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Microsoft’s Silverlight announcements (with update on Linux status)
Posted by: Billy Hollis on Friday, May 04, 2007

This is one of those technology posts that political junkies may not care about. It’s about Microsoft’s announcements this week, and what they might mean for Internet software in the next few years.
 
I spent most of the week in Las Vegas at the MIX conference. Microsoft made some of the biggest announcements they’ve made in years. It will take a while for the effects to be felt. And there’s nothing the typical user, Microsoft or otherwise, needs to worry about at this point. But software developers are going to face some interesting choices in the next year or two.

I’ve written before about the problems with Internet software applications. HTML, the ubiquitous format in which these very words were transmitted to you, is a fine technology for hyperlinked content but a lousy tool for applications. Every time you lose a comment you made to a blog because of a server error, you’re seeing that problem in action.

Now, there are those who disagree with this. They wax enthusiastic about the wonders of HTML. Well, HTML is wonderful for applications in one way and one way only. It allows a software application to span the world. That’s powerful, and before such HTML-based applications came along, unprecedented.

Beyond that, those who rave about DHTML and AJAX and other patches on top of HTML are missing the point. There’s a reason iTunes and Google Earth, just to name two well-known examples, are not written in HTML. There’s a reason why we all need Flash; it spackles over some of the gaps in HTML, allowing applications to have a higher level of interactivity.

We’ve had additional options to supplement or replace HTML for a while, but they all had limitations of one sort or another. Java never really developed the UI engine needed to be a compelling choice (otherwise, Flash would never have gained a foothold). Various solutions from Microsoft had the common drawback that they only worked on Windows machines, and Microsoft critics have a point when they loudly proclaim that Microsoft can’t be the controlling player on the Internet.

So Microsoft has taken a big step. It’s a gamble; in fact, it’s just as big a gamble as their wholesale switch to .Net seven years ago. But it’s a necessary gamble, and I think they’ve made a pretty good bet.

This week, Microsoft announced a future version of a technology called Silverlight. This is a pretty strange situation. They only introduced the name three weeks ago – before that it was called WPF/e, and I’ve referred to it by that name in previous posts. The first version of Silverlight is not even in release yet (that comes sometime this summer), and they’ve already announced the second version.

Silverlight’s main difference from earlier browser-based technologies is that it offers radically better user interface technology. Think of what Flash can do over HTML, and then take that a few miles further. Plus a whole bunch of technologies that are very useful for developing serious applications, such as the ability to manipulate data without going back to the server.

Locally installed programs have had similar capabilities for a long time. But Silverlight does it while being used inside the browser, side-by-side with HTML.

And now, here's the surprise. A lot of you are probably thinking "Big deal, yet another Windows-only technology. Probably just a revamped ActiveX." Nope. Silverlight runs on both Windows and the Macintosh, and in all three major browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari on the Mac).

The initial version, announced three weeks ago, allows programming in JavaScript only, with xaml as the markup language (I talked about xaml in my earlier post). Now for the next surprise. The next version will add the capability to execute true .Net code.

Let me say that again, just to emphasize what’s happening. .Net on Windows is the most popular programming environment on the planet. And now the .Net execution engine (the CLR, as .Net developers call it) will also be available in Silverlight on the Macintosh.

This is huge. It’s the last piece of the puzzle to make highly distributed systems commonplace, and to start clearing away the kludgy HTML applications we use today.

I can already hear the Java partisans maintaining that Java has had the ability to run code on the client machine for years. That’s true. But what Java didn’t have in addition was compelling user interface technology and an easy way to do asynchronous access to data on the server. Silverlight has those things.

If you want to see it in action, go to silverlight.net, download one of the plug-ins and take a look for yourself. If you want to get something stable, the beta of 1.0 is your choice. Most of the demonstrations of this version are oriented around media, because it’s optimized for that. If you have a bit more tolerance for early software, get the alpha of version 1.1, which has the capability to run .Net code in the browser. Then look at some of the sample applications available, such as the airline scheduler demo.

You can do this if you have Windows XP or Vista, or a recent Macintosh. If you have Linux, you’re out in the cold on this, at least for now. Someone might step up to the plate and add Silverlight support for Linux, but it almost certainly won’t be Microsoft.

What does this mean for software developers? For years, most application software that needed to target a lot of users has been done on HTML, using tools such as ASP.NET and JSP. Now, there’s a new choice with radically better user interface capabilities, and it’s easier to program to boot. It has the ability to be a lot smarter about managing data on the user’s machine, so it can much more easily be designed so it doesn’t lose data when the server does something silly.

In short, it allows Internet-based software to be faster to develop and better for the users.

Where does that leave traditional HTML-oriented tools such as ASP.NET? It’s hard to say. Clearly, Silverlight will displace those tools to some extent. At first, Silverlight will probably be used in a lot of systems as a supplement to ASP.NET, because it can be used for just a piece of a web page, just as Flash is typically used.

And there are various unknowns. Can Microsoft deliver on their promises? They delivered on what they promised about .Net in 2000, so I think they have an excellent chance of delivering here.

How about competition? Well, Adobe is attempting to play in this space too, and they have a large installed base of Flash developers and users as a foundation. However, they don’t have Microsoft's strength in the development tools arena, Silverlight integrates media (video and sound) a lot better than Flash, and Flash has nothing of consequence to offer on the ability to transfer data around the Internet. So it’s an uphill fight for them to take on Silverlight as a tool for building business applications. (Flash is fine for certain tasks, and I expect it to exist side-by-side with Silverlight for a long time.)

The 1.0 version of Silverlight will be released sometime this summer, according to Microsoft. One of the early gut checks will be if they follow through on that. If they do, you can expect to start seeing a few general user sites using Silverlight during the second half of this year.

The 1.1 version has no release date announced, or even an estimate. Given what I saw at the conference, I suspect that release will be less than a year from now – maybe a lot less. (That's just my opinion - let me emphasize again that Microsoft has made absolutely no comment that I'm aware of on the 1.1 release date.)

In the meantime, most business software developers can keep on using their favorite HTML tool to do web-based software. But it won’t be long – six or eight months, perhaps – before many of them will need to start looking at Silverlight. If nothing else, customers and business decision makers are likely to start asking about it, and developers will need to understand something about where it’s a fit and where it’s not.

If anyone has more questions about what all this means, ask in the comments. I’ll do the best I can to answer.

If the usual folks who really, really don’t like Microsoft want to chime in with their usual “Microsoft is trying to take over the Internet” stuff, have at it. But I’ve already been through that territory with a few commenters, so I’ll pass this time.

** Update 10:00 AM CST 5 May (Saturday) **

Getting a commitment for Linux support didn't take as long as I expected. The Mono project has been extended for that, according to this article:
"It's a natural extension to what we're doing," said Miguel de Icaza, one of the more prominent authors of the Mono project, which provides an implementation of the Microsoft .Net Framework to run on Linux and other systems.

...

Silverlight, he said, is basically the .Net virtual machine with a couple of extra libraries. In particular, one library does the graphics rendering. The other piece of Silverlight is a host that can be placed inside the Web browser, said de Icaza.

The intention is to enable Silverlight content to run on the Linux desktop. As far as application development, Mono users either could use a text editor or develop on Windows, he said.

"What we're interested in doing is ensuring that the Linux desktop continues to be able to consume content posted on the Web," whether it is Silverlight, Flash, or another variety of content, de Icaza said.


Note that this is possible because Microsoft submitted the core design of the .Net CLR to ECMA back when .NET was introduced. That makes it possible for the Mono project to clone it for Linux.
 
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The Mac is a small consolation since the Mac has consistently proven itself to be just a notch above a niche segment in the market.

This is to take out Linux. A jump someone can make without ditching their hardware. Jumping from Microsoft to Mac or Mac to Microsoft is hard for company on the hardware budget. But in comparison, a switch to Linux is much easier in that respect.

There’s no coincidence, imho, HTML development and innovation stalled when Microsoft joined the W3C. Common standards bring competition.

And this is blatant anti-competitive.

This is tantamount to the auto companies refining their own gas uniquely for their own cars and owning their own gas stations to sell it. Back when GM had something more like 60-70% marketshare, life would become painful to not own a GM and thats if you owned a Ford or Chrysler. Foreign cars penetrating the marketplace, forget it.

But why should I be surprised. Microsoft has been getting away with it for decades because most people run from technical talk. And those who are aware of what Microsoft has pulled also are invested in Microsoft and its technology.
 
Written By: jpm100
URL: http://
The real problem is that everyone insists that all internet sites must run on port 80. If we could get over that, and build an equivalent to a web browser that offered a stateful protocol with compelling interface and data models, this can be solved in an open and cross-platform way virtually instantaneously. We need to get over thinking that the only way to interact with the Internet is through a web browser.
 
Written By: Jeff Medcalf
URL: http://www.caerdroia.org/blog
This is to take out Linux.

...

And this is blatant anti-competitive.

This is tantamount to the auto companies refining their own gas uniquely for their own cars and owning their own gas stations to sell it.
Go back and read the update on Silverlight support on Linux, and see if you wish to reconsider your position.

Microsoft is certainly no friend of Linux. Why should they be? Linux is effectively a competitor, and as a libertarian, I expect a company to try to enhance its own competitive position as the expense of a competitor.

Yet, Microsoft didn’t have to do the ECMA submissions that made the Mono project feasible. But it did, and as a result Linux is positioned to stand or fall on its own merits. And it’s failing at that on the desktop.

While the Linux story on the server is a pretty good one, Linux simply doesn’t have the user-friendly technology needed to become a widely used desktop. It’s not even close to Windows, much less Mac. Even the head of Redhat said a while back that common users should just get Windows.

So, if this Open Source model is so compelling, Linux needs to step up to the plate and prove it by providing a user experience comparable to Windows and Mac. All this complaining about Linux being crushed by Microsoft is not a position a libertarian ought to be very sympathetic to, in my opinion.
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
We need to get over thinking that the only way to interact with the Internet is through a web browser.
Jeff, that’s a very good point and I agree with you. But in my experience with clients, the inertia behind the web browser makes going through the browser (and therefore HTTP on port 80) an essential first step.

Companies have accepted the browser because it kind of sneaked in and became essential before they realized the implications. One of those implications is the enormously increased potential for security breaches because those machines are exposed to the Internet. It’s taken years to get any reasonable level of security for the current browser-based scenario (and in fact I don’t think we’re quite there yet, despite the improvements in Vista).

IT departments are going to fight any other way of connecting computers because of their security fears, based on what they had to go through with the browser. Thus, it will be extremely difficult to get most companies to accept another way for machines to communicate via the Internet.
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
Oh, and for jpm100, I forgot to note something.
The Mac is a small consolation since the Mac has consistently proven itself to be just a notch above a niche segment in the market.
That’s true, but by that logic, Microsoft should certainly ignore Linux. According to this site, Mac desktop share is just under 4%, whereas Linux is less than 1%. And Mac sales are rising at a pretty good clip, whereas Linux desktop share is stagnant.
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
"The Mac is a small consolation since the Mac has consistently proven itself to be just a notch above a niche segment in the market."

Totally off topic, but I wonder if that’s going to change now. At my small (40 people) consulting company, we’ve all been Win users for our entire careers (~15 years each on average). 3 of us have now switched to MAC laptops and ditched the Win machines. Others are considering it.

Of course the biggest reason we can do this is because we can run Windows (or Linux) in a virtual machine (and it runs very well) when we need Win only software. But after working on a MAC for 4 weeks now, I like it quite a bit better than Windows. We don’t do software development (we do data warehouse implementations) so that may color our perspective, but it’s been a positive switch.

We also might be just a small addition to the MAC niche.
 
Written By: Grimshaw
URL: http://
Totally off topic, but I wonder if that’s [Mac market share] going to change now.
That’s part of why I said this was a risk for Microsoft. Making it possible to create business software and fancy e-commerce sites that run on both takes away a potential reason to use Windows over the Mac.

Right now, most businesses doing web development for anything internal (and a lot of external stuff such as supply chain management) target Internet Explorer on Windows. That’s cheaper, because it’s then unnecessary to test on multiple browsers for incompatibilities, and fix the ones that do come up.

But Silverlight, being controlled by Microsoft, should run the same on both platforms. Microsoft said at the conference that the only time they’ve seen different behaviour is when a Silverlight site uses browser-specific features in the browser DOM. So, with a few design guidelines, it should be possible to create just for Windows and have it run on the Mac with no changes or incompatibilities. We’ll see, of course, but that’s the plan for now.

By the way, what you’re seeing is not an isolated case. I’ve seen more Macs at conferences and in client sites in the last year than I saw in the the previous five years combined. The switch to Intel architecture, and the resulting ability to run both Mac and Windows on the same machines, is probably a big part of the reason. Plus, the Mac is just perceived as cool by many folks.
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
"Plus, the Mac is just perceived as cool by many folks."
It is actually, in fact, cool. The Mac laptop I’m using is also a far better engineered box than any (Dell, Gateway, IBM, HP, Toshiba, Compaq) I’ve ever used.
 
Written By: Grimshaw
URL: http://
I noticed this post on Silverlight vs. Flash by a long-time in-depth Flash developer. Against Silverlight, Flash and Flex don’t come off well in his estimation.
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
And it’s failing at that on the desktop.
Yeah, right.
 
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
How is this substantially different from what Java tried to do ten years ago?

Is there any reason to expect Silverlight to succeed where Java failed — except that Microsoft pushed for proprietary Java extensions then, but no one is around to force Microsoft into an equivalent of Sun’s Pyrrhic victory over market fragmentation?

If the only reason this can succeed is because of Microsoft’s monopoly powers, would that expose Microsoft to further litigation risks?
 
Written By: Michael Poole
URL: http://
How is this substantially different from what Java tried to do ten years ago?

Is there any reason to expect Silverlight to succeed where Java failed...
Yes, and I laid the reasons out right there in the post:
I can already hear the Java partisans maintaining that Java has had the ability to run code on the client machine for years. That’s true. But what Java didn’t have in addition was compelling user interface technology and an easy way to do asynchronous access to data on the server. Silverlight has those things.

 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
And it’s failing at that on the desktop.
Yeah, right.
Mark, I know how much you like Linux. And that’s fine with me, just as I understand why some like Macintosh. But the numbers on this desktop situation can’t be ignored. Linux has less than one percent desktop penetration, and stagnant. I’d call that failing.

I believe (as do many, many others) that the primary reason is that it’s just not aimed at the typical desktop user. There is no one out there with a combination of the motivation, the ability, and the resources to make Linux easy enough to install and use to target those users. Apple and Microsoft spend hundreds of millions of dollars on that very factor, and the difference shows in desktop adoption.

 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
Linux at the desktop; User interface issues seem the central problem, as well as supportability on a corporate scale.

Commercial adoption.. as in one software company or another taking over and making a commercial go of it... and standardizing a user interface, seems the opnly way Linux would ever be adopted by enough people to keep it afloat at the desktop. But Commercial adoption by whom? It’s certainly been tried by smaller companies, but these couldn’t make enough inroads with it. Not enough resources available to them to oevrcome the market resistance.

And as Billy suggests, Microsoft doesn’t seem a likely candidate, given its current situation; they have the resources, certainly... but not the motivation.








 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://

 
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