Silverlight's fate: Don't let Microsoft's silence fool you

Developers have faith in its longevity, but they wish Microsoft would lay out a clear commitment

Although Microsoft has given a cold shoulder lately to its Silverlight rich Internet plug-in platform, it's preparing version 5 for release soon, and some users expect Silverlight to have a long life ahead of it. But Microsoft's activities otherwise leave Silverlight's relevance, if not fate, open to question.

Microsoft released the Silverlight 5 release candidate stage on Sept. 2, suggesting the final release is not far off. But at its recent Windows 8 debut party, Microsoft gave the impression it was backing off its commitment to Silverlight. Opting instead for HTML5 capabilities, Microsoft revealed no plug-ins would be allowed on the tablet-oriented Metro version of the Internet Explorer browser in Windows 8. That includes Silverlight in addition to the competing Adobe Flash.

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Microsoft declined to discuss Silverlight's future or place in its strategy, but many people believe Microsoft's low-key approach belies an intent to keep Silverlight going. "I think Silverlight still has several years of life left. Windows 8 is at least a year away, and Windows 7 is a very stable OS that will be a standard for many more years," says analyst Rob Sanfilippo of Directions on Microsoft. "Silverlight will also be supported in IE10 running in the desktop legacy mode on Windows 8."

Developers concur. "Right now, we're looking at about a year before Windows 8 is published," and another year before it is adopted, says Tony Champion, a Silverlight developer at ChampionDS, which has been building Silverlight applications predominantly for use in oil and gas exploration. "I think Silverlight, for at least the next few years, will still exist," concurs Dennis Doomen, a developer who maintains an open source project called the Silverlight Cookbook for building enterprise systems using Silverlight.

Microsoft muddles its messaging

Still, Microsoft could be more vocal with its plans for Silverlight, Champion says. CTOs are becoming concerned about Silverlight because of a lack of discussion about it, he adds. Developer Billy Hollis also is wondering what directions Microsoft will take with Silverlight, such as how Silverlight relates to the WinRT APIs in Windows 8: "One thing we don't know -- and [that] makes decisions about what to do difficult -- is will it be easy to migrate Silverlight apps into WinRT some day."

A look at an upcoming Microsoft developer conference should reassure Silverlight users. Next month's Visual Studio Live conference in Redmond, Wash., does feature several sessions on Silverlight from such people as Champion and Hollis, and Silverlight also received several mentions at the recent Microsoft Build conference, where Windows 8 dominated.

Silverlight's developer benefits

A good reason to believe in Silverlight's longevity is that Silverlight shines in line-of-business applications, and Metro applications will not replace these, says Doomen. He also expects Silverlight to top Metro -- the new UI and mobile-oriented Windows 8 application mode -- for use on the desktop. "It's still a wise choice for Silverlight developers to continue investing in that technology," he says.

Doomen cites video streaming and 3D capabilities as pluses for the upcoming Silverlight 5 platform. Version 5 narrows the gap between Silverlight and Microsoft's Windows Presentation Foundation technology, he says, and developers can be more productive when Silverlight applications versus Web applications.

Champion favors Silverlight's rich UI, its separation of the UI from the XAML front end, and its cross-platform support: "It allows you to design separately from your back-end code, and it's been a big help in a lot of projects." For example, designers can work independently of developers, he says.

These attributes help explain why Silverlight is "excellent" for health care applications, Hollis says. "It gives us the ability to provide interactions and visual feedback and stateful management of the UI" that can be difficult or impossible to match with HTML, he says.

Plus, Metro and Silverlight share development capabilities, says analyst Sanfilippo: "It's important to note that the stack of technologies for Metro-style application development doesn't obsolete Silverlight skills. Silverlight development consists of implementing XAML and code in C#, Visual Basic, or JavaScript, and all of these are supported for Metro application development."

This article, "Silverlight's fate: Don't let Microsoft's silence fool you," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in business technology news and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.