades as even XP diehards move over. I’m guessing that we will get first sight of Windows 8 in 2011. Another triumph, or another Vista?

Microsoft’s muddled licensing for Office Web Apps

I’ve been reviewing Microsoft’s Small Business Server 2011 – mainly the standard edition as that is the one that is finished. The more interesting cloud-oriented Essentials version is not coming until sometime next year.

In its marketing [pdf] for SBS 2011 Microsoft says:

Get things done from virtually wherever and whenever. With Office Web Apps (included in SharePoint Foundation 2010), users can view, create, and edit documents anyplace with an Internet connection.

This appears to be only a half-truth. You can install Office Web Apps into SharePoint Foundation 2010, but it is not included in a default install of SBS 2011 Standard, and as far as I can tell the setup for it is not on the DVD. If you try to download it, you will find it is only available through the Volume Licensing Service Center, and that you require a volume license for Microsoft Office to get it. You can also get it through TechNet, but this is for evaluation only.

The Office Web Apps site states:

Business customers licensed for Microsoft Office 2010 through a Volume Licensing program can run Office Web Apps on-premises on a server running Microsoft SharePoint Foundation 2010 or Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010.

and it also appears that each user requires a volume license for desktop Microsoft Office in order to use it. In other words, the Client Access License for Office Web Apps is a volume license for Office. You cannot purchase a volume license for 5 users, and then have everyone in your 50-person organisation use it.

This approach to licensing makes no sense. In fact, I’m not sure it is even internally consistent. Part of the web app concept is that you could, if need be, walk up to a PC in an internet cafe, log in to SharePoint, and make a quick edit to a Word document. You are not going to ask the management “is this machine correctly licensed for Office Web Apps?”

What if you are using Linux, or an Apple iPad (it almost works), or a RIM PlayBook, or some other device on which Office cannot be installed? These are scenarios where Office Web Apps is particularly useful; Microsoft cannot expect users to buy a license for desktop Office for machines which cannot run it.

Note Office Web Apps applications are severely cut-down in comparison to the desktop editions. It is not even close to the same thing. Further, Microsoft lets anyone in the world use Office Web Apps for free – provided it is on SkyDrive and not on a locally installed SharePoint.

Microsoft is also happy to give users of Office 365, the forthcoming hosted version of server apps including SharePoint, access to Office Web Apps:

Work from virtually any place and any device with the Office Web Apps

I’m guessing that somewhere in Microsoft the powerful Office group is insisting that Office Web Apps is a feature of the desktop product. Anyone else can see that it is not; it is a feature of SharePoint. Excluding it from SBS 2011 by default does nothing except to complicate matters for admins – and it is a fiddly install – thus reducing the appeal of the product.

Incidentally, I see nothing unreasonable about Microsoft charging for an on-premise install of Office Web Apps. But it should be licensed as a web application, not as a desktop application.

For more on this see Sharon Richardson’s post and Susan Bradley’s complaint.

Silverlight 5 unveiled: more power, more Windows

Microsoft has announced details of Silverlight 5, a major new release of its browser plug-in and desktop runtime for Windows and Mac. Silverlight is also the primary application runtime for Windows Phone 7, though this update does not apply to the phone yet. Silverlight 5 will go into beta in the first half of 2011, and release is planned for the second half of 2011 – no more than a year or so away.

So what’s in Silverlight 5?

On the media side, there is hardware decoding of H.264 video (an overdue feature) plus enhancements including TrickPlay which enables fast-forward and rewind. There is also remote control support of some kind. According to VP Scott Guthrie, you will be able to stream HD video to a netbook.

The bigger area of change is in Silverlight as an application runtime. Here are the highlights:

  • Text rendering is much improved, with multi-columns, OpenType support, and control of tracking and leading.
  • Postscript vector printing greatly improves printing support, and you can now create a dedicated print view different from what is on screen.
  • A new hardware-accelerated 3D graphics API, as well as immediate mode graphics which lets you render directly to the GPU.
  • There is a 64-bit version of Silverlight 5.
  • WS-Trust support for secure messaging in tandem with Windows Communication Foundation.
  • Databinding enhancements, and support for debugging a binding by setting a breakpoint on it.

Alongside these, trusted Silverlight applications have new capabilities. But what is a trusted application? In the past, Silverlight applications become trusted if they run out of the browser and the user gives permission via a dialog. In Silverlight 5 this changes. A Silverlight application can be trusted within the browser as well, though Microsoft says this only works “when enabled via a group policy registry key and an application certificate”. This implies that the feature is aimed at corporate environments rather than for applets with a broad reach.

Once trusted, an in-browser Silverlight applet has the following additional features:

  • A new web browser control lets you host HTML content within a Silverlight application.
  • Read and write access to My Documents
  • Ability to launch Microsoft Office applications – examples include creating an email message or opening a report in Word
  • Access to COM components – Microsoft gives the example of accessing a USB security key or a bar-code scanner
  • Ability to call native code vith PInvoke (Platform Invoke)

In addition, out of browser applications support multiple windows including child windows, so they can be made to behave even more like normal desktop Windows applications.

You can see the theme here: making trusted Silverlight applications more powerful so that a larger proportion of custom business applications can be implemented in the browser or as Silverlight out-of-browser applications, rather than as traditional Windows applications that require desktop deployment. Put this together with Office 365 and Windows Azure, and you can see how well Silverlight works as a component in Microsoft’s cloud stack – provided users do not have anything inconvenient like an Apple iPad.

But what about the Mac? All these “trusted” features appear to be Windows-only. I asked about Mac support and was told:

We’re evaluating mechanisms for enabling similar trusted applications on the mac.

Fair enough; but the way this is put does suggest that having retreated from any ambitions for broad device reach in statements at the recent PDC conference, it now seems that Microsoft is further retreating from Mac and Windows parity, and moving Silverlight more towards being an application runtime for Windows – though note that there will still be a Silverlight 5 for the Mac and which will have the features that do not require COM or PInvoke.

It is disappointing that there is still no built-in local database support, though there are third-party offerings.

There are a couple of ways to look at Silverlight. Microsoft’s lack of commitment to cross-platform parity and its unwillingness to address broad device support means it does not look good as a broad-reach browser plugin, despite its great features on systems that do support it.

On the other hand, as an alternative to desktop Windows applications Silverlight looks increasingly attractive as its capabilities increase.

More information on the new features here – though note it neglects to mention what will and will not work on a Mac.

Adobe abandons Project ROME, focuses on apps rather than cloud

Adobe is ceasing investment in Project ROME, a labs project which provides a rich design and desktop publishing application implemented as an Adobe AIR application, running either in the browser or on the desktop using the Flash player as a runtime.

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According to the announcement:

Project ROME by Adobe was intended to explore the opportunity and usability of creative tools as software-as-a-service in the education market and beyond. We have received valuable input from the community after a public preview of the software. Following serious evaluation and consideration of customer input and in weighing this product initiative against other projects currently in development, we have made the difficult decision to stop development on Project ROME. Given our priorities, we’re focusing resources on delivering tablet applications, which we believe will have significant impact on creative workflows.

There must be some broken hearts at Adobe because ROME is a beautiful and capable application that serves, if nothing else, as a demonstration of how capable a Rich Internet Application can be. In fact, I have used it for that purpose: when asked whether a web application could ever deliver the a user interface that comes close to the best desktop applications, I showed Project Rome with great effect.

I first saw Project ROME as a “sneak peek” at the Adobe MAX conference in 2009. It had made it past those initial prototypes and was being worked up as a full release, with a free version for education and a commercial version for the rest of us. Curiously, Adobe says the commercial version will remain available as an unsupported freebie, but the educational offering is being pulled: “we do not want to see pre-release software used in the classroom “.

Why abandon it now? I think we have Apple’s Steve Jobs to thank. AIR applications do not run on the iPad; and when Adobe says it is focusing instead on tablet applications, the iPad will figure largely in those plans. Still, there are a few other factors:

  • One thing that was not convincing in the briefing I received about Project ROME was the business model. It was going to be subscription-based, but how many in this non-professional target market would subscribe to online desktop publishing, when there are well-established alternatives like Microsoft Publisher?
  • Adobe makes most of its money from selling desktop software, in the Creative Suite package. ROME was always going to be a toy relative to the desktop offerings.
  • The output from ROME is primarily PDF. If Rome had been able to build web pages rather than PDF documents, perhaps that would have made better sense for a cloud application.
  • Adobe did not market the pre-release effectively. I do not recall hearing about it at MAX in October, which surprised me – it may have been covered somewhere, but was not covered in the keynotes despite being a great example of a RIA.
  • The ROME forum shows only modest activity, suggesting that Project ROME had failed to attract the attention Adobe may have hoped for.

It is still worth taking a look at Project ROME; and I guess that some of the ideas may resurface in apps for iPad, Android and other tablets. It will be interesting to see to what extent Adobe itself uses Flash and AIR for the commercial design apps it delivers.

Final reflection: this decision is a tangible example of the ascendancy of mobile apps versus web applications – though note that Adobe still has a bunch of web applications at Acrobat.com, including the online word processor once called Buzzword and a spreadsheet application called Tables.

WS-I closes its doors–the end of WS-* web services?

The Web Services Interoperability Organization has announced [pdf] the “completion” of its work:

After nearly a decade of work and industry cooperation, the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I; http://www.ws-i.org) has successfully concluded its charter to document best practices for Web services interoperability across multiple platforms, operating systems and programming languages.

In the whacky world of software though, completion is not a good thing when it means, as it seems to here, an end to active development. The WS-I is closing its doors and handing maintenance of the WS interoperability profiles to OASIS:

Stewardship over WS-I’s assets, operations and mission will transition to OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), a group of technology vendors and customers that drive development and adoption of open standards.

Simon Phipps blogs about the passing of WS-I and concludes:

Fine work, and many lessons learned, but sadly irrelevant to most of us. Goodbye, WS-I. I know and respect many of your participants, but I won’t mourn your passing.

Phipps worked for Sun when the WS-* activity was at its height and WS-I was set up, and describes its formation thus:

Formed in the name of "preventing lock-in" mainly as a competitive action by IBM and Microsoft in the midst of unseemly political knife-play with Sun, they went on to create massively complex layered specifications for conducting transactions across the Internet. Sadly, that was the last thing the Internet really needed.

However, Phipps links to this post by Mike Champion at Microsoft which represents a more nuanced view:

It might be tempting to believe that the lessons of the WS-I experience apply only to the Web Services standards stack, and not the REST and Cloud technologies that have gained so much mindshare in the last few years. Please think again: First, the WS-* standards have not in any sense gone away, they’ve been built deep into the infrastructure of many enterprise middleware products from both commercial vendors and open source projects. Likewise, the challenges of WS-I had much more to do with the intrinsic complexity of the problems it addressed than with the WS-* technologies that addressed them. William Vambenepe made this point succinctly in his blog recently.

It is also important to distinguish between the work of the WS-I, which was about creating profiles and testing tools for web service standards, and the work of other groups such as the W3C and OASIS which specify the standards themselves. While work on the WS-* specifications seems much reduced, there is still work going on. See for example the W3C’s Web Services Resource Access Working Group.

I partly disagree with Phipps about the work of the WS-I being “sadly irrelevant to most of us”. It depends who he means by “most of us”. Granted, all this stuff is meaningless to the world at large; but there are a significant number of developers who use SOAP and WS-* at least to some extent, and interoperability is key to the usefulness of those standards.

The Salesforce.com API is mainly SOAP based, for example, and although there is a REST API in preview it is not yet supported for production use. I have been told that a large proportion of the transactions on Salesforce.com are made programmatically through the API, so here is one place at least where SOAP is heavily used.

WS-* web services are also built into Microsoft’s Visual Studio and .NET Framework, and are widely used in my experience. Visual Studio does a good job of wrapping them so that developers do not have to edit WSDL or SOAP requests and responses by hand. I’d also suggest that web services in .NET are more robust than DCOM (Distributed COM) ever was, and work successfully over the internet as well as on a local network, so the technology is not a failure.

That said, I am sure it is true that only a small subset of the WS-* specifications are widely used, which implies a large amount of wasted effort.

Is SOAP and WS-* dying, and REST the future? The evidence points that way to me, but I would be interested in other opinions.

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.

Microsoft PDC big on Azure, quiet on Silverlight

I’m at Microsoft PDC in Seattle. The keynote, introduced by CEO Steve Ballmer, started with a recap of the company’s success with Windows 7 – 240 million sold, we were told, and adoption plans among 88% of businesses – and showing off Windows Phone 7 (all attendees will receive a device) and Internet Explorer 9.

IE9 guy Dean Hachamovitch demonstrated the new browser’s hardware acceleration, and made an intriguing comment. When highlighting IE9’s embrace of web standards, he noted that “accelerating only pieces of the browser holds back the web.” It sounded like a jab at plug-ins, but what about Microsoft’s own plug-in, Silverlight? A good question. You could put this together with Ballmer’s comment that “We’ve tried to make web the feel more like native applications” as evidence that Microsoft sees HTML 5 rather than Silverlight as its primary web application platform.

Then again you can argue that it just happens Microsoft had nothing to say about Silverlight, other than in the context of Windows Phone 7 development, and that its turn will come. The new Azure portal is actually built in Silverlight.

The messaging is tricky, and I found it intriguing, especially coming after the Adobe MAX conference where there were public sessions on Flash vs HTML and a focus in the day two keynote emphasising the importance of both. All of which shows that Adobe has a tricky messaging problem as well; but it is at least addressing it, whereas Microsoft so far is not.

The keynote moved on to Windows Azure, and this is where the real news was centered. Bob Muglia, president of the Server and Tools business, gave a host of announcements on the subject. Azure is getting a Virtual Machine role, which will allow you to upload server images to run on Microsoft’s cloud platform, and to create new virtual machines with full control over how they are configured. Server 2008 R2 is the only supported OS initially, but Server 2003 will follow.

Remote Desktop is also coming to Azure, which will mean instant familiarity for Windows admins and developers.

Another key announcement was Windows Azure Marketplace, where third parties will be able to sell “building block components training, services, and finished services and applications.” This includes DataMarket, the new name for the Dallas project, which is for delivering live data as a service using the odata protocol. An odata library has been added to the Windows Phone 7 SDK, making the two a natural fit.

Microsoft is also migrating Team Foundation Server (TFS) to Azure, interesting both as a case study in moving a complex application, and as a future option for development teams who would rather not wrestle with the complexities of deploying this product.

Next came Windows Azure AppFabric Access Control, which despite its boring name has huge potential. This is about federated identity – both with Active Directory and other identity services. In the example we saw, Facebook was used as an identity provider alongside Microsoft’s own Active Directory, and users got different access rights according to the login they used.

In another guide Azure AppFabric – among the most confusing Microsoft product names ever – is a platform for hosting composite workflow applications.

Java support is improving and Microsoft says that you will be able to run the Java environment of your choice from 2011.

Finally, there is a new “Extra small” option for Azure instances, aimed at developers, priced at $0.05 per compute hour. This is meant to make the platform more affordable for small developers, though if you calculate the cost over a year it still amounts to over $400; not too much perhaps, but still significant.

Attendees were left in no doubt about Microsoft’s commitment to Azure. As for Silverlight, watch this space.