Silverlighters committed despite Microsoft's HTML5 love
Finding a place in Redmond's heart
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.
Stanfield, who has what he calls a "healthy" Silverlight practice, said he'll pick the right technology for customers from a pallet of choices — he just won't use Flash. Silverlight from the start was Microsoft's offer to partners who wanted a media player with Microsoft tools and that wasn't from Adobe. "We are making money and solving real hard problems with Silverlight," Stanfield told us.
Beres, whose company does 50 per cent of its work on Windows clients and 50 per cent on the web, was blunt: "We are not going to cut and run on anything. We are investing in Silverlight heavily, we are investing in HTML5 heavily," he said.
Demonstrating the belief in the potential of Silverlight is Windows Phone 7 newbie IdentityMine. An interactive design agency, IdentityMine made its jump onto mobile because Windows Phone 7 uses Silverlight — IdentityMine is home to a number of authors who've written books on programming in Silverlight. IdentityMine has put the Internet Movie Database, Twitter, and History Here on Windows Phone 7 using Silverlight.
IdentityMine's director of UX evangelism Kurt Brockett said the company had dabbled with the iPhone but skipped Windows Phone 6.5 because it "was not a cutting-edge experience". "That's what's bought us over, and into mobile," Brockett says of Windows Phone 7.
The Silverlighers seem pragmatic about HTML5 and Microsoft's apparent conversion. They recognize it has potential but are skeptical of its abilities — at this point.
Vertigo works with HTML, and Stanfield said he's been having more conversations with customers about version five while his company has been doing some work with customers using the HTML5 video tag. But echoing the thoughts of those who flamed Microsoft for embracing HTML5 before the spec is baked and tools are available, Stanfield is clear: HTML5 is still hype — and that's thanks to the one-man magic show that's Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
"I'm excited about HTML5 but when I ask how many [people] are getting paid to develop software that takes advantage of a major feature in HTML5 the answer is zero. Nobody's getting engaged yet to take advantage of geo location, off-line storage, canvas," he said.
If anything, it seems Ballmer's HTML5 coming-out and his downplaying of Silverlight were designed to position Microsoft in the conversation about HTML5 that was started by Jobs this year. It's a decision, though, that's going to keep Silverlighters on their toes as more customers hear about the cancer-curing properties of HTML5 — thanks to Jobs — and decide they want some.
HTML5 is still hype — and that's thanks to the one-man magic show that's Apple CEO Steve Jobs
Brockett has said he's not losing sleep over Silverlight's future, but he concedes that HTML5 is the industry's current darling. If there's one lesson from the PDC fallout, it's that IdentityMine must keep informed about its technology options — because his customers certainly have. "This stuff is important to regular users and customers. They pay attention to this and we have to pay attention and be ready to respond," he said.
IdentityMine is keeping a watching brief on HTML5. "HMTL5 is creeping into the conversation, but it's very early. It's right for futures, and we are watching HMTL5 and coming up with plans on how to message that and add to that," Brockett said.
The partners remain very much focused on what's next for Silverlight, and will likely be hanging on Guthrie's roadmap later this week.
Brockett reckons that Silverlight for Windows Phone 7 still has got a long way to go. This is, after all, just version one. The industry mantra on new Microsoft products is that you wait for version three. In the future, Brockett wants to see updates of existing Silverlight controls for features such as panorama and pivot, new controls added, and the native APIs opened up to features such as an on-board camera, bringing Silverlight-based phones in line with all other handsets.
His immediate concerns are whether Silverlight on Windows Phone 7 can keep up with a fast-paced device industry and also run on more handsets than the handful currently permitted. "The phones feel modern right now, but things change so quickly," he said.
Grown up, no place to go?
Stanfield, meanwhile, thinks Silverlight in general is a pretty mature piece of software — hence his lack of surprise that Microsoft is altering strategy. "They got Silverlight under control. We were asked what we wanted to see added to Silverlight 5 — the list was quite short," he said, without saying what features he has asked for. "You are able to use it to solve big problems."
All signs point to Microsoft not killing Silverlight. It can't. Unlike the Zune, Windows Vista, KIN phones, Live Spaces, and the WS-* specs, too many people have now bought into Silverlight at the programming and partner level, and Windows Phone 7 is now on the sharp end of a very high-profile, new business-growth strategy for Microsoft in mobile.
Whatever happens Thursday, one thing is clear: Silverlight is no longer the one-answer-fits-all, rich-media technology Microsoft had allowed it to become. Specific markets, always in the background, are now the core focus, giving partners serving them an alternative to Flash. This was always the real story of Silverlight, but expectations grew along with all that broadcast hype, while Microsoft screwed up the delivery of the new message.
And as for the Silverlighters? Business as usual, it seems. ®