“Our strategy has shifted” may be the most unfortunate phrase ever uttered by a Microsoft exec. Bob Muglia, President of the Server and Tools Division, said it in his interview with Mary Jo Foley. Pundits and Silverlight detractors have been partying on it for more than a week.
It should just be good theater. Unfortunately, it has spooked the herd. More than a few of our customers and prospects are wondering if Silverlight is “dead”.
Some Silverlight defenders counter by reminding us that HTML 5 is not ready and runs on less than 1% of installed browsers.
But the merits and demerits of HTML 5 are beside the point. If you’re considering building in Silverlight, you have to know that Silverlight itself has a future. You don’t care about Silverlight 5. You want to know there will be a Silverlight 10. You want to believe that Microsoft sees Silverlight as a strategic, mainstream web development platform.
I believe Microsoft sees Silverlight as a strategic, mainstream web development platform … for many years to come.
Don’t take it on my authority; I don’t have any authority. Believe Bob Muglia when he sets the record straight. If I may paraphrase, Bob said Microsoft is investing heavily in HTML 5 because that is the standards-based technology with the potential for the broadest possible reach. Investment in HTML 5 does not mean abandoning Silverlight. It’s not a retreat from Silverlight. Far from it. Silverlight thrives … on the web, on the desktop, and on the phone.
Bob simply acknowledged that Microsoft will vigorously pursue multiple web technologies to meet diverse market needs.
Where is IdeaBlade going?
It’s IdeaBlade’s mission to help business application developers reach their users wherever they are, using whatever technology they want to use. Our DevForce product drives Console applications, “headless” services, Windows Forms, WPF, Silverlight, and HTML applications written with Web Forms and MVC. Next month we’ll release our support for an OData API that enables any client … including any phone … to access your DevForce business model. When there is a way to write applications in HTML 5, we’ll be there too.
We are always balancing our portfolio of client technologies. But to be clear, we believe Silverlight is now – and will remain for the foreseeable future – the best way to build and deliver business applications to the web. Bob Muglia said it too: “Silverlight provides the richest way to build Web-delivered client apps”, especially “enterprise application[s] … both inside and outside the browser.”
No HTML technology today can match Silverlight in capability or productivity for the web application developer. A comparable HTML 5 platform by all accounts is years away.
What’s all the Fuss?
The story at last year’s PDC was “three screens and a cloud” glued together by Silverlight. Barely a year later they’re ballyhooing HTML 5 as the glue. A third of the keynote goes to IE 9 and HTML 5; Silverlight is hardly mentioned. Then Bob says “strategic shift” and the stuff hits the fan.
What we have here is a failure to communicate. Microsoft evangelizes the shiny new balls but seems less adept at the sustained marketing necessary to keep existing brands burning bright – xBox excepted. The Silverlight team is going great guns on Silverlight vNext development back in Redmond but you would not know that at PDC and there is still no public target for a putative Silverlight 5 release. Other consumer-facing corporations invest in their brands, especially successful brands. Even soap is regularly “new and improved.” Microsoft can’t count on product development to keep the brand alive. They should be as relentless on the marketing front.
They tried mightily to recover the Silverlight momentum. Muglia apologized (yes – he said “apologize”) for his part in launching the controversy. Read his post carefully; he was adamant that Silverlight is a strategic technology with a long future. When you’re done reading Bob, read Scott Guthrie’s post which reiterates and elaborates on Bob’s themes; Scott is Vice President of the Developer Division and he ought to know.
Of course they also have to promote HTML 5 in a big way and Silverlight must pay a price for its previously exaggerated ambitions. The truth is that Silverlight will have less reach than we once hoped. It will still be cross-platform – running in many browsers and on both Mac and Windows. But the grand vision of Silverlight on every device on the planet cannot be realized. That was always a tall order and, over the last year, it became obviously unachievable. Apple blocked them successfully on iPhone and iPad … and will continue to do so as long as their market share permits.
Microsoft must have a future on these devices; they are too important to ignore. And Microsoft also must provide an alternative to Silverlight in other venues where Silverlight is shut out. We all know that some customers prohibit browser plug-ins … which precludes both Silverlight and Flash.
Silverlight was never the only game in town. You’ve heard about MVC, yes? MVC is an HTML technology and will likely be the backbone of HTML 5 development. Scott Guthrie is as avid a promoter and staunch ally of MVC as he has been of Silverlight. His blog posts for the last few years give each technology equal love.
MVC did not diminish Scott’s enthusiasm for Silverlight … and neither does the prospect of HTML 5.
Silverlight is not just the Phone
Reading some of the press, you might fear that Silverlight had been relegated to a phone development platform. They talked a ton about “Silverlight + Phone” at PDC. Silverlight is indeed the preferred platform for the Windows Phone 7; other than XNA it is the only development platform for WP7. I suspect Muglia was so phone-conscious that, in the interview moment, he just didn’t think of what else we use Silverlight for … hence his unfortunate “other sweet spots” comment.
Give him a break. WP7 is the hot new thing. According to Steve Ballmer, it’s Microsoft’s next billion dollar product. It’s a big deal and a key theme at PDC. Talking up Silverlight on the phone is called “staying on message”.
But Silverlight is also the premier client technology in many other spaces. For example, it’s the best way to build applications on top of SharePoint and that process got a lot easier with SharePoint 2010. We saw Silverlight front-ends on Azure. We are seeing Silverlight front-ends on Bing.
From our perspective, the most important fact: Silverlight remains the recommended client platform for distributed business applications, both inside and outside the browser. Bob Muglia said it. Scott Guthrie reiterated it.
The FUD Factor
Do you think it is curious that some in the technical press and the Silverlight detractors so eagerly cling to Muglia’s one inapt phrase? Why do they misrepresent and dismiss his clarification? Do these people really know something? Do they have secret inside Microsoft skinny? Do they mention unnamed sources? A “deep throat” of some kind?
No. All they do is read the same tea leaves everyone else is stirring: Muglia’s interview, the IE9 PDC publicity parade, the lack of a big Silverlight announcement … and throw in their own wishful thinking (egregious example here).
I have no inside scoop either. I’m reading what you’re reading.
I do have real-world experience developing with Silverlight (question: can you name a “Silverlight is Dead” article by anyone who has written a Silverlight application?)
I have my Microsoft contacts and I spoke to as many of them as I could reach. Every one of them … without exception and without equivocation … believes passionately that Microsoft is committed to Silverlight. They are dead certain that the Silverlight franchise is growing. They believe that HTML 5 is a big bet too … but that it does not dim Silverlight’s star. And no one expected a “strategic shift” announcement.
I worked at GE for twelve years. I know what a “strategic shift” looks like. We would never learn of a “strategic shift” by reading a Friday afternoon interview in a trade rag. GE doesn’t work that way. GE would prepare us for a bombshell like that. The board would know. The senior executives would know. The press kit would be prepared. Company meetings would be scheduled at every level.
Microsoft is no GE … but it isn’t stupid either. There was no preparation. Muglia’s remarks were a bolt from the blue – as he said himself. There wasn’t supposed to be an announcement. All we have here is an interview by an executive trying to stay on message: Azure, WP7, IE9+HTML5.
If you’ve ever worked for a business or run a business, you know how this happens: a casual remark to a journalist gets wildly misunderstood and misrepresented. You don’t make a critical decision on this basis. You exercise prudent judgment and listen when company executives correct the record.
Well … what of HTML 5?
Now I must speak for myself, not IdeaBlade.
HTML is the way to get the broadest possible reach. HTML 4 is perceived to lack the pizzazz for the new breed of rich internet applications so everyone is pinning hopes on HTML 5. There are some problems with that:
1. Near zero reach for the next few years. A tiny fraction of browsers installed today support HTML 5. It takes a long time to replace the installed base of browsers (proof: even Microsoft can’t seem to kill off IE6). Plug-ins (like Silverlight and Flash) have been adopted much more readily than new browsers.
2. HTML 5 is not a standard yet. The WC3 doesn’t think it’s ready; see here and here. The browser wars of the 1990s are coming back and it’s going to be hell for the developers trying to write applications that actually work on all the browsers on all the devices. One wag described HTML 5 as “Write once, test everywhere!”
3. The developer story is missing. Applications don’t build themselves. You need libraries and tools to design, develop, debug, and test. None of this infrastructure exists for HTML 5. You need experience and best practices to build an application properly. No one has experience building HTML 5 applications. The essential foundation of human and physical capital is years away.
4. HTML 5 sets the lowest common denominator for user experience. The Silverlight team wrote convincingly about this in a recent post. The comparatively low HTML standard and limited capabilities may be good enough for some applications; will it be good enough for yours? Or will it prevent your RIA developers from delivering the rich experience and features that your application requires and that your market demands?
Ask yourself why your application is not on the web today? If HTML 4 were a viable option, why aren’t you there now? Is it because you can’t affordably deliver the rich responsive experience of your existing application? What is it about HTML 5 that will change that picture? What in HTML 5 will make your application better than it would be in HTML 4?
Silverlight remains more productive, more testable, more maintainable than any HTML-targeted approach. I can think of other excellent reasons to build an HTML application. But if the balance of considerations favored Silverlight last week, I can’t imagine why the distant prospect of HTML 5 should change the equation today … as long as you believe Silverlight is going to continue to grow and improve … as I clearly do.