Silverlight 5, HTML5, and what the future may bring

Ever since PDC last year there’s been stirring talk about Silverlight’s future. Some people think Silverlight’s days are numbered with broad HTML5 support just around the corner. These rumors have been perpetuated even today by those anxious to see HTML5 come to fruition. And some irresponsible journalism may have been at play as well.

The controversy stemmed from three things at PDC10:

  1. Microsoft showed off IE9 and their commitment to HTML5.
  2. Other than Silverlight’s involvement with Windows Phone 7, there weren’t any major Silverlight announcements.
  3. In an interview Bob Muglia was quoted as saying, “Our Silverlight strategy and focus going forward has shifted.”
And from that many people assumed Silverlight was as good as dead. It’s a wild conclusion if you ask me. And sure enough, Bob Muglia then wrote an article stating that he was misunderstood, and that Silverlight is still very important to Microsoft. Despite his statements and others from those such as Scott Guthrie and Tim Heuer, the rumors continued.
Then in December, Microsoft held their scheduled Silverlight Firestarter event where they demonstrated upcoming features of Silverlight 5. They’re bringing a bunch of new features I’m looking forward to. The most visually stunning will be a new GPU-accelerated 3D API built directly into Silverlight. The fact that they’re continuing to bring innovations like this creates a strong case for Silverlight’s future.
At this point I’m reminded of the nature of technical innovation, and history’s tendency to repeat itself. In 1996, a young company named Macromedia created a little browser plug-in called Flash. They created it because of the inherent limitations of HTML, Javascript, and their lack of standardization at the time. Flash brought a new level of capabilities to the web. And as time went on it became more ubiquitous than Java, Adobe Reader, or practically any other component you can think of. The need for something like Flash has lived on to this day (15 years later) because of the relative slow pace of browser innovations. (Brad Becker has a great article that touches on this paradigm in greater detail.)
The HTML5 era will be a giant leap forward for the HTML/Javascript duo. That much is certain. And it’ll be a good thing for the web. But as long as there’s more than one browser out there and there’s a need for standardization bodies, innovation with HTML will always be slower than plugins like Silverlight and Flash. That’s the truth. And that’s why Silverlight lives on.

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