Thursday, September 15, 2011

If Silverlight is Dead...

Once again speculation and worry has developers around the world biting their fingers and lamenting the end of a new era. It almost seems developers want to stick a fork in their Silverlight development because so many are latching onto the hype wagon, calling .NET "legacy" and refusing to see the bigger picture. Microsoft announces a new run-time called "Metro" that is not based on .NET, and suddenly .NET is dead — even though anyone can download the bits for the new operating system, install it, and see for themselves that .NET is alive and well. There happen to be two modes for the application, one in a new "Metro" environment and one in a more "desktop" environment. Microsoft's own Visual Studio is NOT a Metro app so I don't buy the line that this is just a staged coup d'etat. Microsoft announces that there are going to be two version of Internet Explorer: a "Metro" version with no plug-ins, and a desktop version that supports them. I downloaded Silverlight, installed it, and even loaded our Silverlight tablet Rooms to Go Application. It installed fine, appeared on the start menu for Windows 8 and launched without an issue ... but the headlines are reading "Microsoft abandons plug-ins."

First, let me say that I believe Silverlight is alive and well. I'm not saying that because I'm writing a book. People who know me understand I don't get emotionally invested in projects and try to force something to happen when it's not meant to be. I'm not basing this on mere speculation. "What if" doesn't buy me anything. Don't get wrong: I know "what if" is real because it tumbles stocks and cancels contracts, so it does have an impact, but instead of adding to the hysteria I prefer to look at the facts. I know that Windows 8 is not going to be the de facto operating system over night. I know that even when it does, I will be able to build and deploy Silverlight applications to it. I know customers will still have applications to support. I also know I work on a lot of Silverlight applications that simply won't work with the new "Metro" interface and require a more immersive UI and model, and that the guidelines for Metro will probably force those to be written in a traditional stack anyway. I know that a new version of Silverlight is coming out at the end of the year if Microsoft makes their drop target, and I know companies have already begun developing applications that take advantage of its features. But just in case the world is really ending and .NET, Silverlight, and all of those other technologies are truly legacy as of today, what will really happen? I asked my followers on Twitter just what it is that would be missing, and here's what I found out:

Multi-platform and OSX Support

Let's be real here. The only "real" multi-platform support Silverlight has right now is between the Mac OSX and Windows. There is a fledgling presence on Linux but that's hasn't impacted any deals that I'm aware of. The cross-browser story is better because between the two platforms, there is solid compatibility across FireFox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Safari. I believe this is a very valid point, as I've done many projects where the customer was most interested in the fact that Silverlight could easily target both platforms with one maintained code base. Of course, the original dream was for this reach to be extended but those hopes were largely dashed by the surge in popularity of the iPad that refused to run the plug-in. While this is a very important aspect of Silverlight, I don't buy that Windows 8 impacts this at all. Windows 8 is an operating system that will run new applications and boasts a new version of a web browser. It also runs the traditional browser and we've confirmed it fully supports Silverlight. So what is missing? The changes to Windows 8 don't remove the ability to drop Silverlight applications on to Mac or existing Windows machines, let alone the next version. It seems the only thing that could negatively impact this point would be lack of features (i.e. I'm missing something that I was expecting to come in a future version) or simply self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e. developers complain so much about it going away that people believe them and pull the plug.

Deployment and web-based Xaml Delivery

This is another sweet spot for Silverlight. The deployment strategy is insanely simple, and many large corporations embrace the easy of installation. This is a double-edged sword however, because for every shop that enjoys the fact that users can navigate to a web page and download the latest version of their application, there is another shop with complicated security policies that must make significant changes to their infrastructure in order to allow the plugin and make Silverlight applications available to employees. This really gets back to the traditional decisions used to drive technology and I don't see how Silverlight is really the primary ingredient. If you want to reach Macs and Windows machines, you will still have that option. If you need a different type of reach or want to take advantage of new innovations, the decision is the same it has always been: either build specific to the platforms you are targeting, with the trade-off that you must now have several teams and versions of the product but it provides a seamless, native experience, or compromise by using a technology like HTML5. That same trade-off existed with the previous version of HTML, it's just that Silverlight development was superior in many cases. I still see cases where HTML5 development is too painful compared to Silverlight, but what it were actually easier to build and deploy HTML5 apps with the same featureset as the Silverlight version? Why on earth would you even want to stick with Silverlight in that scenario?


When I was younger and programmed the Commodore 64, there was a great Commodore community in the St. Petersburg, Florida area. We'd meet up, show each other how to crack open the bread box and solder the little red RadioShack reset button, then swap assembly snippets and chat about the latest VIC chip register hack. When the Commodore began to wane in popularity, people moved onto other platforms and built community around those. Ironically, there is still a strong, growing Commodore 64 community. I'm pretty sure community is more about the individuals in the community than the technology that drives it. Silverlight has a great community. If Silverlight goes away, that community will evolve. (OK, so there are always one or two who can't move on and are still stuck on Information Society breaking up and refuse to program on anything other than an Amiga).


This is like community. First, let me say I know the financial impact of decisions is very real. Speculation about technology causes contracts to get canceled and people to lose jobs. However, if you believe your income is based on the success of Silverlight you are making a very, very big mistake. I remember when I received my fitness and sports nutrition certifications so I could coach people to lose weight. Many of the other "graduates" felt they should research what the pay ranges for trainers were, start at the lowest rate and work their way up. I felt like I should get paid what I was worth, not what the average income was, and had some success working with people so I started at the high end of the range and built a practice around that. My income wasn't based on the latest diet fad or exercise scam, it was based on results. When people lost weight and kept it off, they told others, and my practice grew. It was the value of my service that determined my rates, not industry averages or trends. Software development is the same way. Skilled developers provide value, the customer perceives that value, and they continue to deliver the best possible solutions based on the right technology for the job. If that technology changes, they change with it. Of course, if you want to focus all of your energy on complaining about how horrible it is that Microsoft shifts their strategies and let everyone know how much time and money you invested in learning dead technologies, you're welcome to. Complain away. The people I know who are successful in this industry move on. I'm not saying it's a good thing when you find a contract canceled because of a shift in technology, I'm saying you can either focus on the one that got away or figure out how to make sure it doesn't happen with the next one. Your choice.


Really? "I don't want Silverlight to go away because it makes sense to run an abstraction layer dependent on a browser so I can go through another abstraction layer to talk back to native code." I just don't get it — is p/Invoke a vaid reason to worry about Silverlight's future? There's no equivalent on Mac OSX so you aren't doing it for cross platform. I'm not sure why you're doing it, really. I like programming in Silverlight: it's fast and it's easy, and p/Invoke opens up options. With the new development platform I can skip the p/Invoke, call the WinRT layer directly and save myself the overhead of importing DLLs and creating obscure structures or learning about how to marshal. To me this one just says, "If you're going heavy p/Invoke maybe it makes sense to look at Visual Studio 2011 and native applications instead."

C# Web App

I don't agree with this one at all. If you are bulding a web site, I think going with the web technologies is key - if I want an application, I'll build it. If I want a rich web site, I'll build it — but different approaches and different tools. Rich web applications still have nuances like page navigation, browser back buttons, and compability that make them different than applications. When I write Silverlight, I'm not writing a web application. I'm writing an application that is easily delivered over the web. That's why I don't use the navigation framework, because I don't think customers are used to navigating desktop applications using URLs. So if it's a web site I want to build and I want to use C#, why not MVC instead? If it's an application, let me use C# by all means ... and as I mentioned above, I may just lose the ease of deploying it over the web. Oh, by the way, did you notice that MVC 4 preview was released? Weird: it's not written in Metro, doesn't create Metro applications, yet Microsoft is still developing it and I don't hear people crying that MVC is dead.

Line of Business Applications

One key thing I see most people missing is that Windows 8 is two separate, distinct systems. Just launch the Visual Studio 2011 to see what I mean. That is not a Metro application. I like Metro, it works great on my phone and think it is the right way to build tablet-based applications, but there are just some things like development environments that don't and won't make sense. If you build for Metro you MUST follow the rules of the sand box, and you are limited. If you jump outside of that, it's back to the traditional stack. So I don't see this shifting gears. Personally the reason why I like Silverlight for line of business applications is because of Xaml and C#. I don't see that changing. I've converted a few applications to Windows 8 as well as walked through the examples and the gap is not huge. It's there, but not huge.

Bottom Line

I see myself having a choice. If I want to develop line of business applications that run on Mac OSX and are delivered over the web, I can develop Silverlight 5 applications. Regardless of whether someone labels that "legacy" it will be supported through 2020 (when the HTML5 spec will finally get ratified) and it will run on my target environments. If I'm building a rich, interactive line of business application, I'm going to want it in that environment. If I'm looking for a user-friendly, touch-first tablet interface, Metro doesn't change things for me. Today without Windows 8 my options are HTML5 or writing native iOS, Java, and Silverlight for Windows. With Windows 8, those options simply shift to HTML or native iOs, Java, and XAML/C#/WinRT. For many years to come, most of my customers will still be on Windows 7 and even Windows XP so guess what: Silverlight and WPF will still be our best options.

Silverlight development will be alive and strong, with official support for at least a decade even if no new version is in the pipeline, and longer if there is one. Even if it is the last version, though, as I'm writing my book I see that 90% of the topics covered are going to be the relevant to developing in the new Windows 8 runtime. Here's something that won't come as a surprise to seasoned developers: even if it does go away, there is no way it will ever happen overnight. As long as there is speculation, it's still around. When there is no more speculation, i.e. we know for a fact there is no vNext, there will be plenty of time to transition.

What's my point? My point is this: there are always people who are going to shout that the sky is falling and the world is coming to an end and air all of their woes to the world. The reality is we all have the same hours in the day and we can do with them as we choose. While I've been accused of being a blind, passionate follower of Silverlight for my optimism and enthusaism, I think they've got it wrong. I'm just optimistic and enthusiastic in spite of Silverlight. If it goes away I will adapt and continue to provide value where I can because at the end of the day I'm a developer and Silverlight is a tool in my arsenal. To me, moaning, whining, and complaining is a waste of time. If something's broke, it isn't going to fix itself. I'd like to see more posts on solutions and options moving forward rather than "Hey, I've got a flat, so let's sit on the side of the road, point at it and talk about all of the things that went wrong with my day."

That's my opinion, and not necessarily the opinion of my employer, and I'm sticking to it. What are your thoughts? Please sound off with comments below.

Jeremy Likness