Silverlight adoption hampered by economic crisis

In lean times, UI design is often one of the first parts of app dev to be cut, and Microsoft's Silverlight is being affected by this dynamic

Microsoft's Silverlight technology has streamed some high-profile live events lately, the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama and the 2008 Summer Olympics among them. But Silverlight's real promise for the business customer -- to improve user interfaces for day-to-day applications -- has been thwarted by tightening budgets.

In a recessionary climate, enterprise IT decision makers are hesitant to adopt new technologies. They are even less likely to adopt ones focused on UI design, which is a low-priority item in the best of times, designers and developers said.

[ Test Center: Microsoft Silverlight 2. ]

"The UI is considered the last part of the application," said Ryan Peterson, principal and software engineer for Serenity Software, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, company that specializes in UI consulting and design. "The mindset has always been and still is: You build the application and then you build the interface. It's a large contributing factor to why people cut that [first]. They think if the application works, we can take care of the interface later."

Creative UI design for years has been primarily limited to the realm of high-impact Web sites and advertising and marketing campaigns. But before the U.S. economy began its nosedive last year, enterprises were beginning to take a closer look at how UI design could actually make them more efficient and save money by giving line-of-business workers better ways to interact with applications.

It was into this environment that Microsoft introduced the 1.0 version of Silverlight in April 2007. The company positioned the cross-browser technology as a competitor to Adobe's Flash multimedia technology for building RIAs (rich Internet applications).

Early on, Microsoft said it would integrate .Net -- the underlying development framework for Microsoft software -- into Silverlight. The integration of .Net would make it easier for developers to create more interesting UIs for business applications and allow them to tie the UI into back-end data stored in other Microsoft-based enterprise applications.

The first version of Silverlight wasn't fully baked, however, and it wasn't until October's release of Silverlight 2 -- .Net framework included -- that developers and designers could really use it to build more interactive UIs and add multimedia to Web-based applications. Unfortunately, the release coincided with enterprises freezing or cutting budgets as the economy faltered.

"IT shops were very interested in (UI design) before all the stuff happened toward the end of last year," said Dave West, a senior analyst with Forrester Research. "They're still interested, but adoption is down."

Ben Dewey, a senior software developer for IT consulting firm twentysix New York who has worked with Silverlight, said Silverlight 2 "was launched at a time when the economy started dropping," which affected its adoption.

"I don't know if people are really paying for Silverlight [development] just yet," he said. "People are going for less flashy." Dewey called Silverlight and UI design in general in this economic climate a "nice to have" vs. a "need to have" technology for many IT projects.

In general, the addition of new technologies to IT projects also falls off in a faltering economy, others said.

"When there is a lot of money, there is a lot more freedom to do projects that are completely new," said Glenn Phillips, president of Forte, a consulting firm and custom development and design shop in Birmingham, Alabama. "That is where the new technologies get introduced."

However, "when the economy is tough, that's when people say, 'Let's just take care of what we've got built. That's not the point where you would go and change out your technologies," he said.

Still, it's not all bad news for Silverlight and UI design technologies in general. Forrester's West noted that some system integrators lately have added UI designers to teams that historically would not have included one. He said the economic slowdown may be allowing them to explore how they can use new technologies even if they aren't currently deploying them in projects.

"People have more time on their hands so they're looking at new technology and roles, or whether there is a desire by their customers to [use those technologies]," West said.

Having a UI designer on a project that involves Silverlight is key to unlocking the potential for the technology, twentysix New York's Dewey said. He said while it was clever of Microsoft to integrate .Net into Silverlight, it also makes it easy for developers who have no creative talent to do UI design.

The end result may be the development of applications with clunky UIs built by inexperienced designers, which could turn people off of Silverlight and not realize what can really be done with the technology, he said.

"There's nothing to stop developers from sending out applications [with] no real aesthetics work," Dewey said. "People will start releasing stuff in Silverlight that when compared side by side in Flash" doesn't look as good, he said, which could give Silverlight a poor reputation.

Serenity Software's Peterson, who specializes in explaining to businesses how better human interaction with computer UIs could save them money and make their businesses run more efficiently, said some of his clients are using Silverlight to improve their UIs. However, this use has been limited to adding more creative UIs to applications that already run on the .Net platform, he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.