Microsoft Silverlight has been very noticably used by NBC (Olympics/Sunday Night Football), but never achieved the penetration necessary for smaller businesses to adopt it. The thing is, while the sizzle behind Silverlight has always been video (as with Flash), the steak has always been Rich Internet Applications, and more specifically, the tools that developers use to build them. In my view, that’s the primary reason that Silverlight exists.
Now, Microsoft is de-emphasizing Silverlight in favor of HTML5. This will have very little impact in the streaming video marketplace, but you don’t need C#, .NET or Visual Basic to build HTML5 apps. So where does that leave developers?
At Microsoft’s Professional Developer’s Conference last week, Bob Muglia, the president of Microsoft’s Server and Tools business, said the following in Mary-Jo Foley’s All About Microsoft ZDNET column.
“Silverlight is our development platform for Windows Phone,” he said. Silverlight also has some “sweet spots” in media and line-of-business applications, he said. But when it comes to touting Silverlight as Microsoft’s vehicle for delivering a cross-platform runtime, “our strategy has shifted,” Muglia told me.
Silverlight will continue to be a cross-platform solution, working on a variety of operating system/browser platforms, going forward, he said. “But HTML is the only true cross platform solution for everything, including (Apple’s) iOS platform,” Muglia said.”
The consensus opinion is simply lack of traction. Here’s a blurb from Tim Anderson’s ITWriting blog:
“Further, despite a few isolated wins, Silverlight has done nothing to dent the position of Adobe Flash as a cross-platform multimedia and now application runtime. Silverlight has advantages, such as the ability to code in C# rather than ActionScript, but the Flash runtime has the reach and the partners. At the recent MAX conference RIM talked up Flash on the Blackberry tablet, the Playbook, and Google talked up Flash on Google TV. I have not heard similar partner announcements for Silverlight.”
In short, Microsoft was caught in the chicken and egg Catch-22 that faces many new technologies – you can’t get companies to adopt it until user penetration is sufficiently high, and you can’t get user penetration sufficiently high until companies adopt it. According to www.RIAStats.com, Silverlight is still only at 65% penetration worldwide, compared to over 96% for Flash. Impressive numbers, but not enough, at least in the absence of a very clearly defined value proposition over Flash.
To Rely on HTML5?
On its face, Microsoft’s capitulation to HTML5 makes little sense and leaves Microsoft programmers in the lurch. Here are the thoughts of my friend Stefan Richter, in a post to the StreamingMedia Advanced Code List Serve.
…HTML5 seems like a step back to browser detection and serving up multiple versions of the same page depending on supported features. Wasn’t this exactly why Flash was successful in the first place, the fact that it truly rendered consistently cross browser and cross platform? That is a point that HTML5 does not seem to address. I simply cannot imagine that all browser vendors suddenly step in line and magically every page that validates looks and works the same across OSs and browsers. Call me a pessimist…
Granted, Stefan is a dyed in the wool Flash programmer who arguably might not be considered objective on HTML5 (though as a consultant/programmer type, he has to look forward and see which skill set he needs to retain/develop to pay for diapers and braces going forward). Here’s what former Silverlight Product Manager Scott Barnes had to say about Microsoft’s decision.
Neither Stefan or Scott mention the big video-related deficits in HTML5, like the absence of DRM, adaptive streaming, proven live capabilities, a single codec supported by all browsers or even majority browser penetration. See The Five Key Myths about HTML5.
It’s All About the Tools
All that said, what’s interesting about the Microsoft announcement is that it has very little impact on the video delivery market in the short term – few companies were seriously considering Flash vs. Silverlight, and those considering Flash vs. HTML5 probably don’t care that Silverlight is out of the market. The big question for me is what it means for Microsoft developers and tool sales themselves. Here’s a comment from Michael Martinez as posted in response to Scott Barne’s comments.
“I certainly can’t speak for all New(ish) developers out there. But I can certainly speak for myself; This is a massive black-eye for Redmond. I’m still learning the basics of development and programming. That said, I spend a lot of time trying out tons of stuff on tons of platforms. I had super high hopes for Silverlight.
As a student, I need to buckle down and make hard choices about my primary toolset. The more I think about this, the more I need to stay away from Microsoft.”
Here’s another comment from Sheva.
“Personally I am going to see how this pans out in the market. If I notice WPF/SL falling away in terms of job ads then I am abandoning the Microsoft stack. I’ve got a few gripes I could live with, but all this FUD on top of it all means I am starting to get pissed off with it all.
However, I must say in the recent short term, I have been overwhelmed by the amount of work available in SL/WPF, and it is paying very well. I have been approached by 3 foreign companies to join them (WPF), and my contracting rate has increased by 50% in the last 12 months due to the demand.
I haven’t really decided what I will do, but I am thinking of skilling up in Flash/Flex. Oracle make a fabulous RDBMS which I have used and enjoyed, or perhaps I will go all NoSQL and CQRS.”
Perhaps, in abandoning Silverlight, Microsoft is making a hard business decision to drop a technology that was doomed for failure. Gotta respect that. With no apparent alternative web-centric strategy for its tools business, however, it does leave you shaking your head. It’s interesting that in the same week, Adobe managed to embrace HTML5 in a meaningful way without throwing Flash under the bus.
[Note: after this article went public, Microsoft clarified their strategy here. Be interesting to see what happens over the next few months.]