Windows 8 and the future of Silverlight

After Steve Ballmer’s indiscrete ‘MisSpeak’ about Windows 8, there has been a lot of speculation about the new operating system. We’ve now had a few glimpses, such as the demonstration of ‘Mosh’ at the D9 2011 conference, and the Youtube video, which showed a touch-centric new interface for apps built using HTML5 and JavaScript. This has caused acute anxiety to the programmers who have followed the recommended route of WPF, Silverlight and .NET, but it need not have caused quite so much panic since it was, in fact, just a thin layer to make Windows into an apparently mobile-friendly OS. More worryingly, the press-release from Microsoft was at pains to say that ‘Windows 8 apps use the power of HTML5, tapping into the native capabilities of Windows using standard JavaScript and HTML’, as if all thought of Silverlight, dominant in WP7, had been jettisoned. Ironically, this brave new ‘happening’ platform can all be done now in Windows 7 and an iPad, using Adobe Air, so it is hardly cutting-edge; in fact the tile interface had a sort of Retro-Zune Metro UI feel first seen in Media Centre, followed by Windows Phone 7, with any originality leached out of it by the corporate decision-making process. It was kinda weird seeing old Excel running alongside stodgily away amongst all the extreme paragliding videos. The ability to snap and resize concurrent apps might be a novelty on a tablet, but it is hardly so on a PC.

It was at that moment that it struck me that here was a spreadsheet application that hadn’t even made the leap to the .NET platform. Windows was once again trying to be all things to all men, whereas Apple had carefully separated Mac OS X development from iOS. The acrobatic feat of straddling all mobile and desktop devices with one OS is looking increasingly implausible. There is a world of difference between an operating system that facilitates business procedures and a one that drives a device for playing pop videos and your holiday photos.

So where does this leave Silverlight? Pretty much where it was. Windows 8 will support it, and it will continue to be developed, but if these press-releases reflect the thinking within Microsoft, it is no longer seen as the strategic direction. However, Silverlight is still there and there will be a whole new set of developer APIs for building touch-centric apps. Jupiter, for example, is rumoured to involve an App store that provides new, Silverlight based “immersive” applications that are deployed as AppX packages. When the smoke clears, one suspects that the Javascript/HTML5 is merely an alternative development environment for Windows 8 to attract the legions of independent developers outside the .NET culture who are unlikely to ever take a shine to a more serious development environment such as WPF or Silverlight.