Microsoft Silverlight is Dead; Long Live Silverlight!

logoSilverlightThe life cycle of web technologies can be short, and even those technologies supported by major players – like, for example, Microsoft Silverlight – can have relatively short lifespans of a few years, before something else becomes more popular.

However, as a tech entrepreneur, you’ve got to make a decision now, with incomplete information and no crystal ball, scrying into the future. So, how do you do it? Here are some thoughts, with Silverlight as our case study…

Microsoft’s Silverlight was initially a competitor to Adobe’s Flash technology. This is a rich internet application framework for developing web applications with tight developer control over user interface, allowing for complex, desktop-like applications.

They can also provide powerful back-end data interactivity and often allow the development of stand-alone, offline “Smart Apps” that can pre-cache data, and live outside the browser. Interesting stuff, architecturally.

However, because they require a plug-in, and do not run natively in the browser, they are proprietary technologies through which the behemoth’s (Microsoft, Adobe, Oracle, Google, etc.) can develop competitive advantage.

Hence the emergence of HTML5 – and jQuery – as a non-proprietary, open standard for developing rich internet applications. And right now, everybody is excited about HTML5 and the universal compatibility and much upgraded native web functionality that is promises. Hurray!

That’s the short story. The longer story is that those other, proprietary plug-in technologies served and continue to serve an important purpose in the pantheon of web technologies. They are and were used to build powerful, irreplaceable applications, especially in the enterprise.

For a list of when you should use Silverlight, check out this post: http://andrewtokeley.net/archive/2010/09/04/when-should-you-use-silverlight.aspx

Also, this post on when to choose Silverlight is good: http://www.hanselman.com/blog/ShouldIUseHTML5OrSilverlightOneMansOpinion.aspx)

In fact, if you’re developing for the enterprise market, plug-ins have big advantages in terms of user interface, functionality, databinding, etc. And they’ve got big-time vendor support and developer knowledge. That’s only gradually emerging for HTML5, around a few frameworks that are either open or developed by much smaller shops.

Often, the plug-in chosen for development had special advantages that aren’t going to disappear just because HTML5 came along. For example, Netflix uses Silverlight exclusively. And there’s a reason for that. Silverlight manages the user interface and streaming video really, really well. (Also, the DRM…! http://www.quora.com/Why-does-Netflix-use-Silverlight)

We use Silverlight for GeoIntelis because we’re definitely striving to deliver desktop-like functionality – a full-featured GIS and workflow application – through the browser. We really didn’t have any choice, given the features, data, and visual and interface complexity required to build a mapping application.

Sure, the world moves on. HTML5 is great for the future, as it develops, becomes widely adopted and the functions, frameworks skills and support mature. HTML5 offers a lot of important advantages for future RIAs, primarily due to its open standards. Every other technology will, in theory, eventually, whither away. Probably. Until a better open standard or proprietary plug-in comes along. We’re looking at moving to ASP.NET MVC on HTML5, for example.

And, of course, with the growing development of closed, proprietary mobile apps on what are often closed, proprietary mobile platforms on tightly controlled private wireless networks, the advent of HTML5 is irrelevant to a whole class of developers and applications. With mobile growing rapidly and actually cannibalizing what used to be desktop usage and traffic,  the future for “open” development – and the “open” internet – remains very much up for grabs.

In the mean time, there are a ton of really important Silverlight business apps (like ours, GeoIntelis) out there with a long lifespan behind them and ahead of them. And, needless to say, millions of dollars invested in them.

So, what happens to these supposedly “dead” technologies? They live on. Their twilight and afterlife are, sometimes, their most fruitful periods. Look at Java, a once ubiquitous technology that is, supposedly, long past its prime and controlled by the powerful interests at Oracle. Yet it has lived on for decades, continuing to show up in new technologies and on new platforms due to its widespread use, maturity, low cost and the simple utility of it being available and ready to do the job.

The same is likely for other supposedly “dead” technologies, especially including Silverlight. While Silverlight might, by common consensus, be “dead” – it also probably has a decade or more of life left in it, living on, being supported, and playing a critical role in a range of both consumer and enterprise applications.

Which is why, for me at least, as a software architect and business owner, I always have to take the long view on software investment and product direction. I can’t follow trends, just because they’re trendy.

I never like being “behind the times” – but I also have to take a practical view of what I can do now, with the technology and skills available, for the capital I have available to deploy.

I can’t switch everything that’s been developed and deployed to enterprise clients over to Rails or HTML5 tomorrow, just because they’re trendy. And you shouldn’t either. As an entrepreneur, you have to take an objective, professional, long-term approach to your technology, knowing that even as the tech moves onward, what you do right now is much more important that what’s gone before or what you might speculate the future holds.

And whatever technology you choose, if you choose well, is likely to have a long life. Change is inevitable, but entrepreneurs have to commit today, without fear of the future, especially when choosing a technology platform.

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This blog is dedicated to providing advice, tools and encouragement from one entrepreneur to another. I want to keep this practical and accessible for the new entrepreneur while also providing enough sophistication and depth to prove useful to the successful serial entrepreneur. My target rests somewhere between the garage and the board room, where the work gets done and the hockey stick emerges.

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