Microsoft tries to polish Silverlight's future

Version 5 beta of Microsoft's browser plug-in is due at the Mix conference next week with major new features. But Silverlight vs. Adobe's Flash is yesterday's battle.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
Microsoft Silverlight logo

Back in the good old days, Microsoft's Silverlight merely had to take on the mighty Flash Player.

Now Microsoft's browser plug-in has a very different challenge than Adobe Systems' rival technology: Web standards. And Microsoft, through the release of IE9 and presumably its successors, is helping to bring those standards to the real world.

Nevertheless, Redmond's engineers believe Silverlight has a future as a browser plug-in, and at Microsoft's Mix conference next week, the company will be trying to advance that future.

At Mix11, Microsoft plans to release a beta version of Silverlight 5, and augmenting browser abilities is one of the primary roles Silverlight fills, Microsoft executives said in a blog post.

"For plug-in based experiences, we believe Silverlight delivers the richest set of capabilities available to developers today," said Walid Abu-Hadba, corporate vice president of developer platform and evangelism, Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of the .Net developer platform, and S. Somasegar, senior vice president of the developer division.

Silverlight 5 brings a wealth of new features to programmers: hardware-accelerated video playback for better performance and battery-life preservation; hardware-accelerated 3D graphics; crisper text with advanced formatting; remote-control support; faster start-up; 64-bit browser support; the ability to run Silverlight programs outside the browser; and new digital rights management abilities.

The three executives have no illusions that HTML5--along with improvements to other Web standards such as Cascading Style Sheets, Scalable Vector Graphics, WebSocket, and JavaScript--are a real force for programmers. But they're not for everybody, and Microsoft reiterated Adobe's argument that plug-ins can bring technology to the Web earlier than standards.

While much has been written about a diminishing gap between the capabilities of HTML5 and capabilities provided by plug-ins, plug-ins will continue to evolve and so there will likely be a gap of some degree, and it will cyclically contract and expand. Contraction occurs as the standard specification "catches up" with the plug-in technologies, and then expands again as the next wave of innovation pushes the boundary further forward.

That's a fair argument. Plenty of technologies have arrived in Flash first, with Web standards trailing years behind. HTML5, with its built-in video, isn'tdue to be finalized until 2014, for example (though elements of it are already in browsers today).

But the trickle-down argument isn't complete for a couple reasons.

First, browser programmers these days at Apple, Google, Opera, and Mozilla are bubbling with ideas, and more to the point, they're implementing them in browsers. Microsoft's IE9 team, while not as eager to be bleeding-edge, is actively involved in defining those standards, too, and its work with hardware acceleration has advanced the maturity of Web applications. The Web-standards gang are not such laggards as in years past. Plug-ins long have been a major source of browser crashes, and now that browser makers have some momentum to reduce their reliance on plug-ins, they're moving ahead fast.

The Microsoft developer executives acknowledge the reality: "The market momentum behind adoption of HTML5 as the path forward for broad cross-platform reach continues to gather momentum, and with Internet Explorer 9 Microsoft is chief among those leading that charge." But they make that point more as a lead-in to their point that there's no single perfect programming technology. While it's true that Silverlight is an answer to some software challenges, the tremendous reach of the Web standards--and the strength of Android and iOS development environments--mean that Silverlight is not the answer for a huge swath of programmers.

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Second, there's the mobile world. Flash is a reality here, but only on a small minority of higher-end handsets right now, and even it's often a rough experience. If it catches on more widely, programmers still will have to work around its banishment from Apple's iOS devices. But though Flash has challenges with mobile, Silverlight can only aspire to those problems. It's not even a part of the debate on mobile, and let's face it--a cross-platform programming foundation that doesn't work on a huge number of influential mobile devices is seriously weakened.

Silverlight, by virtue of its essential role in Windows Phone 7 apps, does have potential role in the mobile market. WP7, though, trails iOS and Google's Android.

Microsoft famously understands developers and understands their importance to the success of its products. When it comes to Silverlight, though, the company still has a lot to prove.