Flash down the pan?

Despite its inferior RIA toolset and architecture, Adobe has conclusively won the player war, while Microsoft is ceding the battlefield to its old enemy, but scorching the earth to damage its prospects. Silverlight is as good as dead.

Flash down the pan?

Silver lining

However, Silverlight developers needn’t panic: as one door closes, another opens. Microsoft may have turned its back on the cross-platform, in-browser Silverlight, but that doesn’t mean it’s giving up on XAML; quite the opposite.

Silverlight developers needn’t panic: as one door closes, another opens

At the Build conference Microsoft revealed its new roadmap and platform diagram for Windows 8 development, which is based around a new Windows Runtime library (WinRT) for Metro, running alongside the old Windows 7 services that now form the Windows 8 desktop. Crucially, XAML remains central for all user-facing presentational duties, while C# and VB.NET remain first-class citizens for programming.

In other words, Silverlight developers’ skills remain key to Metro, and hence for the long-term future of Windows, which is great news. Silverlight developers will indeed be able to deliver lightweight RIAs to Metro users, the difference being that they’ll need to target the new WinRT, rather than the old Silverlight runtime.

It will involve reworking existing code to the new APIs, but that shouldn’t be too difficult. Moreover, targeting WinRT rather than Silverlight will bring huge benefits.

For one thing, Metro Style apps can take advantage of the full set of WinRT APIs rather than a Silverlight subset: there will be no need for any cross-platform compromises. For another, the products will be fully brandable, standalone, out-of-browser (OOB) apps, without any undesirable browser cruft and accessible directly from panels on the Metro Start Screen.

Perhaps most important of all, developers will be able to distribute and sell such Metro apps through the new Windows Store, an online store modelled directly on Apple’s hugely successful App Store.

So, in fact, Microsoft will be providing former Silverlight developers with a more powerful XAML-based platform for creating lightweight but full-blown, standalone apps, for delivery on Metro tablets and all future Windows devices. The new platform is likely to have hundreds of millions of users within a few months, all eagerly searching for new rich content, and Windows Store will offer Metro developers a brilliant way to get their content out to users and make real money.

This is exciting news for current Silverlight RIA developers, but surprisingly good news for Flash developers too: in that response to the Metro plugin ban, Adobe’s Danny Winokur went on to say: “We expect Flash-based apps will come to Metro via Adobe AIR, much the way they are on Android, iOS and BlackBerry Tablet OS today”.

So although in-browser, player-based delivery is ruled out, Adobe’s cross-platform mission continues.

Flash/AIR has now become the only option for developers who are looking to deliver their lightweight, handheld projects as widely as possible across all the major desktop and tablet platforms, including the Big Three of Google, Microsoft and Apple.

Suddenly, the whole picture has changed. Whereas initially it looked as though the Metro “no plugin” policy signalled the death of both Flash and Silverlight, and RIAs in general, that absolutely isn’t the case. Instead, Metro will provide a massively important new platform for today’s RIA developers, and as the new architecture moves forward it may well prove the most important platform of all.

The end of the dream

So is this a happy ending? Absolutely not. RIAs may live on, even thrive, but in a very different form. By refusing to support plugin players in Metro, Microsoft is enforcing a shift from Flash towards AIR, and from Silverlight towards Metro, and in so doing it’s driving RIAs out of the cross-platform, universal browser and forcing them to become out-of-browser, native-coded applications. Was such a shift inevitable? Once again, no.

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