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Silverlighters committed despite Microsoft's HTML5 love

Finding a place in Redmond's heart

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The "future of Silverlight starts now" — or, more accurately, it starts on December 2 according to Microsoft, with a day of webcasts from the company.

Microsoft has promised a keynote from the chief geek synonymous with Silverlight, vice president for the .Net developer platform Scott Guthrie, who'll talk about what's in the next version. There will be training in Microsoft's media player from program manager Tim Heuer, among others, and there will be schwag — 'cos Microsoft knows how we lurve schwag.

Yes, it's all here: practical advice, vision to keep us on the rails, and freebies. It's perfect. Almost too perfect — as if Microsoft is trying too hard, like that absent parent who walked out on the kids and who now shows up at Christmas loaded with presents.

Go back a month and it certainly sounded like Silverlight was being walked out on by its parent, Microsoft. Bob Muglia, president of the Microsoft server and tools division that Silverlight calls home, gave an interview in which he said the Silverlight strategy had shifted. Silverlight is now a development platform for Windows Phone 7, Muglia said.

For three years, Silverlight has been gaining steam as Microsoft's chosen platform for rich internet apps: 2D and 3D graphics, video, games, and the delivery of audio content. It was Microsoft's alternative to Adobe Systems' Flash, and was the toast of Microsoft's Professional Developers' Conference (PDC) 2009. In addition, Microsoft stuffed Silverlight with the H.264 video codec authored by Microsoft, Apple, and others that lets it play videos on YouTube and the iTunes store, and play content on devices such as Blu-ray players.

Microsoft kept hitting us with "momentum" announcements to prove Silverlight had arrived. The focus was on broadcasters playing video on the web: NBC, Major League Baseball (which since dumped Silverlight), and Indian Premier League cricket, with a Silverlight player from Netflix.

The future, it seemed, was pre-destined.

Now, Microsoft is just "shifting strategy"? Redmond CEO Steve Ballmer prefaced Muglia's interview with a PDC 2010 talk that loudly sang the praises of HTML5 as the interface layer for PCs and devices on the web. Those praises? Ubiquity and openness. Not exactly the traits the closed-source, Microsoft-owned Silverlight is known for.

There was plenty of shock among those who'd spent three years taking Microsoft's evangelism in the ear, and who'd invested in training and built businesses on Silverlight.

The reaction was so strong that Muglia had to blog an apology for the upset he caused.

Scott Stanfield, chief executive of design and development shop Vertigo Software — a Silverlight early adopter — told The Reg: "Everybody was freaking out about the mixed messages from Redmond. You don't see mixed messages from Apple — seems like Apple has a pretty clear message."

Redmond CEO Steve Ballmer prefaced Muglia's interview with a PDC 2010 talk that loudly sang the praises of HTML5 as the interface layer for PCs and devices on the web

Vertigo has been a poster child for Silverlight, and has used the player to build some extremely cool web apps, here, which Microsoft has demoed at various events to show the faithful what's possible.

Jason Beres, Infragistics' director of product management, called the Muglia interview "unfortunate". "It wasn't good for Microsoft and scared a lot of folks," Beres told us. Infragistics builds interface components for Windows and it offers two Silverlight toolkits.

People may have freaked out and Muglia's statements might have been "unfortunate", but Silverlight's mission statement has changed, no matter how people feel about it.

While Muglia was apologizing, he also reaffirmed that Microsoft's strategy had changed. Microsoft corporate, meanwhile, said the Muglia interview was correct. As a rule, companies rarely respond to journalist's articles unless they believe them to be incorrect. And if a "bad-news" article calls a company to account for something, the company will distance themselves from the piece — they will never run towards towards it.

In the background, meanwhile, there were the Tweets and blog posts that talked openly of a fight inside Microsoft about the future of HTML5. Seems like that fight is now over, and Microsoft has made its choice: HTML5 is its rich-media option for general purpose web apps in the browser — Silverlight originally started as a media-player plug in for Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Silverlight is now reserved for line-of-business apps (graphics, charting, and so on) and for use on Windows phones.

When it comes to the web, it seems like Silverlight will continue to be used for more-specialized video, when content authors want properties such as streaming to compensate for different devices and network conditions, and capabilities such as digital rights management (DRM). Sure, HTML5 has a video tag, but it doesn't include DRM or different streaming rates.

Victory for corporate politics

Microsoft's pick of HTML5 for the web is not surprising. HTML has gained momentum inside Microsoft's Windows group, the unit that's home to Internet Explorer. IE9 is expected to be the most HTML standards–compliant version of Microsoft's browser in its history.

All of which leads us to conclude that Microsoft had planned the December 2 event ahead of Muglia's interview and Ballmer's HTML5 hymn-singing. This Thursday was designed to carefully cushion the news; Muglia's crime was that he spoke too soon and without the pre-prescribed dose of corporate sugarcoating. "I frankly was surprised — [surprised] that they said it, not that they were thinking it. I was surprised is came out so loosely," Stanfield conceded.

Where does this shift leave companies like Vertigo and Infragistics on Silverlight? In a word: committed.

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