There’s a ruckus in the Microsoft world following Mary-Jo Foley’s contention that Microsoft is going to abandon Silverlight in favour of HTML5. If that were true it would be great news for web developers. It is in fact not true, but still great news for web developers.
Foley’s source, executive Bob Muglia, felt compelled to confirm that the Silverlight strategy has shifted, but that Microsoft is not giving up on Silverlight and that version 5 will be arriving according to schedule. Steve Ballmer himself penned a statement in which he praised both Silverlight and HTML5.
I’m not sure if Microsoft ever truly believed that on the desktop Silverlight could conquer ... well ... something. Like all web developers, I didn’t pay attention. But its place in the scheme of things is becoming clear now.
What happened is not an abandonment of Silverlight; far from it. Microsoft has big plans with it — and who knows, they might even work. What happened is that Microsoft placed HTML5 on an equal footing with Silverlight.
Oh, and this is not about desktop. Desktop is almost an afterthought. It’s about mobile.
On mobile Microsoft is in trouble. Where it once held 30% of the smartphone market, Windows Mobile has dwindled to about 4-5%, and the OS is clearly behind the times. The freshly-released Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft’s new trump card in the high-end smartphone market.
More to the point, Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft’s last chance to matter on mobile. A Windows 7 device must be in every hipster’s top three of desirable phones this Christmas, or Microsoft is fucked.
And the big push might work. The marketing machine is gearing up, there’s genuine interest, and Windows Phone 7 could very well break through to the mass market before it’s too late. Expect it to appear in a stylish ad near you any moment now.
A modern mobile OS needs native apps. In the case of Windows Phone 7, native apps are written in Silverlight (or XNA for games).
Silverlight offers a rich graphic environment, and Microsoft can closely integrate it with the OS to improve performance. Will it rival iOS for ease of use and development? Microsoft certainly hopes so, and strategically the choice for Silverlight makes sense.
What Microsoft said just now was that native Silverlight apps are all good and well, but that there should be a backup plan: the web. Just as Apple and Google have. Once HTML5 apps become dominant Windows Phone 7 must be able to run them.
But right now it isn’t, and that’s Microsoft’s most serious problem. Windows Phone 7 runs an IE7 with some IE8 characteristics.
(Which characteristics? Dunno. A Windows Phone 7 test device would really come in useful here ... )
A IE7/IE8 hybrid is not good enough to support a Silverlight/HTML5 strategy because web developers will refuse to develop for it. They write iPhone/Android-compatible code, and increasingly support other WebKit-based browsers, as well as Opera.
But IE? Download extra style sheets and code branches for the world’s most hated browser over a mobile connection? Forget it.
Mobile web developers will ignore IE as long as it requires all kinds of proprietary stuff. But if it supports the standards, like IE9 does, hey, why not?
I was tangentially involved in some aspects of IE7 and especially IE8, interacted with the MSIE team over mail and met some in person, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that they had too little manpower to do everything that was necessary. With IE9 the team has done all that’s necessary, so (apparently) it has the manpower now.
On mobile Microsoft badly needs a standards-compliant browser that can handle mobile sites without IE-specific code branches. When IE7 and IE8 were built the need was not urgent enough. But now it is. Thus the great leap forward occurred in IE9, and not in IE7 or IE8.
Microsoft is working on an IE9 port to Windows Phone 7 right now. The ideal release date would be in about a year, so that an “HTML5 compatible” Windows Phone can be offered in time for the 2011 holiday season.
Moreover, cool native apps can be built with Silverlight, now and in the future. Just as the iPhone offers Objective-C in addition to Safari. Silverlight + IE9 = a fair enough strategy.
But to execute it Microsoft needs us web developers. Badly.
And not like on the desktop, where IE is dominant anyway and we have to conform, and where until recently our natural allies within Microsoft, the IE team, had too little clout to force a change.
No, Microsoft needs us on mobile. Where it must play by our rules, just as the big browsers do.
Support the standards. Or else.
Microsoft has heard that call, and has now confirmed its standards-centric strategy.
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