Has HTML5 Killed Silverlight?

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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.

Craig BucklerCraig Buckler
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Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.

FlashHTML5 Dev CenterHTML5 Tutorials & ArticlesmicrosoftSilverlight
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