Silverlight: next decade's IE 6 problem
In the "should I use HTML or Silverlight" debate, one thing that's overlooked is the impact that future browser releases will have on whether your application will still work in 5 or 10 years time. Let me play out a scenario I've been thinking about.
First, an important observation:
When new versions of Silverlight are released, Microsoft (and Novell) have to release new plugins for each of the major browsers.
Well, that's kind of obvious. Perhaps less obvious:
When Chrome, IE or Firefox re-write their plugin systems, Microsoft (or Novell) will have to release new plugins for those old Silverlight releases.
Right now the support matrix isn't too bad. Silverlight 1.0 applications won't work in Chrome, but no one ever used Silverlight 1.0, so that's OK. But how long will they be able to keep this up? If IE 10 includes a new plugin engine, I'd expect a new Silverlight plugin for Silverlight 4.0, but what about 2.0? At their current rate of release, by the time Silverlight 6 comes out, will Microsoft even be able to afford to test 6 different Silverlight releases across 3-4 different browsers?
This means that if you have a production application running Silverlight 2.0 right now, you're relying on Microsoft releasing Silverlight 2.0 plugins for every new browser, from now until your application is retired, in order for the application to work.
Of course, if they don't, that's OK. You can always upgrade your application to the latest version of Silverlight, which probably does have a plugin. Right?
Not so fast. What's cheaper? Getting developers to upgrade old technologies to new ones, or just telling users not to use that latest IE/Firefox/Chrome release? Which option will most corporate enterprise IT departments pick?
Sound familiar? It's the same problem we have with IE 6 right now. We built so many applications that only work in IE 6 that enterprises decide it's cheaper to tell users not to upgrade, to the point that IE 6 still has incredible market share.
This leads me to the conclusion:
Today's corporate Silverlight applications will produce the future equivalent of the IE 6 problem.
Being serious, I think this should matter to corporate application developers considering Silverlight when HTML would do. Since enterprises rarely do a good job of keeping their application technology stacks up to date, to have confidence we need some kind of guarantee from Microsoft that Silverlight 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 applications will be supported not just by current browsers, but by the popular browsers in five years time. I've not heard of any such guarantee so far, and I have doubts that they can.
On the HTML front, it's likely that if you had instead chosen to use standard HTML and CSS, your site will continue to work even as new browsers are released, since browsers are trending towards better standards support rather than getting worse. No serious browser vendor is going to release a browser in the next 10 years that doesn't support XHTML 1.0 or HTML 4.01. And besides, web standards only seem to change every 300 years on average.
As far as I can see, come 2015, your "Valid HTML" site stands a better chance of being used by 2015 technology than your Silverlight 4.0 application.
Edit: Nick Kramer from Microsoft has posted some background about how Silverlight compatibility works and how the team plans to support it going forward, which puts me at rest somewhat.
Welcome, my name is Paul Stovell. I live in Brisbane and work on Octopus Deploy, an automated deployment tool.
Prior to founding Octopus Deploy, I worked for an investment bank in London building WPF applications, and before that I worked for Readify, an Australian .NET consulting firm. I also worked on a number of open source projects and was an active user group presenter. I was a Microsoft MVP for WPF from 2006 to 2013.