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Microsoft on Plug-ins vs HTML5

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In an announcement signed Walid, Scott and Soma, Microsoft has clarified its position on the role of plug-ins vs. web standards such as HTML5. With a bit of humility, they are taking a fairly balanced stance by acknowledging the increasingly important cross-platform capabilities of HTML5 while still promoting the advanced capabilities of plug-in development.

When Silverlight was released four years ago HTML5 seemed like a pipe dream. The standards were still far from complete, even advanced browsers like Firefox were only beginning to pay attention to it, and most mobile devices could barely handle JavaScript. A plugin framework that only supported OS X and Windows made a lot of sense. Since then everything has changed. The trio from Microsoft write,

First, the world has changed from one in which people used a single device (primarily a PC) to one in which they use several, and many of the experiences on those devices are web-enabled in some form or fashion. Given that user experience is now a multi-device (i.e., cross-browser/cross-platform) experience, standards and reach play a more important role than ever, both for users and developers. Second, the evolution and maturity of web standards have resulted in HTML5 that will support many of those rich scenarios that previously required plug-ins. The market momentum behind adoption of HTML5 as the path forward for broad cross-platform reach continues to gather momentum, and with Internet Explorer 9 Microsoft is chief among those leading that charge.

Neither plug-ins nor standards-based approaches, however, represent the single answer to client development. In general, we know developers always want the best of everything, in a single tool, but at the same time recognize that is not a practical way to approach development. Developers need to make choices and tools will continue to evolve. We want to provide guidance and clarity, but recognize these decisions are always going to need to be made close to the code and close to the ultimate customer requirements. Today, plug-ins and standards play complementary roles, and as a practical matter there is no single technology to satisfy all the needs demanded by client development. While much has been written about a diminishing gap between the capabilities of HTML5 and capabilities provided by plug-ins, plug-ins will continue to evolve and so there will likely be a gap of some degree, and it will cyclically contract and expand. Contraction occurs as the standard specification “catches up” with the plug-in technologies, and then expands again as the next wave of innovation pushes the boundary further forward.

There is no need to “read between the lines” this time, Microsoft’s position is clear. They intend to continue offering both are content to let the developers decide what’s best. Given the market research released by the component vendor Telerik, there is a lot of merit in this.

This brings me to my main point – Yankees fans do not want to watch another sport when their favorite baseball team is playing (the same applies to Man Utd soccer fans) any more than developers want to use another technology when they like the one they’re using. HTML5 and Silverlight may both be development platforms, but they have very different approaches and they appeal to different audiences, hence they don’t really “compete” for the same championship.

I hope you are not shocked! That’s what our data shows – web devs never picked up Silverlight as their platform of choice. They always stayed close to what they felt most comfortable with – JS, HTML, CSS, AJAX. Sure, they suffered from cross-browser issues due to the fact that every browser has its take on how “standard” features should be implemented, but they stayed true to pure web development and never embraced Flash or Silverlight.

On the other hand, our data shows that Silverlight appeals mostly to people coming from the WinForms world. For them, it’s the transition from WinForms to the next-generation world. Silverlight might be the super media platform, but most of our customers are not using it for that and don’t appreciate it for the HD streaming. These people were doing WinForms development and were looking for ways to enjoy richer functionality and simpler deployment of the backbone apps of their organizations. They found the Silver bullet and saw the light! With the blossoming of Silverlight, I think we finally get the best of both worlds when it comes to LOB – the ubiquity of the browser, the rich experience, the online and offline scenarios, and the great languages and tooling (well, that’s as of recently and we could definitely use some improvements).

Vassil Terziev continues,

Silverlight will become dead if and only the hundreds of thousands or millions of devs who are doing desktop apps today decide that writing JavaScript is cool and that they can achieve more with HTML5-capable browsers, tooling and platforms than with Silverlight or some other similar technology. I honestly don’t see that happening, though, and believe in the merits of SL when it comes to development of heavy-duty LOB apps for the Enterprise.

Turning back to Microsoft, we can expect to see a lot more for both Silverlight and HTML5 this year. A beta of Silverlight 5 will be shipping at MIX next week while tooling support for HTML 5 will continue to be improved.

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