I'm just back from Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, where the star of the show was the latest update to the Silverlight browser plug-in that lets you run .NET applications cross-platform and within the browser. The pace of development is remarkable. It is only 9 months ago that we were first shown the beta of Silverlight 3, at the Mix conference in March. Silverlight 3 was fully released in July; and now we have version 4.0 beta, with release promised for the first half of 2010.
It is a big release too. Many of the top Silverlight feature requests are being implemented, including printing, right-click and mouse wheel support, a rich text control with editing, clipboard support (though text-only in the beta), drag-and-drop, interaction with Webcams and microphones, multitouch control, improved just-in-time compilation for faster performance, and improved databinding for business applications.
In addition, the forthcoming Visual Studio 2010 is the first to have the kind of Silverlight development tools you would expect, with a true visual design surface and drag-and-drop data binding. On the server, WCF (Windows Communication Foundation) RIA Services simplify the effort of authentication, talking to data, and integrating with ASP.NET.
Another notable feature is the ability to run a Silverlight application out of the browser, started from a desktop shortcut and displayed in a custom window. New in version 4.0 is an HTML control, which embeds IE on Windows and WebKit (used in Safari) on the Mac. These are desktop/web application hybrids. Silverlight 4 blurs the boundaries, by adding a new trusted mode. Subject to the user passing a security dialog, a trusted out-of-browser application gets local file access to user data, cross-domain network access, and on Windows native code interop through COM automation.
The snag with this last point is that any Silverlight application which uses COM automation will only run on Windows, breaking the cross-platform compatibility which is a key reason to use Silverlight in the first place. Although Microsoft says the feature has been put in simply to meet the requirements of a few Enterprise customers, it seems to me that it goes well beyond that, making Silverlight viable in many scenarios that previously would have required a native solution.
Microsoft's ideal scenario is one where applications run everywhere, but run best on Windows, preserving its desktop lock-in. The company calls this "lighting up the platform"; but Windows is somehow the only platform that gets lit up.
I still think it is time to learn Silverlight. The reason is not only Microsoft's signposting of this as its key technology for future client development, but something else I saw last week: Google's Chrome OS. I'll be writing more about this; but I was impressed by how this forthcoming browser-based operating system promises to solve long-standing problems: cheap, lightweight computers that are secure, that start up instantly, that give us access to all our data, but can be left in the back of a taxi without compromising our secrets.
What if Chrome OS catches on? Does Microsoft become irrelevant? The real world does not move that fast; but considering the continuing popularity of the Mac along with the prospect of Chrome OS, it strikes me as brave to presume a Windows-only client for future development. Silverlight on the other hand should run in Chrome OS, either using Mono's Moonlight, or the Intel port being done for Moblin, or perhaps Microsoft itself will have to dirty its hands with Linux. Google might block Silverlight - it was non-committal on the subject at the Chrome OS press briefing - but I'm guessing that concerns over appearing excessively controlling will trump the desire to shut out a competitor.
The point here is not that Silverlight is the answer for all client development; there are plenty of other strong choices. The point rather is that for Microsoft platform developers Silverlight is the technology that makes it possible to take your C# or VB.Net skills and transition them to a new cross-platform, web-oriented world.
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