I guess I have to weigh in on Silverlight

I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the Microsoft stack and moderately familiar with the current furor over the shift in Silverlight’s strategy. If you’re not, this is going to be a boring post and you should move on.

I see a few camps right now. There are people heavily invested in SL that feel a bit upset. There are some people heavily invested in SL that feel this is a misunderstanding. There are some people that state the writing on the wall’s always been there. Let’s focus on the last people, because they have the only position that isn’t summarized by its description.

Silverlight was interpreted as many things at release; I’ve always felt like it was supposed to be a Flash competitor. Regardless, the message has been that Silverlight was there to fill in some gaps that standard HTML didn’t fill well. Indeed, there’s some things it still does that HTML 5 and its related technologies don’t address well. Microsoft’s new opinion is that Silverlight was never intended to take the place of simple HTML 5 applications, and instead was only intended for web applications that required a level of integration with the system that could not be achieved with HTML, even the superhero HTML 5. The more I think about it, the more I can’t understand why I didn’t see this message shine through from the beginning. Perhaps it’s the fault of their evangelism of SL for all things web, but that’s a different discussion.

The thing I don’t like about the “Silverlight is rightfully being snubbed in favor of HTML 5” arguments is many proponents ignore the fact that Silverlight is still a good option for those applications that need tight integration with the system. Too many arguments chastize developers for picking SL in the first place. Too many arguments celebrate the passing of SL (which isn’t dead yet) and can’t wait for the world in which they build their awesome HTML 5 applications. Let’s talk about the SL application I’m heavily invested in.

I have a hand in a part of LabVIEW Web UI Builder. LabVIEW is a graphical dataflow programming language primarily targeted at engineers. It has excellent support for analysis of large data sets, superb interoperability with many types of hardware, and implemented intuitive support for multicore parallelism before the MS stack even realized it was something worth working on. The Web UI Builder is an implementation of the programming language in Silverlight with stripped-down support; it’s not intended to replace LV but it’s going to be very handy for some remote configuration scenarios that are tricky to handle with plain old native code. You can put a web browser on pretty much anything, and since SL’s client-side that device can serve SL content without requiring much in the way of muscle. It’s a great fit.

I see no way this could have been implemented in HTML, CSS, and JS. We require the ability to let the user create a UI, use those UI elements to create a diagram that represents program code, compile that code into something, and run that. It’s nice to have access to the user’s hard drive for this stuff. In the ideal case, it’d be nice to be able to work with hardware connected to the system. Last I checked, that’s not really on anyone’s roadmap for HTML and related technologies. While this is the case, there will always be room for Silverlight.

Will Microsoft toss aside Silverlight like they did VB6 when .NET released? I’m not sure. The initial statement gave that impression, and the clarification seemed to skirt around the issue. I’d like to think it’s all an issue of poor planning on the part of MS. It’s possible that their statements seem (to an insider) that the question of continued Silverlight support is answered. Unfortunately, they’re preaching to a crowd that’s seen numerous well-accepted technologies pushed aside to make room for the latest. I don’t know that the murmurs are going to die down until details about SL 5 start to slip. April’s quite a long way to go. I think most of the discussion would die down if MS made it immediately clear that WP7 and the shift to HTML 5 isn’t going to take resources away from developing Silverlight as an excellent no-brainer deployment for cross-platform applications that need system integration. Right now Java and Mono are the only real story for that, and neither puts money in Microsoft’s pocket.

I’m writing SL code so long as my managers feel it’s the right tool for the job. I’m not an independent developer able to change stacks on a whim, and I don’t like that most of the community seems to ignore those of us that have roots and can’t switch jobs on a whim. I’m aware of the excellent work going on in the non-Microsoft world and I like to keep an eye on Ruby, Python, and a handful of other languages just in case. But I’m happy with my job, I like the people I work with, and I don’t have any problems with the Microsoft stack that are specific to Microsoft. I don’t aim to fix things that aren’t broken.

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One Response to I guess I have to weigh in on Silverlight

  1. Karl Seguin says:

    It seems to me like we are having two separate arguments. The only thing we likely truly disagree on is the degree for which HTML isn’t suitable. I think google docs/gmail/spreadsheet and office web have significantly moved the bar in favor of HTML, but I don’t think anyone is saying HTML can do everything people need it to do (though I agree it often comes off sounding exactly like that).

    So we agree that there are things SL is well suited for, and HTML isn’t.

    But, predictably people used it for things they shouldn’t have also. And, to be honest, Microsoft promoted this specific usage – which is where things started going back.

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