I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how HTML5 is going to kill Silverlight. I hear that Microsoft has admitted that it is going with HTML5 in favor of Silverlight. And I hear that Silverlight is a doomed technology.
Here’s the problem: this is all untrue. Microsoft has not said anything of the sort, and is in fact investing quite a bit of resources in advancing the technology. Secondly, the road to HTML5 is far from smooth.
In this post I hope to examine the current state of HTML5 and Silverlight, the facts around Microsoft’s position with both of them, and offer some opinions on where things are going.
Let’s start with the basic facts. Here’s what is relevant about HTML5, mostly pulled from the source of all knowledge and truth:
- Development of the spec started over 6 years ago.
- Depending on who you cite, it will not be a full fledged recommendation until somewhere between 2014 and 2022.
- If you look at compatability charts (you may remember those from when you were doing web development back in 1999), you will see that different engines support different parts of the spec correctly, while other parts are ignored or broken.
- I did a good amount of searching to find one major site that is using HTML5 exclusively (optional things like YouTube’s trial don’t count) and couldn’t find a single example. Please post in the comments if I missed something obvious.
And here’s some relevant facts about Silverlight:
- Version 1 was released in 2007.
- It is now on Version 4, released in 2010.
- Version 5 is in progress, with a stated direction from Microsoft, and a beta target in 2011.
- It is available in most major browsers for Windows and Mac.
- It is the underlying platform for Windows Phone 7, which is obviously a key investment for Microsoft.
- It has been used by major sites such as Netflix and the Olympics.
Now, with that background info out of the way, we can talk about the 800 lb gorilla in the room: the interview with Microsoft’s Bob Muglia in which he states that their “strategy with Silverlight has shifted”. The statements in the interview were further clarified by this announcement from Muglia. Those two relatively innocuous sources were blown way out of proportion by the media and bloggers. Ignore the media hype, and take a moment to actually read what was said. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Wow, I can’t believe he said that Silverlight is dead! Oh wait, he didn’t. In fact, he said things like “Silverlight is very important and strategic to Microsoft” and “The purpose of Silverlight has never been to replace HTML, but rather to do the things that HTML [...] can’t, and to do so in a way that’s easy for developers to use.” When I read the interview and the announcement, I got the sense of a high level person in Microsoft reaffirming the strategic direction for Silverlight, and how it will overlap and coexist with HTML5. It’s not like Microsoft can ignore HTML5 – that would be suicidal for Internet Explorer. But they can certainly present an alternative technology that fills a needed gap.
In fact, all of this “Silveright is dead” nonsense was started by a guy who is now on his way out of Microsoft. Of course, whether or not Muglia’s transition is related to this Silverlight debacle is not public knowledge. But at the very least this means you should take Muglia’s statements with a grain of salt.
So what does this all mean for people that need to invest in a platform for rich internet applications? Should you go with Silverlight or HTML5? Well, here’s a chart of the advantages of each as I see them.
However, Silverlight is not the solution for every problem. There are some areas where it clearly shines because the disadvantages of its reach don’t matter. This includes things like internal line-of-business applications, as well as applications that have a captive audience such as web-based games. But there are also cases where Silverlight is not the best idea, such as websites that should be available to the lowest common denominator visitor, or websites that have to function on every conceivable platform. And, gods help me, if I begin to see entire websites constructed in Silverlight like we saw in the early days of Flash, I might just blow a gasket.
Let me be clear: this isn’t my idea. I’ve heard it suggested by others who have far more business making predictions than I do. But I have been touting the idea for awhile. And imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago, a well-known competitor of Silverlight released some experimental technology very similar to what I’m envisioning. Certainly lends credence to the idea that we’ll see something similar come out of Redmond. And I can’t wait.