The fall and rise of Microsoft Silverlight
Before hitching up with Windows Phone and Windows 8, Microsoft's cross-platform rich Internet application framework gets a modest upgrade
Microsoft Silverlight has had a topsy-turvy year. Apparently doomed or at least marginalized by HTML5, Silverlight found a foothold in Windows Phone and has more recently emerged as a key component of the Jupiter application framework and programming model for Windows 8. If Silverlight has become less important as a rich Internet application (RIA) framework, it has become more important to Microsoft's desktop and mobile platforms overall.
In the meantime, the cross-platform RIA framework is still kicking -- though development has clearly slowed. More evolutionary than revolutionary, the "new" capabilities in Microsoft's Silverlight 5 beta merely incorporate existing Microsoft technologies and port functionality previously seen in WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation).
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More than a year has gone by without a major Silverlight release, and with none due until late 2011, I expected the forthcoming version 5 to be a major rev that would cement Silverlight's superiority over Adobe Flash. Instead, I was disappointed to find that many promised Silverlight 5 features are still missing or meager. Even the included code previews for satellite projects -- such as Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) RIA Services and Expression Blend -- do little more than gussy up existing capabilities.
In short, the Silverlight 5 beta looks more like a dot revision with feature creep than a major upgrade. Rather than extending Silverlight to continue hammering away at Adobe Flash, Microsoft seems to be working toward a desktop smackdown with itself -- adding Windows-specific platform invocation calls, Component Object Model (COM) support, and untethered file system access that push Silverlight deeper into the domains of .Net and WPF.
This blurring of these lines shouldn't come as a total shock. After all, Silverlight was originally code-named WPF/Everywhere. Plus, it undoubtedly makes good fiscal sense for Microsoft to consolidate internally with Windows 8 and a new version of Windows Phone on the horizon. Microsoft has said that the next version of the Windows Phone OS (aka Mango) will sport the Silverlight 4 runtime, and that there will be no support for running Silverlight applications in the Windows Phone browser.
Silverlight 5: Improved tools
I appreciate that Silverlight 5 is prerelease, and perhaps I shouldn't be looking at it so critically. Stepping in from the big picture, there are a number of improvements to Silverlight's runtime and development tools that shouldn't be ignored.