Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Microsoft's announcement of Silverlight seems to have really caught a lot of attention. I'm having a hard time understanding this. What did they really announce that we didn't already know?
  • Free storage for streaming video using Silverlight: That's nice I guess. In typical Microsoft fashion, they are subsidizing the switch from an existing technology (Flash) to their own version of the same thing. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with that.
  • .NET CLR included with Silverlight: This is the big news, I guess. Well not really. Using the CLR as a runtime for rich content over the web is not new. It was always one of the ideas behind .NET. It's a replacement for ActiveX, which even Microsoft seems to hate now (well at least IE7 complains and warns a lot about it.) MS obviously had to include some kind of runtime with Silverlight. Adobe has its supercharged version of JavaScript, ActionScript (Microsoft has this too, it's called JScript.) The CLR that will be included will be a subset of the "full" CLR. So it just means that Silverlight devs can use a stripped down version of C# that will (just guessing here) will perform JavaScript like duties. That's nice. I guess. I'm going to conjecture that for most things you will do in Silverlight, it will be a lot easier to use a dynamic language like JScript (or Python or Ruby, as .NET versions of those were mentioned) instead of C#. Adobe experimented with making ActionScript more Java-like with ActionScript 2.0, and re-thought the decision with ActionScript 3.0.
  • Silverlight CLR open sourced and ported to Firefox and Macs: Oh wait, this is the big news. Actually I guess it is, but not for the reasons most people think. This is Microsoft's white flag. They are admitting that a lot of people use Firefox now and there's even a reasonable number of people using Macs. So for them to compete with Flash, they need to support Firefox and Safari.
  • Silverlight CLR on Windows Mobile: This is actually the most interesting thing to me, though I am somewhat skeptical. The idea of being able to write an application that works on the web, on the desktop, and on a mobile device is very appealing to me. Heck, I basically spent a year of my life writing a language to do exactly that at Ludi Labs (RIP.) I went to one of those grandiose Microsoft launch parties earlier this year just to see what progress they had made on this front with Windows Presentation Foundation err I mean .NET 3.0 err I mean Silverlight. The stuff I saw from Mix only seemed to indicate things like video streaming (more on that soon) than real application development. That's why I'm still skeptical. I've written Windows Mobile apps and it is definitely a differentiated development experience vs. writing a Windows application. Sure a lot of things are similar and you can use some of the same languages (or a subset, does this sound familiar?)
Now part of why I'm not so impressed with Silverlight is that I mostly care about application development. It seems to me that Silverlight will basically enable developers to build Flex-like applications. I see its support for CLR languages as a minor advantage. It will be interesting to see if they give away a Visual Studio Express edition for doing Silverlight development. That would be an advantage over Flex. Otherwise, I see this playing out similar to how the introductoin of C# and .NET played out. Microsoft shops may switch to it, but it's hard to imagine Flex developers switching to it.

There's big wrinkles I've left out. The biggest is streaming video. It may very well be that Silverlight provides superior streaming video capability. If that is the case, then a Silverlight based YouTube would seem to have potential. It would be a real boon to pirated video, like HD episodes of TV shows. That would be huge. If works great on phones, even better.

The last piece of the puzzle is the desktop. Is Microsoft going to push Silverlight as a desktop application development? I did not get this impression. It seems possible, but why would they do this? Adobe is certainly going this route with Apollo, but Adobe doesn't have any presence on the desktop. Microsoft already owns it. So it seems like Silverlight would only be used as a counter, if needed. I'm not really sure it will be needed though.

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