Why I (Still) Think Silverlight Should Fail

A while back, I wrote a small article about why I felt Silverlight should fail. The writeup generated a lot of good conversation and a bit of ire from Silverlight supporters (such as this example) so I thought it would be beneficial to write a followup. Let me try to make this clear, I am not a Flash fanboy. While I use Flash to pay the bills, I have written about my concerns with Flash. It is my belief that use of Flash on the web (and other RIA technologies) will continue to dwindle as open-source solutions that provide similar solutions take their place. Even if Silverlight usurps Flash (something I greatly doubt), there may not be much of a kingdom to reign upon once they do. I think Adobe sees this shift, I am unsure if Microsoft does.

Silverlight Already Reeks of Microsoft

My wife and I have a subscription to MLB.com which uses Silverlight to stream their audio. Semi-unsurprisingly, the application did not work on either of our Macs – something that cannot automatically be attributed to the plugin directly, but it was not a good start for my opinion. However, what really got me was when I tried to uninstall it. I looked for an uninstaller, but nay, could not find one. I then found a Silverlight discussion board thread on the subject where the person was told they had to run commands through the terminal to get rid of the plugin. This, my friends, is the quintessential quandary of many Microsoft products – the technology is good but there is no polish or concern for outside cases. I do not run Windows and therefore do not have their uninstaller method, so I am stuck running commands through the terminal. Can you see why I, and many others, are skeptical about true cross platform support? If we cannot even get a simple uninstaller, how can we rely on anything of significance? It is not only cross-browser/cross-platform support that is necessary for success of a browser plugin, you also need cross-browser/cross-platform trust – something that still seems to be in short supply.

Drinking From a Shallow Waterhole

Simply put, technologies like Flash and Silverlight are getting squeezed. At this moment, games, video and audio are the three things on the web that fall securely in the realm of Flash/Silverlight applications, but how much longer will that be the case? Javascript has slowly eaten away at the need for Flash (and subsequently Silverlight) over the years. Ironically, as a Flash designer/developer, I am having a harder time suggesting Flash for projects which would definitely require Flash a few years ago. When you see John Resig’s Processing.js and current experiments with HTML 5’s video element, the writing on the wall should be evident. Sure, these experiments are most likely not ready for commercial use, but these projects have a history of advancing exponentially. The need for RIA apps on the web will always be there, but the demand is going to shrink considerably. I just do not see how two not-too-distinguishable RIA technologies will be able to thrive in such an environment – especially when one is just getting started.

By failing, am I suggesting that Silverlight will be blown off the face of the earth by Flash? Of course not. However, I do not see Silverlight taking over Flash’s market – a market which I strongly feel will continue to shrink in the following five years. Since when is Microsoft not interested in dominating the market with a new product rollout? On top of it, I do not feel any RIA technology will be the go-to solution until it gets support from a large number of designers/design-technologists – something that Microsoft and traditional Microsoft products notoriously do not get. To me, that signifies a failure.

Then there is the desktop. I honestly feel this is the greenest pasture for these technologies in the coming years. At this point however, I have yet to read anywhere that Microsoft is planning the same level of cross-platform desktop integration as Adobe has with AIR (please correct me if I am wrong). This is one area where Silverlight could swiftly pummel AIR (on the Windows platform). However, I am understandably skeptical of how any new Microsoft product will fair on other platforms. We will see how this plays out, but once again, Adobe has the head start.

Microsoft Domination is So 1999

The idea that immediate adoption for a Microsoft product is inevitable simply is an outdated notion. We are seeing growing adoption for Firefox, no plans for iPhone support of Silverlight (Flash looks to be on the iPhone soon) and mass consumer frustration of Vista. If Microsoft had been able to buy out Yahoo (which uses a tremendous amount of Flash/Flex that could have been moved over the Silverlight), then that would have potentially changed everything, but that did not happen.

With all the criticisms that I have spoke of concerning Silverlight, this does not even take into account the fundamental criticisms/concerns I have RIA technologies in general. All the concerns I have with Flash can be said about Silverlight as well. You take a technology (with Flash) that is increasingly embracing open-source and standards, has been in the market for what seems forever, has a history of solid improvements on the product and pit it against a competitor (Silverlight) which is new and still rough around the edges, notoriously proprietary, and has a history of poor support of internet products. You take all of that and throw in the reality that open-source technologies are eating away at both of their markets along with the reality that Microsoft’s peak of dominance is behind them and it seems clear to me that Silverlight has a huge (if not insurmountable) hill in front of it. In short, if I am skeptical about Flash’s future within the browser, how could I see anything but failure on the horizon for Silverlight?

18 thoughts on “Why I (Still) Think Silverlight Should Fail”

  1. “open-source solutions that provide similar solutions take their place”.

    You could hardly find anything more proprietary than stuff from Apple including Macs and iPhones, pal. Why are you using them while being so pro open source? How about replace them w/ whatever FOSS folks are offering?

    Your opinions are self-contradictory at best. Sooner or later you’d realize like everyone else that there’s no cause & effect between open source and quality. Just my 2cs.

  2. Parley, I couldn’t agree more about the iPhone – which is why I don’t own one and why I’m holding off for Android. I am a little iffy with your opinion on Apple products in general – OS X is built on an open source foundation and Safari runs on WebKit, but I see what you’re saying. That said, if I could run Linux and get all my needs, I would be there in a heartbeat. Frankly, I think that time is coming soon. Still, I’m not sure if this has much to do with Flash, Silverlight and advances in AJAX/DHTML.

    I am not saying there is no room for non open-source technologies, I am merely stating that there are some open source projects that are squeezing out areas that normally were dominated by technologies such a Flash and Silverlight. I honestly do not feel that is disputable.

    I sincerely do not see how my opinions are self-contradictory. I do think the overall quality of the online experience has been impacted dramatically from open source technologies. Firefox lit a fire under Microsoft to improve its browser. Advancements in Javascript practices have allowed many user-experiences to be pulled out from proprietary plugins. The majority of the internet runs on an open source foundation (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP), how has that not impacted quality?

  3. “I am a little iffy with your opinion on Apple products in general – OS X is built on an open source foundation”
    I wouldn’t call it to be pro open source to use open source code in a commercial product unless you contribute back to the community.
    In what way does apple do that?
    If they don’t I would say that the fact that OSX is based on open source code instead makes them anti open source.

    Leo’s last blog post..SVN version control in Flashdevelop projects

  4. Darwin is open source. That seems pretty open to me. πŸ™‚

    Still, I hope this doesn’t turn out to be an Apple vs. Microsoft conversation. It was merely a point in an otherwise different conversation. I have no problem with people using Windows – I am concentrating my discussion on Silverlight. Secondly, I am not suggesting that Silverlight is a fundamentally bad technology – what I am saying is that it is still a technology that seems to be rough around the edges in a market that is controlled by a pretty solid alternative that is slowly shrinking – making it harder for competitors to squeeze in.

    Also, I am not saying AJAX/DHTML is going to kill technologies such as Flash. Let me be very clear. But I do think the need for Flash/Silverlight will continue to lower. A perfect example of this in my opinion is the Method.com redesign. The site is almost 100% DHTML and it looks amazing. This is something that traditionally would have had to be done in Flash, but no more. The site looks and feels absolutely amazing yet still maintains all the benefits of being in HTML markup.

  5. Ok…I stand corrected then even if my general impression of Apple is pretty much the “companification” of proprietary.

    But back to the subject, as you can see above I posted a long rant as a reaction to some of the points in your post.
    I don’t really agree with the assertion that there is no room for Silverlight, Flash and DHTML.
    I think Silverlight will find it’s niche eventually with developers already using a lot of MS technologies when they get the plug to spread enough.
    The market is big enough, and it’s constantly growing.
    And obviously it will not be a problem for users to have a few plug-ins installed.
    It’s IMO rather amazing how locked in both the server and client side have been to extremely few technologies and a few more will not hurt.

    Anyways…thanks for a nice blog. Even if I so far mostly have been responding with disagreements I do find your posts engaging.

    Leo’s last blog post..Rumours of the death of Flash have been greatly exaggerated

  6. Leo – I definitely see where you’re coming, I just know there is a lot of frustration when it comes to Flash from the many users on the web. I see that, a growing open source alternative and to me that adds up to Flash becoming increasingly niche. Not dead, but niche. Additionally, you take a technology like Silverlight, which presents the same problems to the user as Flash, tack on a Microsoft logo, and you have an extremely large segement of the web with will be very hesitant to installing. I guess, in the end, we’ll see. πŸ™‚

    I’m glad the article has engaged discussion and thank you so much for the participation. I by no means am offended if people disagree with me – they are merely my opinions. πŸ™‚ Thanks for all the intelligent discourse.

  7. MS’s biggest advantage here is its market share. In the short term they can make their platform somewhat ubiquitous by weaving it into the fabric of their various OS implementations and even onto their specific hardware (XBOX360, Zune, etc.). Although MS is slowly losing market share all around – in browsers and in the OS market to some degree, they still account for the biggest slice of the pie.

    Silverlight looks like it can do a lot of what Flash does, with some advantages (faster, appears to support more hardware acceleration, etc.) much as Apple’s Quicktime can handle HD video much better than Flash. At this point it isn’t even so much a technology issue as a killer app issue – MS needs killer apps and needs to win the hearts of developers to get them to make them. Unfortunately most of their demo apps are very bad, and to the subtext of this article a lot of developers who are of the leading-edge variety seem to be leaning on pushing JavaScript and other technologies over exploring a whole new plugin architecture and code framework.

    Whether we *need* another Flash is the big question. I personally would rather have seen the R+D dollars go into making IE standards compliant and driving initiatives in HTML5 and CSS3. At the same time the design-by-committee nature of the W3C has made browser technology evolve at a snail’s pace. I recall doing ‘DHTML’ and things similar to the aforementioned method site in 1998. They just happened to only work in a very particular way, in one browser or another…but the guts of what we are able to somewhat safely employ now have been in the works for over 10 years with barely any consensus on standardization.

    Not to toot MS’s horn but they’ve had a type of ‘web fonts’ support (a big reason those in the typographical know have leveraged Flash so much) since over 10 years ago, which is just now being pushed into CSS3 (see Safari 3+). They have had CSS ‘behaviors’ (HTC) now finally showing up as CSS3 ‘transitions’ since about then as well. They had VML for a long time, and bitmap filters for a long time (the capabilities of which are now finally showing up as ‘canvas’)… and so on. As much as I don’t appreciate their failure to support standards, I have to give them that they were trying to push browser capabilities towards very desirable functional goals while W3C sorts carried out circular debates over what to ratify. The whole thing feels like it could be a metaphor for Capitalism vs. Socialism, not that I’d want to open that can of worms.

    As much as Flash and Silverlight are competing for an evolving space, I am left to wonder how long people will really experience all things web via a web browser. A few twists one way or another and the whole landscape will change quite dramatically. Remember when people used to use a MOUSE?

  8. Good post, but I think you are off the mark on a few points:

    “The need for RIA apps on the web will always be there, but the demand is going to shrink considerably”
    AJAX/HTML 5/etc can be used to build RIAs, Flash and Silverlight are simply alternative tools for RIA development. While we may be seeing the demand for plugins to deliver RIAs decline, I think it’s pretty inaccurate to claim that the demand for RIAs themselves is on the decline.

    “When you see John Resig’s Processing.js and current experiments with HTML 5’s video element, the writing on the wall should be evident.”
    Considering that the canvas tag has been available in Firefox and Safari for about 3 years and has gone unused, I’d draw a different conclusion. By controlling the browser market share, Microsoft still controls what features are and are not actually available for wide deployment by HTML developers. Considering that Microsoft is in the business of selling desktop software, their incentive to speed along the advancement of web based software should be in question.

    I think Flickr serves as a very good example of where the web was, has come to, and is going. Not that long ago Flickr used a lot of Flash on their site to manage collections of images and put notes on photos. As AJAX advanced, Flickr replaced many of the small Flash utilities on their site with AJAX solutions. However, as Flash advanced, tools like Picnik’s photo editor became viable. Picnik is now used within Flickr to do basic photo retouching. I think we’re seeing a trend of Flash being replaced with AJAX for small utilities on basic web pages, but advanced site tools such as the image editors are implemented in Flash.

    I’d agree that Flash is receding from use as a website development tool (for good reason). Where I strongly disagree is that the niche into which it is being pushed is a shrinking one.

  9. @somerandomdude
    I see what you mean about Flash becoming more niche, but has it ever been meant to be anything else?
    Just before the arrival of AJAX and the revival of DHTML at least I was guilty of thinking Flash was the salvation that would enable us to break of of the very constrictive mould that the browsers and W3C was imposing on us.

    But even if I dislike working with HTML and CSS it’s a step in the right direction that Flash will not be used to create content that is supposed to be possible to handle without a plug-in.
    I can see that it can be a scary thought to have Adobe owning the presentation layer of the web, so in some way I hope that the open standards technologies will remain the foundation of the web and plug-ins remain in use only for specific tasks.
    Things are certainly improving when it comes to standard compliance as well as the capabilities of the standards, but it still seems like Flash will be able to remain one step ahead of their very slow evolution.

    Silverlight will probably not add much in the end but I don’t think it’s future is depending on if it can offer anything new of fill a niche that other technologies are neglecting.
    The success will depend on if developers like to work with it or not, and I think the scenario will be similar to what we have on the server side with various languages and databases. They all do pretty much the same thing and could replace each other easily, but some developers prefer one and some the other based on all sorts of different criteria other than actual features.

    Leo’s last blog post..Rumours of the death of Flash have been greatly exaggerated

  10. I think flash is just one of those things that is a niche like a lot of people are saying. if I were to make a flash site it would be built for someone that is more concerned with the fun of a site and the image rather than the usability for anyone accessing the site. These things will get better once faster internet and functionality of sorts becomes more popular.

    Jason K’s last blog post..Las Vegas Outdoor Wedding

  11. I think we may be missing a point by talking about Flash Vs Silverlight. I believe that Microsoft wants to ensure that Windows is still THE platform for rich client applications. Given today’s technology and dominance of Windows, from Microsoft’s point of view the concept of browser can just go away in a few years. All you need is the richest possible UI experience when surfing the web. Why be limited by the browser ? Guys at Google – would love to hear your thoughts on this:)

  12. As a fairly non-technical person much of what you discussed here went over my head but there was one comment that struck a cord. “The idea that immediate adoption for a Microsoft product is inevitable simply is an outdated notion” I do agree with this whole heartedly. I am a PC user and as such still rely on MS for much of what I do but that does not mean that I wouldn’t gladly give it all up if I could accomplish the same in some other way. I know there are others available but the learning curve stops me everytime. I am completely disinchanted with the treatment by MS while they were dominant and want out but so far they still have me in a death grip.

    Maria Terry’s last blog post..After A Tummy Tuck Plastic Surgery

  13. Silverlight will fail on the web simply because it is not a web technology. Any web developer worth their salt will have spent their time learning how to do things the w3c way. They will have probably have grown to hate internet explorer for its incredibly poor standards compliance. With this in mind, how could any standards consciousness web developer want to adopt something from Microsoft?

  14. You never really give any technical superiority reasons. The reasons are generally along the lines of “Everybody hates Microsoft so Silverlight will fail”, “I think Microsoft sucks at everything so Silverlight will fail”, “Somebody else failed in a battle with Flash so Silverlight will fail”. Do you actually have any solid technical reasons why Flash is superior to Silverlight? I actually like Flash in some ways – it’s easier to do simple stuff in Flash than in Silverlight. On the other hand, if there’s a lot of code, I’d far rather it be C# than Flash’s cobbled together ActionScript. I know there are people with opinions which run opposite that, but the point is that these are the kinds of questions developers ask themselves, not “do I like Internet Explorer?”.

    This notion that developers are going to sacrifice their bottom line so that they can maintain their enmity toward Microsoft is probably true of some, but most are going to be swayed more by which platform is going to help them reach their goals fastest and easiest rather than making decisions based on whether they like the manufacturer or not and that means solid technical point by point comparisons, not vague complaints about business practices and perceived past performance.

    That’s not to say that some of these points don’t have relevance – having a larger “brain trust” is a big leg up for Flash. But the fact that you don’t like IE doesn’t mean a thing for most people unless you can show that your perception of IE actually holds up for Silverlight also and that requires some technical comparisons which seem to be totally lacking in your article.

    Oh, and by the way, what does W3C have to do with this conversation (to Guy)? Silverlight is not the “W3C way” nor is Flash – they’re separate technologies. By that argument, neither Flash nor Silverlight is a “web technology” and is doomed to failure. These type of “arguments” demonstrate that people are letting this turn into an emotional issue which is not how rational, smart developers will look at it no matter which side of the debate they come down on.

    Start telling me concrete reasons that Flash will help me get the job better than Silverlight or else wallow in a hatefest about evil Microsoft, but don’t be fooled that rational developers are going to take heed.

  15. In a “real” publicly owned Internet there wouldn’t be any of these “proprietary” flash, …, silverlight what have you plugins…
    They simply wouldn’t be ALLOWED !!!
    If a corp or whoever has sensitive data well either don’t stick it on the “public” world-wide Internet or lock it up some where securely (behind your network and or otherwise…).

    This is all just sooooo silly today and has been for quite awhile.
    There are so many “freely” available to the public plugin/player solutions that its insane we would even need to “depend” on some proprietary apps thats prevent people from viewing/hearing/… on a public internet.
    -WHATS the point of browsing at all if thats whats its come down to !!!?
    All this krap should just work on the Internet -‘ya know like DNS, elegantly.

    Of course not, naaa you corp devs would rather hear “….this browser gets adobe flash to work but that one doesn’t, na na na na na…, becuase deh didn’t pay us enough…”

    Now, remove head from out of kornholio, ok junior ?

    Let’s just Get rid of all these “control”ing characters on our(ALL of our) Internet
    If I want Adobe, or Microsoft whatever product, well I’ll buy it thankyou. We are all already paying monthly rates just to use and enjoy our Internet.

    Comon’ people, think a little outta ‘da box here.
    Actually, I’m still utterly amazed how that DNS protocol just simply works all the time.

    …. flash, silverlight, how-to-pee-off-public-even-more, … we NEVER needed these.

    But thanks anyway.


  16. You’ve made the same mistake that the vast majority of bloggers have. That being the position that Silverlight has to challenge Flash to succeed. This is understandable as humans like to label things and the question what is Silverlight like, elicits the response, ‘Flash’. It simply does not matter which is better. History is littered with ‘better’ products. All Silverlight needs is a niche.

    To really understand Silverlight, people should not think about Flash, but actually ASP.NET, MSSQL, and Microsoft Webservers. Silverlight extends those technologies. When you consider that Silverlight brings Rich-applications to those entrenched, well-supported, and well-developed technologies the picture of adoption then looks very different. Most Dot.Net and ASPX programmers don’t want to use Flash and actionscript. Further the Flash community winds up, when you actually look at it, with having fewer programmers who really understand the .NET platform and technologies so it really is not as if Flash is currently meeting the needs of .NET development.

    Now I do think Microsoft has been blowing it. I personally think that if Microsoft really wanted to speed up adoption SIlverlight tools would also help generate AJAX ASP.NET webforms. This way instead of pushing the plugin, the Silverlight would then become a richer experience users could opt into (I realize that this wouldn’t work for all project types, but clearly could work for many if not most). For instance, I’m currently writing a chat client. I’ll write an AJAX chat and a SIlverlight Chat (some parts will be shared, for instance database logic). But I will still have to write my own component to decide which to serve to which user (depending on if they have the plug in installed). Since writing that component is beyond many beginning Silverlight programmers and most graphic designers–a significant part of the community is hesitant on adoption. This is because, I believe, that Microsoft like most everyone else has made the mistake of thinking Silverlight OR, rather than Silverlight WITH.

  17. I stumped in this and was negatively amazed with your comments and opinions…

    If you dislike Microsoft, point out clear motives, but never underestimate what they do!
    I too own I MacBook, and never had any kind of problem using Silverlight.
    Beside that, I’m too a developer and what works in Windows works in Mac INDEED! If you had no sound on the stream, that’s because you were having some kind of OS X conflict (YES! By my experience, they exist greatly and in a not so clearly way than in Windows! Let me remind you I’m a Mac user.)
    Patches for Windows are released in days, but OS X patches take months to come out, as all the Adobe patches, that recently affected acrobat and flash players, and drove enterprises to use other partys pdf readers. Not to mention that Apple fails it release deadline without dropping a word about it (I’m talking about the BootCamp support for Windows 7 that was scheduled to December 2009. Not that it bothers me…)
    Not to mention that you pay for OS X “Service Packs” like Snow, and get a bunch of bugs with it, some of them really serious!

    Why I use a Mac if I like this much of Windows? Because Mac also has his shiny parts! πŸ™‚ Some apps are unique and powerfull, because I have Fusion to run Windows and because I’m an iPhone user and there are lots of apps that only sinchronize with OS X, etcetera, etcetera…

    From the point of view of a developer, Silverlight vs Flash has no comparison possible… Flash is a designer friendly, maybe that’s because you like Flash so much!
    Silverlight is a developer AND designer friendly! Just use the correct tools and you’ll see your productivity grows like hell!

    If you create a big application, Flash can get really messy! What I mean by messy is very complex to the point that if you don’t document it and stop developing for a month, you’ll probably lose a day or day to get to it.
    Silverlight can be as clean as a blue sky, but also as messy… That’s why I say it is developer friendly! If you are a developer, you certainly know some best practices that you apply everyday.

    Web development has two major creators: developers and designers.

    Never force a developer to do a designer job, but never expect also that a designer do the developer job. This is the major difference between Silverlight and Flash, and why Silverlight will grow.
    Of course it will never (at a short range) bypass Flash! Flash is being developed for years now, but expect that it will bypass Flash in all the new content created for the web!

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