Has HTML5 Killed Silverlight?

According to Microsoft, “Silverlight is a powerful development platform for creating engaging, interactive applications for many screens across the Web, desktop, and mobile devices.” Now at version 4, Silverlight was released in 2007 and is a runtime available as a plug-in so you can run rich animations and video in your browser.

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s Microsoft’s version of Flash.

Silverlight is good. Videos are often a smaller file size and better quality than their Flash equivalents, SEO is possible, and the runtime is backed by .NET so developers can choose their language and leverage existing skills. Microsoft also provide a range of decent Silverlight tools including Expression and VisualStudio 2010.

Flash beats Silverlight on a number of levels but, most importantly, people are using it. Flash had a 10-year head start, it’s available on more platforms, is included within several browser installations, and is part of the Adobe toolset designers know and love. On the web, Silverlight deployments are dwarfed by Flash.

Microsoft’s strategy shift

Silverlight’s future has been questioned this week following Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference. There were no sessions about the technology and Bob Muglia, president of the Server and Tools Division, was quoted as saying “our strategy has shifted” to HTML5.

Understandably, it’s caused chaos in the Silverlight community. Many have taken the comments as Microsoft’s intention to abandon the technology.

HTML5 is NOT a Flash/Silverlight killer!

Let’s refer to the marketing term “HTML5″ which covers every modern browser technology including CSS3, JavaScript APIs and 101 other features. It does offer facilities which would previously have required Flash or Silverlight. HTML5 is therefore quoted as the open-standard successor to the plug-ins.

However, the technologies are not mutually exclusive. If you’re successfully using Flash or Silverlight now, why should you adopt HTML5? There have to be strong benefits if you intend to scrap your existing code.

We also need to consider legacy browsers which, ironically, belong to Microsoft. While it’s possible to use HTML5 today, IE6, 7 and 8 will never understand the video tag. What technology will you provide as a fallback?

Finally, HTML5 will always be playing catch-up. Microsoft and Adobe can implement new features in Silverlight and Flash on a whim. Browser manufacturers can do the same, but it takes months — if not years — before other vendors follow their lead and the feature becomes a recognized standard.

Is Silverlight dead?

Microsoft handled the (lack of) Silverlight publicity badly. The company did little to reassure existing developers other than saying they should wait 5 months for further announcements at MIX 2011. That left developers in limbo. The uproar prompted blog posts from both Bob Muglia and Steve Ballmer to clarify Microsoft’s commitment to Silverlight.

As I see it, the problem arises from Microsoft’s obsession with whatever technology is in vogue. Despite it’s size, the company switches focus to a new product or concept every few years. It’s currently HTML5 and they’re aggressively promoting it as a “one mark-up” cross-platform development solution. (Even though IE9 is 6 months away and they’re yet to produce solid HTML5-aware development tools).

The company’s drive is commendable but it often overshadows their existing products and user communities. It need not have been that way: HTML and Silverlight are not competing technologies (even if that were Microsoft’s original intention). There are features you can implement in either, but both have pros and cons.

Silverlight is not dead. It’s the development platform for the Windows Phone and it remains a reliable browser plug-in for rich media. It’s part of the .NET family and Microsoft are not likely to abandon it any time soon. If you’re currently developing Silverlight applications, there’s no reason to change. However, following this publicity, I suspect many companies will be reconsidering their options.

Ultimately, remember that IT is one of the fastest-moving sectors. Technologies change, rise and fall and it’s impossible to predict the future. Choose the best technology for the task in hand and you can’t go far wrong. That may just be Silverlight.

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  • tonynbs

    Interesting experiment by digital comms agency Code Computerlove on the Flash vs HTML5 debate. http://labs.codecomputerlove.com/flashvshtml5/

    • goldfidget

      Brilliant :)

    • http://www.deathshadow.com deathshadow60

      I assume all (and I mean ALL) of the audio is handled in flash? Looking at the source, why yes, yes it is.

      Since HTML5 audio STILL cannot start play with sufficient speed or loop properly for use DURING gameplay in any browser.

      Oh, and it runs WAY better in Opera here – canvas winning out over flash; funny since that’s REVERSE in FF on this same machine, with Flash the obvious winner on framerate.

  • Raymond

    Very poor idea of a post that culminates all the poor notions that went into the bad reporting that inspired it.

    How the hell could anyone have watched PDC and came away posing the question “Is Silverlight dead?” Would it have been better if every instance of “WP7″ was “Silverlight” instead? Of course Silverlight isn’t dead, its how you build applications on Windows Phone 7 which is obviously what Microsoft chose to focus on this year.

    A better question would be “Is Microsoft siding with HTML5 over Silverlight for the web?”. Yeah, a better question but still one that completely misses the point of Silverlight. Does anyone really actually believe Silverlight was supposed to replace HTML? Come on. The simple, non-controversial truth is that Silverlight is merely one more option to deliver media and rich user interfaces in a web browser. It can do that without competing with that whole HTML thing.

    On to the misc. stuff: “they’ve yet to produce solid HTML5-aware development tools”? Seriously? Like what? Intellisense for HTML5? There’s a VS extension for that. There’s ASP.NET HTML5 helpers. There ain’t a whole lot to being “aware” of HTML5.

    Anyway, nice jab in the dark at the same missed target of controversy whatever you read to inspire this failed to hit as well. Try on a year where Silverlight isn’t actually integral to something Microsoft just put half a billion dollars of marketing into, and didn’t infact spend half of PDC demoing and showing off.

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      Thanks for your comments Raymond, but doesn’t the article agree with what you’re saying?

      • R. Lawson

        I agree with what both of you are saying. My only complaint with the article is the headline “Has HTML5 killed Silverlight?”. For people who just see the headline in a search, they will assume the answer is yes and it continues the spread of misinformation.

        I’ll let you figure out a better headline – that’s what you do. I don’t like this one.

      • Raymond

        Well, you said a lot of things. That Silverlight isn’t competing with HTML, yet insinuated it was an original intention of Microsoft. It’s only in believing the latter is there any kind of “strategy shift” going on. I mean come on, do you really believe Microsoft wanted to -replace- HTML with Silverlight, or was it from the get-go an alternative to Flash to achieve the same thing and ideally more that Flash achieves? Richer user experiences and write-once in preferred language experiences for developers?

        There was no “strategy shift” that involves HTML is all I’m saying.

        You also claimed “there were no sessions” on Silverlight. Except the majority of the Client track was about Silverlight applications on Windows Phone 7. Were I to take what you wrote for truth I’d walk away believing Silverlight didn’t appear at PDC at all.

        Again, you could argue there was nothing about Silverlight in the browser, but wasn’t your post about some confrontation with HTML5? Where were the HTML5 sessions then?

        This PDC was all about Windows Azure and Windows Phone 7, and that’s all there is to it. Nothing about HTML5 vs. Silverlight for the web.

        So yeah, I agree there’s no competition with HTML5, I agree this is a bunch of nitpicking about nothing, but disagree that any strategy shift has occurred or that there weren’t any Silverlight sessions.

      • Jace

        Nice article and points well made. As a developer that’s worked with both Silverlight and Flex (which are essentially competing technologies) I can see how both companies are equally embracing HTML5. Adobe themselves have recently announced HTML5 support in dreamweaver and I’ve seen example of Flash conversion to HTML5. Does this mean that HTML5 has also killed Flash? Of course not, it’s simply a recognition that as a new emerging standard, HTML5 is being embraced as a viable long term strategic investment for both organisations. Will this ultimately mean the replacement of both plugin technologies? maybe in the future, but right now it’s not a reason for any organisation to suddenly make a shift, if only for the points you make. As for Raymond’s comments; whilst he makes valid points, I feel he’s getting a little too worried about the immediate future of silverlight and attacking this blog as an example of the medias conspiracy to undermine it’s position is a little strong, especially as essentially he’s in violent agreement with what you say. That said, I do understand that those who only read the title may take away the wrong impression. However unfortunately they’ll always be those who only see what they want to see.

      • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

        @R Lawson
        Never assume! The answer to the title is “no” … but would the doom-mongers have read it?

        @Raymond
        I’m not insinuating that MS intended Silverlight to be an HTML-killer. However, I bet it was discussed by some exec somewhere. From a commercial viewpoint, MS would have benefited from Silverlight becoming the de-facto cross-platform environment.

        Also, look at their history. In the first half of the decade, Microsoft considered the browser to be dead. HTML couldn’t handle the rich interfaces people wanted so MS backed Windows-based smart clients rather than web applications.

        But it’s great they’re finally backing HTML5. It doesn’t matter what Apple, Mozilla, Google or Opera did — without Microsoft’s endorsement, HTML5 would never have gone anywhere.

      • Raymond

        @Jace

        Saying there were “no sessions about the technology” at PDC isn’t a “media conspiracy”, its just plain not true and STILL could use correction. I get that he meant “Silverlight in a browser”, but you and whomever else that didn’t watch or attend PDC wouldn’t know that Silverlight was heavily featured, just through the lense of Windows Phone 7.

        And yes I was in agreement with most of what the blog post hits home at (Silverlight isn’t dead, nor in competition with HTML), just not the false parts (no Silverlight sessions, no HTML5-aware development tools). Yes my tone was strong but the parts that are wrong are to put as politely as possible, complete falsehoods.

    • jennifert
  • anthonyfranco

    HTML 5 does not replace plugins, and Microsoft certainly is not abandoning the beachhead they have worked so hard to establis. The reports of Silverlight’s death have been greatly exaggerated: http://goo.gl/o5wB

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      Thanks anthonyfranco — I totally agree!

  • Andrew

    While it’s possible to use HTML5 today, IE6, 7 and 8 will never understand the video tag. What technology will you provide as a fallback?
    Conditional comments with the video tag.

    <video>
    <– sources –>
    <–if [IE lt 9]><embed code…><[endif]–>
    </video>

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      Actually, you don’t need conditional comments either. Watch out for my next article later this week…

  • Michael Washington

    This is a very well written article. I agree that there is no tooling at the level we have for Silverlight to make HTML5 websites. I would not pay for a full copy of Visual Studio just for intellisense :)

    • http://www.talking-poker.com BrianOConnell

      Well then pay 0 for Visual Web Developer Express and get the intellisense as well as for html and javascript.

    • Raymond

      Perfect example of why making an argument like “they’re yet to produce solid HTML5-aware development tools” can snowball into further unjust biases.

      Exactly what forbids you from using HTML5 tags in Visual Studio the same way you do XHTML tags? When you F5 and start up Cassini, does it throw a hissy fit or something because you used HTML5 tags? Refuses to launch an HTML5 compliant browser? Scream at you for using the HTML5 doctype?

      If Microsoft has done a poor job of releasing tooling for HTML5, show me an example of a company that has released wjatever HTML5 tooling is supposed to be. If you come up short, its probably because HTML5 is freakin’ HTML and there’s never not been tooling for it in recent history.

      I get that there could be additional syntax support and maybe problems in things like view engines in ASP.NET, but that hasn’t been the case. There’s HTML5 extensions for Expression Web and Visual Studio, and view engines like Razor work just fine with HTML5 since its…just HTML.

      • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

        If it comes to it, Notepad can be used to write HTML5. Not many people would, though.

        Compare Microsoft’s offerings to Adobe — they’ve already released HTML5 export facilities for their design tools. You can convert Flash to HTML5, but the same cannot be said for Silverlight (even though I’d have thought it would be technically easier).

        But the biggest problem is IE9. The browser won’t be available for 6 months and, even then, it won’t be released on XP. Microsoft’s legacy OSs and older browsers will hold back HTML5 more than any other software. IE’s sedate 2-year update process won’t help either.

      • Raymond

        @Craig

        And Microsoft has released HTML5 tools for Adobe products too, i.e. the AI to Canvas deal from earlier last month or so: http://visitmix.com/labs/ai2canvas/

        No, there’s no Silverlight to HTML5 tools, but should there be? In your post you mentioned Silverlight is drastically behind Flash in deployment. So who does Silverlight to HTML5 tools benefit?

        Not having the same success means not having the same problems, and conversion tools solve a specific problem, one you pointed out Silverlight doesn’t have (mass deployment of apps that could use HTML5 conversions for the sake of devices like iPad/iPhone), the lack of a conversion tool doesn’t mean there isn’t tooling within Microsoft to create HTML5 applications. We have Visual Studio, Expression Web, WebMatrix, whatevers in the extension manager for each and independently released add-ons like the MIX deal.

        On the IE9 criticisms: Windows XP is nearing a decade old OS. Should Microsoft have still supported Windows 95 in 2005? One step to getting people off IE6 and Windows XP is to stop supporting it. This isn’t a Microsoft problem moreso than a problem for the industry with consumers and corporations clinging to legacy software. It’s not like Microsoft is still selling Windows XP or offering IE6 for download.

        But fair criticisms. I feel differently about a projected 2 year update until IE9 is refreshed though. Their 8-week update cycle with the IE9 previews and turnarounds in the beta have been encouraging.

        I’d also be fairer about the long stretch of time between IE6 and IE7; a slow W3C was partly culprit and is largely the reason developers find use in proprietary technology like Flash and Silverlight in the first place. Even if all browsers were perfectly compliant, RIAs would have their place.

        It’s not unlikely in ten years we’ll be staring back at a stagnating HTML5 spec no different than we stare at XHTML 1.1 now, and its that’s reason RIAs will keep their better uses outside of direct competition with standards like HTML5. RIAs can move at the speed of consumer demand and yearly conventions to fill needs W3C recommendations are too slow to.

      • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

        Thanks Raymond.

        I’m not convinced there should be a Silverlight to HTML5 converter either, but the point was really to compare MS with Adobe who have already released a good selection of HTML5 tools. I realize there are VS intellisense add-ons, but they’re not in the same league. However, I wouldn’t mind any of that if IE9 was here today and MS committed to more regular updates!

        To answer your point “should Microsoft have still supported Windows 95 in 2005″ — if it had 60% of the OS market like XP, then definitely! I realize XP updates are an issue for the industry, but the problem was caused by Microsoft and their failures with Longhorn and Vista.

        Many people are perfectly happy with XP — or prefer it. IE9 will not persuade many to upgrade. If MS really believe it will, why didn’t they make Office 2010 Vista/7 only? That would have had a far larger impact (but mainly on their profits).

        What concerns me is that Microsoft’s commercial OS issues will stagnate the evolution of HTML5 and the web as a whole. All the other vendors are creating (mostly) better browsers which work on XP. Microsoft’s excuses sound a little lame.

  • Michael

    I think the dream of what Silverlight was touted to be and what it could have been is dead.
    More on the subject @ http://engrstephens.blogspot.com/2010/11/thissltimeofdeathdatetimenow.html

  • Mike

    I think the issue with Silverlight is that it is completely a Microsoft creation. There certainly isn’t anything wrong with that, but it does mean when they come out and say they’re shifting focus, they’re saying the platform is shifting focus. I do think it would be very reasonable at this point to consider how supportive of RIA development the toolset and framework is going to be going into the future, given that we’ve heard straight from the source that they’re betting on another technology.

  • http://www.calcResult.co.uk omnicity

    Surely the main thing that Silverlight was created for was to be as a competitor to Flash?
    And saying it is still alive because it is needed for WP7 is a bit like saying that DOS is still alive; sure people use DOS, but it is hardly the future!

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      That is an issue — what happens to Silverlight if WP7 is a commercial failure? However, the technology has alternative uses should that happen. For example, Microsoft will almost certainly re-enter the tablet arena and there are obvious ties with the phone platform.

  • c-spha

    Well one would say its obvious when differentiating the popularity between Flash and Silver-light. Microsoft need to realize that the open source platform not only has caught up with them but are exceeding them in certain aspects of the IT industry.

  • Akram Abbas

    Hmmm. When sliverlight was alived?????

  • Michael Kordahi

    I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. Silverlight (and Flash) are plugins that augment the capabilities of the open web, they are optional and should be used when appropriate. This has always the case. I find that only the less informed think of it as a zero sum game.

    My full thoughts here http://delicategeniusblog.com/?p=1208

  • http://www.users.on.net/~gulati/ AnilG

    It seems the idea of a strategy shift was a quote from a MS employee. There was then an uproar in the dev community, apparently. I don’t understand how this implies that the author of this article is to blame for that perception.

  • hooperjm

    Good article from the perspective of someone with an app that was previously built in Silverlight. An additional perspective to consider is what to choose for an app yet to be built. It seems that even Microsoft agrees that HTML5 is the way to go for future applications. So Silverlight may not be dead, but does seem to be sporting a shiny new placque imprinted with the word: “legacy”.