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Silverlight – What’s it all About?

By Steve Ives, Posted on November 18, 2009 at 5:16 pm

Steve Ives

Day two at PDC09, and with between ten and twelve concurrent tracks it’s pretty tough to decide which sessions to attend. Luckily there are three of us attending the conference, so with a little planning we can at least attempt to maximize our coverage. But still … so many choices!

I’ve been involved with Web development for a long time now … in fact I’ve been involved with Web development ever since there was such a thing as Web development, so I decided to spend the day trying to make sense of the choices that are now available to Web developers in the Microsoft space.

If you look across the entire industry there are many and varied Web development platforms available, some well proven, some relatively new. When Microsoft first introduced Active Server Pages (ASP) back in 1996 they changed the game. Web development was taken to a whole new level, and in my humble opinion they have lead the game ever since.

Until recently the choice was clear. The Web development platform of choice was ASP.NET’s WebForms environment. Thanks in part to very rich developer support in Visual Studio, and an absolutely vast array of excellent third-party plug-ins and controls, the ASP.NET WebForms environment was, and still is absolutely dominant in the industry.

However, things are changing. In 2007 Microsoft unveiled a new technology called Silverlight, and while it is fair to say that initial adoption was slow, Silverlight could today be considered to be a key part of Microsoft's vision for the future of computing generally!

Silverlight is essentially a browser plug-in that allows Web browsers to render rich user interfaces. It started out as a relatively simple plug-in which allowed browsers to display streamed video content, much like Adobe Flash, but that is no longer the case today. The technology is less than two years old at this point, and today Microsoft announced the beta for the fourth major release of the product in that short time. Clearly a lot of dedicated effort has been put into into Silverlight … there must be a “bigger picture” here!

Let’s take a step back. A browser plug-in is a software component that allows a Web browser to do something that is not inherently supported by the Web (i.e. by HTTP and HTML). The issue here is that HTTP and HTML were designed as a mechanism for a client system (a browser) to safely display “content” from a server system. That server system could be located anywhere, and owned and operated by anyone. In that situation, how do you trust the publisher of the content? The simple answer is … you can’t. So for that reason early browsers didn’t allow the Web “applications” to interact with the client system in any way … they simply displayed static content.

Of course clever software developers soon found ways around that restriction, but only if the user of the client system gave their permission. That permission is typically granted by allowing the installation of third-party plug-ins on the client system. Once a plug-in is present it can be detected by the browser, and in turn detected by the Web server, which can then take advantage of the capabilities of the plug-in. And because a plug-in is a piece of software that was explicitly allowed to be installed on the client system by the user of the client system, it is not subject to the normal “restrictions” (sandbox) placed on the Web browser … plug-ins can do anything!

Silverlight isn’t the first product that Microsoft has introduced in this arena. Many years ago they introduced support for ActiveX controls to be embedded within Web pages, and the technology was very cool. It allowed very rich and highly interactive user interfaces to be rendered within a web browser, it allowed the web “application” to interact with the “resources” of the client system, and for a while ActiveX in the browser showed a lot of promise. The problem was that the ActiveX technology was only available in the Internet Explorer browser, and at that time IE didn’t have a big enough market penetration for ActiveX in the browser to become a serious player.

Today though, things are different. Internet Explorer is by far the most dominant Web browser in use (although Firefox, Safari and Google Chrome continually eat away at that market lead). But this time around the difference is that Microsoft took a different approach … they made Silverlight plug-ins available for Firefox … and Safari … and today even announced the development of a plug-in for Google Chrome in the up-coming Silverlight 4 release. This is pretty impressive, because the current version of Chrome doesn’t even support plug-ins!

Today during the PDC09 keynote presentations Silverlight was front and center, and I’ll be completely honest here … the demos that I saw totally blew me away! Silverlight can now be used to render fabulous interactive user interfaces which can equal anything that can be achieved in a desktop application, and with appropriate permissions from the user of the client system Silverlight applications can fully interact with the local client system as well. It’s even possible (in the current release) to execute Silverlight applications outside of a traditional web browser, allowing them to appear to the user exactly as desktop applications would … but with no installation required (other than the Silverlight plug-in).

So why is Silverlight so important to Microsoft? And why might it be so important to all of us as software developers, and as software users? Well, the answer to that question is related to my last post to this blog … it’s all about the Cloud! The perfect model for a Cloud application is a Web application, but even with all of the advances in Web technologies it’s still really hard to make a web application that is as feature-rich and capable as a modern desktop application … unless you use a tool like Silverlight.

Now don’t get me wrong, ASP.NET WebForms is still a fabulous technology, and still very much has a place. If you have an ASP.NET WebForms application today … don’t panic, you’re in good shape too. The point here is that you now have options. In fact, there is a third option also … it’s called ASP.NET MVC, and I’ll talk about that in another blog post soon.

If you want to see examples of Silverlight in action then check out the Silverlight Showcase Samples (of course you'll need the Silverlight plug-in installed, but the site will offer it to you if you don't have it), and if you can also get more information about the PDC09 Silverlight 4 (beta) demos.


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