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Microsoft struck by HTML5 commitment phobia

Silverlight, I wish I could quit you

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Back during the era of certainty, the time of proprietary source code and software product roadmaps, Microsoft was a company you could bank on.

Microsoft would announce a new version of Windows or Office, and partners and customers would wait – often through headline-friendly slippage – to swap out the old for the new.

The company decided that Windows devs needed Microsoft's take on Java, and they got .NET – the Common Language Runtime (CLR) and C#. An ecosystem swung behind it.

When Microsoft decided the time was ripe for a media player that wasn't Adobe Systems' Flash and that was "optimized" to Windows and Microsoft tools, we got Silverlight, and partners retooled from Flash.

These kinds of things were easy to pull off because people not in the Java or the Unix camp who built for Windows could wait for the world's largest software maker to step up.

But the open web, with HTML5 playing across a thousand and one clouds and devices, has ended this relationship between Microsoft and the faithful. Today, instead of strong and clear leadership from the top regarding mobile, media, and the web, we're getting something else from Microsoft.

At its MIX 2011 conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Tuesday, Microsoft held a session called HTML5 for Silverlight developers. Microsoft senior technology evangelist Giorgio Sardo attempted to explain to a roomful of committed Silverlight developers what HTML5 is, how it works, and the similarities and differences between HTML5 and Silverlight.

People wanted the straight dope: it was a standing-room-only session.

After three years of evangelizing it, Microsoft has not written off Silverlight – it is due to announce Silverlight 5 on Wednesday – but Silverlight has been demoted in favor of HTML5. That happened once Flash began taking too many direct hits from Apple's Steve Jobs during 2010. Silverlight has now been sidelined from a media technology to a Windows Phone development platform and a solution for building line-of-business applications.

At Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference last year, Microsoft said HTML5 was its lingua franca for skinning devices with a web heartbeat.

The big question for the Microsoft faithful now is which to use: Silverlight or HTML5? Some kind of clear statement or bold action is needed from the top, just like back in the era of certainty.

"I get a lot of questions: 'Should I use Silverlight or HTML5?'," senior technology evangelist Giorgio Sardo told Mix. "I'm sure you know your customers better than anyone else. I'm not going to judge which works better. HTML5 has matured a lot in the last year. Silverlight is great for media scenarios. I believe HTML5 is ready. I think Microsoft is ready for HTML5. The question is are you ready?"

In other words, Microsoft has no official stance – officially at least. It's up to you.

Sardo walked a fine line, laying out pros and cons. SVG is similar to XAML, which is used in Siverlight, while you can convert syntax from one to the other. HTML5 doesn't come with digital rights management or smooth streaming, unlike Silverlight – even though the latter is a Microsoft-only technology, anyway. Microsoft is extending CSS3 having submitted a CSS3 grid proposal to the HTML standards body, the World Wide Web Consortium. Sardo said that JavaScript – not part of the HTML5 spec but a running mate – is "horrible" compared to programming in DOM, but that ECMAScript 5 introduces new methods such as lambda expressions that people with a .NET background would find useful.

Asked whether Microsoft is backing off Silverlight as a cross-platform framework, Sardo replied: "Regardless of politics, what matters is the user experience. We want developers to be able to offer their users the best experience." Pressed further by an attendees after his talk, Sardo conceded that Silverlight would be better in "offline" applications.

This is not the kind of anemic language we expect from a company traditionally as assertive as Microsoft, or from a technology evangelist – a class of person typically gung-ho about their employer's platforms. Sardo in the past evangelized Silverlight, Silverlight for mobile, and Windows Phone.

The reason? Microsoft is juggling.

It must keep those who answered their call and committed to Silverlight, while gently talking them down from the Silverlight heights and introducing them to HTML5. Microsoft cannot afford to see Silverlighters bolt en masse to HTML5 – or even return to Flash – so it must continue to explain ways in which Silverlight is better than HTML5 and why the player remains strategically important to the company.

Silverlight is also a business enabler, being used with tools such as Expression Blend – now embedded among partners working in the design and interface space – and online services such as Office Web apps. Killing Silverlight would hurt Expression and cut users adrift while damaging functionality in Office Web apps, unless or until such apps are moved to HTML5.

You should continue to expect the same diplomatic answers on whether to bet on Silverlight or HTML5 while Microsoft continues to juggle these interests. ®

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