There’s been a lot of discussion lately around web standards and HTML 5 in particular. People have been asking us how Silverlight fits into a future world where the <video> tag is available to developers. It’s a fair question—and I’ll provide a detailed answer—but I think it’s predicated upon an oversimplification of the role of standards that I’d like to clear up first. I’d also like to delineate why premium media experiences and “apps” are better with Silverlight and reveal how Silverlight is going beyond the browser to the desktop and devices.
Standards and Innovation
It’s not commonly known, perhaps, that Microsoft is involved in over 400 standards engagements with over 150 standards-setting organizations worldwide. One of the standards we’ve been involved in for years is HTML and we remain committed to it and to web standards in general. It’s not just idle talk, Microsoft has many investments based on or around HTML such as SharePoint, Internet Explorer, and ASP.NET. We believe HTML 5 will become ubiquitous just like HTML 4.01 is today.
But standards are only half of the story when we think of the advancement of our industry. Broadly-implemented standards are like paved roads. They help the industry move forward together. But before you can pave a road, someone needs to blaze a trail. This is innovation. Innovation and standards are symbiotic—innovations build on top of other standards so that they don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” for each piece of the puzzle. They can focus on innovating on the specific problem that needs to be solved. Innovations complement or extend existing standards. Widely accepted innovations eventually become standards. The trails get paved.
In the past, this has happened several times as browsers implemented new features that later became standards. Right now, HTML is adopting as standards the innovations that came from plug-ins like Flash and Silverlight. This is necessary because some of these features are so pervasive on the web that they are seen by users as fundamentally expected capabilities. And so the baseline of the web becomes a little higher than it was before. But user expectations are always rising even faster—there are always more problems we can solve and further possibilities needing to be unlocked through innovation.
This is where Silverlight comes in. On the web, the purpose of Silverlight has never been to replace HTML; it’s to do the things that HTML (and other technologies) couldn’t in a way that was easy for developers to tap into. Microsoft remains committed to using Silverlight to extend the web by enabling scenarios that HTML doesn’t cover. From simple “islands of richness” in HTML pages to full desktop-like applications in the browser and beyond, Silverlight enables applications that deliver the kinds of rich experiences users want. We group these into three broad categories: premium media experiences, consumer apps and games, and business/enterprise apps.
Premium Media Experiences
- Teleconferencing with webcam/microphone
- Video on demand applications with full DVR functionality and content protection like Netflix
- Flagship online media events like the Olympics as covered by NBC, CTV, NRK, and France Télévisions
- Stream Silverlight video to desktops, browsers, and iPhone/iPad with IIS Smooth Streaming
Even though these experiences are focused on media, they are true applications that merge multiple channels of media with overlays and provide users with full control over what, when, and how they experience the content. The media features of Silverlight are far beyond what HTML 5 will provide and work consistently in users’ current and future browsers. Key differentiators in these scenarios include:
- High Definition (HD) H.264 and VC-1 video
- Content protection including DRM
- Stereoscopic 3D video
- Live broadcast support
- (Adaptive) Smooth Streaming
- Information overlays / Picture-in-picture
- Analytics support with the Silverlight Analytics Framework
Consumer Apps and Games
The bar is continually rising for what consumers expect from their experiences with applications and devices. Whether it’s a productivity app or a game, they want experiences that look, feel, and work great. Silverlight makes it possible for designers and developers to give the people what they want with:
- Fully-customizable controls with styles and skins
- The best designer – developer workflow through our tools and shared projects
- Fluid motion via bitmap caching and effects
- Perspective 3D
- Responsive UI with .NET and multithreading
As consumers get used to richer, better experiences with software and devices, they’re bringing those expectations to work. Business apps today need a platform that can meet and exceed these expectations. But the typical business app is built for internal users and must be built quickly and without the aid of professional designers. To these ends, Silverlight includes the following features to help make rich applications affordable:
- Full set of 60+ pre-built controls, fully stylable
- Productive app design and development tools
- Powerful performance with .NET and C#
- Powerful, interactive data visualizations through charting controls and Silverlight PivotViewer
- Flexible data support: Databinding, binary XML, LINQ, and Local Storage
- Virtualized printing
- COM automation (including Microsoft Office connectivity), group policy management
For simpler scenarios that don’t require some of the advanced capabilities mentioned above, Silverlight and HTML both meet the requirements. However, when looking at both the present and future state of platform technologies, there are some other factors to take into consideration, such as performance, consistency and timing.
The responsiveness of applications and the ability for a modern application to perform sophisticated calculations quickly are fundamental elements that determine whether a user’s experience is positive or not. Silverlight has specific features that help here, from the performance of the CLR, to hardware acceleration of video playback, to user-responsiveness through multithreading. In many situations today, Silverlight is the fastest runtime on the web.
Microsoft is working on donating test suites to help improve consistency between implementations of HTML 5 and CSS3 but these technologies have traditionally had a lot of issues with variation between browsers. HTML 5 and CSS 3 are going to make this worse for a while as the specs are new and increase the surface area of features that may be implemented differently. In contrast, since we develop all implementations of Silverlight, we can ensure that it renders the same everywhere.
In about half the time HTML 5 has been under design, we’ve created Silverlight and shipped four major versions of it. And it’s still unclear exactly when HTML 5 and its related specs will be complete with full test suites. For HTML 5 to be really targetable, the spec has to stabilize, browsers have to all implement the specs in the same way, and over a billion people have to install a new browser or buy a new device or machine. That’s going to take a while. And by the time HTML 5 is broadly targetable, Silverlight will have evolved significantly. Meanwhile, Silverlight is here now and works in all popular browsers and OS’s.
Beyond the Browser
In this discussion of the future of Silverlight, there’s a critical point that is sometimes overlooked as Silverlight is still often referred to—even by Microsoft—as a browser plug-in. The web is evolving and Silverlight is evolving, too. Although applications running inside a web browser remain a focus for us, two years ago we began showing how Silverlight is much more than a browser technology.
There are three areas of investment for Silverlight outside the browser: the desktop, the mobile device, and the living room. Powerful desktop applications can be created with Silverlight today. These applications don’t require a separate download—any desktop user with Silverlight installed has these capabilities. These apps can be discovered and downloaded in the browser but are standalone applications that are painless to install and delete. Silverlight now also runs on mobile devices and is the main development platform for the new Windows Phone 7 devices. Developers that learned Silverlight instantly became mobile developers. Lastly, at NAB and the Silverlight 4 launch this year we showed how Silverlight can be used as a powerful, rich platform for living room devices as well.
Expect to see more from Silverlight in these areas especially in our focus scenarios of high-quality media experiences, consumer apps and games, and business apps.
When you invest in learning Silverlight, you get the ability to do any kind of development from business to entertainment across screens from browser to mobile to living room, for fun, profit, or both. And best of all, you can start today and target the 600,000,000 desktops and devices that have Silverlight installed.
If you haven’t already, start here to download all the tools you need to start building Silverlight apps right now.
For more information on this topic, you can watch a video with more details here.
Brad Becker, Director of Product Management, Developer Platforms