The death knell could be about to sound as Microsoft prepares to unleash its Silverlight 2 application this October. Bob Thomson of Storm ID offers his thoughts.
We tried to ditch the page refresh, produced ever more complex frameworks and gave the technologies a banner under AJAX, all aimed at producing richer and more desktop-like online user experiences. As anyone who has ever done this kind of work will tell you, it’s not pretty and the end result is often well short of the original intention. So, when it comes to the display of hypertext, HTML still rules the roost. However, when it comes to providing a richer end user experience right up to a fully fledged Rich Internet / Interactive Application (RIA) it’s a leaky abstraction - there has to be a better way.
Enter Silverlight, Microsoft’s cross-browser, cross-platform, cross-device plug-in to attempt to fill this gap. When I say cross-browser, I mean that with one reasonably sized free download (around 4.5meg) and sub-60 second installation process Silverlight content is supported in Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari. When I say cross-platform, I mean that it’s available for both PC and Mac and there’s even an open source implementation available for Linux. By cross-device Microsoft promises versions are on the way for mobiles, media players and games consoles.
While that may only excite the developers amongst you, here’s one for the business types – we have seen productivity gains in the region of 100% when compared to developing an equivalent solution in other available technologies. Not only that, but the end result has been slicker and more robust. Crucially for anyone operating in such a fast moving sector, there’s an increase in amenability to change and a decrease in maintenance cost over the active lifetime of a system when you can write testable, managed, compiled code. While that may not be so important for a one-off interactive campaign, for enterprise line of business applications it’s a must. For a demonstration of the possibilities, targeting the largest vertical market – health, see the Patient Journey Demonstrator at www.mscui.net/PatientJourneyDemonstrator.
For those looking for something with a bit of eye candy about it, Silverlight includes a technology called DeepZoom which allows extremely high resolution images to be viewed over the web quickly with smooth zooming in and out. The best example is currently available at the Hard Rock Memorabilia site where the images on display are up to 10gig in size.
In the coming months Microsoft will leverage their market position to ensure the adoption and acceptance of Silverlight in the enterprise environment, something that Adobe has traditionally struggled to do with Flash. Despite years of promoting it’s technologies for use in this arena how many core lines of business applications are you aware of written in Flash/Flex? Its genesis was as a lightweight web animation player and to an extent you can still feel that legacy when trying to build complex applications with it today.
Key properties such as the Microsoft.com homepage already feature Silverlight content and we can expect to see the technology powering new versions of Hotmail and Outlook Web Access in the coming months. High profile partnerships include powering NBCs online Olympic coverage (www.nbcolympics.com), unfortunately only available to users in the USA, and an agreement to have Silverlight preinstalled on every new PC by the world’s largest PC manufacturer, Hewlett Packard.
Addressing the issue of engagement with the technology in the creative sector may be their biggest challenge if they want Silverlight to gain traction in the key battlegrounds of online video delivery and rich media advertising. Adobe’s Creative Suite is the established market leader in the creative tools space and while Microsoft has released its own competing Expression Suite it has a long way to go to match up. Ally this to the traditional use of Apple products in the sector and you get a resistance to anything from Redmond. There’s the promise of an improved designer developer workflow – designer’s can work on Silverlight projects in Expression Blend and developers in Visual Studio sharing the same code and assets and Microsoft is working hard to engage with partners to outline the benefits of the technology but it may not be until people experience products like Live Maps and Hotmail powered by Silverlight that things really begin to take off.
In the end it’s wrong to only frame the discussion in terms of Silverlight vs. Flash/Flex – both have their strongpoints and their weaknesses and both will be a viable development option for many years to come. Hopefully the increased competition will serve to stimulate further innovation from both sides.
With Silverlight Microsoft has shown a commitment to the vision of cross-platform, cross-device development with write once, deploy once characteristics and in the space of two iterations produced something that is capable of providing a genuine option for client side web development. Strategically crucial as a component of the larger move to Software as a Service and cloud computing, it’s the forerunner of a range of services and technologies, including the Mesh, coming from Microsoft as a result of their internet u-turn of a few years ago. Over the coming months and years this should provide the platform for richer, more engaging applications with the ability to scale for a global audience, better data visualisation and access within the enterprise, less plumbing work and more value generation for developers – the weaving together of the web of clients, servers, services and data in ever more ingenious ways. I for one am excited to see what that looks like.