Microsoft pledges commitment to Silverlight – but is it enough?

Microsoft’s president of Server and Tools Bob Muglia has posted a response to the widespread perception that the company is backing off its commitment to Silverlight, a cross-browser, cross-platform runtime for rich internet applications. He is the right person to do so, since it was his remark that ”Our strategy with Silverlight has shifted” which seemed to confirm a strategy change that had already been implied by the strong focus in the keynote on HTML 5 as an application platform.

Muglia says Silverlight is in fact “very important and strategic to Microsoft”. He confirms that a new release is in development, notes that Silverlight is the development platform for Windows Phone 7, and affirms Silverlight both as a media client and as “the richest way to build web-delivered client apps.”

So what is the strategy change? It is this:

When we started Silverlight, the number of unique/different Internet-connected devices in the world was relatively small, and our goal was to provide the most consistent, richest experience across those devices.  But the world has changed.  As a result, getting a single runtime implementation installed on every potential device is practically impossible.  We think HTML will provide the broadest, cross-platform reach across all these devices.  At Microsoft, we’re committed to building the world’s best implementation of HTML 5 for devices running Windows, and at the PDC, we showed the great progress we’re making on this with IE 9.

The key problem here is Apple’s iOS, which Muglia mentioned specifically in his earlier interview:

HTML is the only true cross platform solution for everything, including (Apple’s) iOS platform.

Muglia’s words are somewhat reassuring to Silverlight developers; but not, I think, all that much. Silverlight will continue on Windows, Mac and on Windows Phone; but there are many more devices which developers want to target, and it sounds as if Microsoft does not intend to broaden Silverlight’s reach.

Faced with the same issues, Adobe has brought Flash to device platforms including Android, MeeGo, Blackberry and Google TV; and come up with a packager that compiles Flash applications to native iOS code. There is still no Flash or AIR (out of browser Flash) on Apple iOS; but Adobe has done all possible to make Flash a broad cross-platform runtime.

Microsoft by contrast has not really entered the fight. It has been left to Novell’s Mono team to show what can be done with cross-platform .NET, including MonoTouch for iOS and MonoDroid for Google’s Android platform.

Microsoft could have done more to bring Silverlight to further platforms, but has chosen instead to focus on HTML 5 – just as Muglia said in his earlier interview.

Whether Microsoft is right or wrong in this is a matter for debate. From what I have seen, the  comments on Microsoft’s de-emphasis of Silverlight at PDC have been worrying for .NET developers, but mostly cheered elsewhere.

The problem is that HTML 5 is not ready, nor is it capable of everything that can be done in Silverlight or Flash. There is a gap to be filled; and it looks as if Microsoft is leaving that task to Adobe.

It does seem to me inevitable that if Microsoft really gets behind HTML 5, by supporting it with tools and libraries to make it a strong and productive client for Microsoft’s server applications, then Silverlight will slip further behind.