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Microsoft to embrace and extend HTML 5?

'WPF and Silverlight at risk in faction war'

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Microsoft watchers are poring over a series of Twitter posts from former Silverlight Product Manager Scott Barnes, a web design and user experience specialist.

According to Barnes, just back from a week of briefings at Microsoft, there is intense internal debate about the future of HTML 5, newly implemented in the forthcoming Internet Explorer 9, and the Silverlight plug-in. He tweeted:

“Right now there's a faction war inside Microsoft over HTML5 vs Silverlight. oh and WPF is dead.. i mean..it kind of was..but now.. funeral.”

WPF is Windows Presentation Foundation, the rich user interface framework that was originally intended to become the primary GUI API for Windows Vista, but was sidelined when Vista development was “reset” in 2004, and does not feature strongly in Windows 7. “There's no-one working on it beyond minor touch-ups,” says Barnes.

That said, Visual Studio 2010, released earlier this year, makes heavy use of WPF, lending credence to the idea that Microsoft’s Windows team and its Developer division have divergent strategies.

The big debate now is over Silverlight versus HTML5. Barnes claims that the Windows and IE teams see the revved-up Internet Explorer as the replacement for WPF. Since it has hardware-accelerated video, a fast JavaScript engine and support for the Canvas element for custom graphics, that is plausible. But what about access to the Windows API? No problem, says Barnes:

“HTML5 is the replacement for WPF.. IE team want to fork the HTML5 spec by bolting on custom windows APi's via JS/HTML5”

This would be a classic “embrace and extend” strategy, encouraging developers to create Windows-specific HTML 5 applications, though Microsoft risks losing the goodwill IE9 is generating for its support of web standards among people like Opera’s Molly Holzschlag, who said in March that Microsoft’s new browser “will kick butt”.

If Microsoft does move in this direction it will be a significant shift from the current strategy, which places WPF as the framework for Windows desktop applications, and Silverlight as a subset of WPF suitable for browser-hosted or out-of-browser applications that run cross-platform. That's on Macs as well as Windows at least, though Apple’s exclusion of runtimes like Flash and Silverlight from its device platform is damaging its value. WPF and Silverlight use the same XML-based layout language, called XAML, and support programming in .NET languages.

Silverlight is also the applications platform for Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s attempt to get back in the mobile race, which launches later this year.

Earlier this month, Brad Becker, of Microsoft’s Developer Platforms team, defended the role of Silverlight in a blog post, saying that it remains better for “premium media experiences and apps”. ®

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