Why won't Microsoft say anything about Silverlight?

Once touted as the ultimate replacement for Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight's future seems cloudier than ever

Silverlight doesn't get any respect. And a legion of formerly Microsoft-friendly developers are furious, alienated, and ready to hitch their fortunes to a different star.

At Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in October, there wasn't a single session about Silverlight -- not one. And it was only mentioned in passing in the keynote. Bob Muglia, then president of Microsoft's Server and Tools Division, turned into an instant lightning rod when he explained that "Silverlight is our development platform for Windows Phone" and it was no longer festooned in Flash-wannabe clothes. "Our strategy has shifted," he said. "HTML is the only true cross-platform solution for everything."

Hell hath no fury like a developer scorned, and Silverlight developer offal hit a million fans simultaneously. By early November, Microsoft executives were stumbling all over each other trying to remain politically correct and avoid directly contradicting Muglia, while simultaneously assuring the Silverlight faithful that their loyalties had not been misplaced. Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of the division that includes Silverlight, and its longtime No. 1 cheerleader, said "Where our strategy has shifted since we first started working on Silverlight is that the number of Internet-connected devices out there in the world has increased significantly ... and trying to get a single implementation of a runtime across all of them is no longer really practical."

And then Muglia quit.

Last month, Guthrie got transferred. As I mentioned at the time, "the most visible proponent of Silverlight development -- both on the Web and on Windows Phone 7 -- is leaving Silverlight behind."

Last week we were treated to a demo of the new Windows 8 interface, and once again -- you guessed it -- nary a syllable about Silverlight.

In fact, if you're a Silverlight developer, the situation's a little more embarrassing than the mere lack of a mention. Steve Sinofsky and Julie Larson-Green spent lots of time showing off Live Tile apps that seem to be likely candidates for Silverlight implementation, and they repeatedly said those apps could be developed with HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS. That's a bit like telling an Excel maven that in the next version of Excel people can create beautiful spreadsheets with an abacus and a pencil.

The Silverlight developer world went collectively livid. The official Silverlight forums roiled. Jan Hannemann's original "Windows 8 apps going html5, wtf" thread was locked down -- it's up to 7 million views -- and a secondary thread is fast approaching 3 million views. Nicholas Petersen at Eclipsoft summarized the developer position with an open letter and petition to Microsoft: "While the new HTML5 app platform will admittedly open up a vibrant new choice for many broad-reaching solutions, it is unthinkable that the extensive capabilities that Silverlight offers, as it builds on the extraordinary elegance and power of XAML, C# and the .Net framework, could be superceded."

Microsoft's response remains a simple one: We aren't going to tell you anything until the Build developer's conference in September.

This all harkens back to Sinofsky's predilection for playing everything close to the chest. It's hard to disagree with him. Windows Vista proved a PR disaster because so many parts of the product came and went during the development cycle, with press leaks galore and internal Microsoft design debates practically aired in public. One of Sinofsky's great accomplishments with Windows 7 was his ability to plug the leaks. When the final product shipped, industry observers didn't kvetch about missing features because they didn't know the features ever existed. He's certainly going to great pains to replicate that performance with Windows 8.

Clearly, Silverlight, .Net, XAML, C#, and other older technologies aren't going away. But whether they'll be able to romp around in Windows 8 on a level playing field with HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS or be banned to a legacy sandbox -- that's an interesting, and as-yet unanswered, question.

This story, "Why won't Microsoft say anything about Silverlight?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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