What’s going on Microsoft? Silverlight, HTML 5?

9 11 2010

It’s amazing how the press get hold of something, twist it a little and come up with something that simply isn’t true. Is it because they simply latch onto sound bites, or because they don’t actually understand the technology (or technologies) they talk about? They don’t understand the development community and how development works? Or could it be a case of all of the above? (I am thinking all of the above for many of them)

I have now read numerous blogs, press releases etc that claim Microsoft is abandoning Silverlight. That Silverlight will no longer be used on the PC or MAC, over the web etc, just on mobile phones…This simply isn’t true, and to be frank is somewhat of an annoyance.

Yes it is true that Microsoft’s server and tools capo Bob Muglia stated that HTML 5 will become the company’s main focus for online web applications now. (Though he didn’t help the cause in the way he made his statement). But what does that actually mean. It doesn’t mean Silverlight is to be abandoned at all, it was never meant to replace HTML 5, and it wasn’t meant just to plug the gaps that HTML and HTML 5 have left. It isn’t just Microsoft’s response to Flash either, that is seeing Silverlight in a very simplistic view, almost narrow minded, and indicates you don’t know what Silverlight is…

Silverlight is a different presentation layer for .NET applications. It allows developers to deliver highly interactive, rich and powerful applications, not just stream some video, present some pretty animation etc. You should think of Silverlight as a different front end for .NET. Of which you have already so many choices, such as HTML via ASP.NET, typical forms through .NET, Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) etc etc.

So what about the statement regarding HTML 5 for web applications? Well, Microsoft are concentrating on getting HTML 5 right, this includes IE (by the way IE9 has been shown to be the most compliant HTML 5 browser out there, ahead of FireFox, Chrome and Safari), and within its development studios (visual studio, web studio etc). To do this, resource no doubt will have to be more focused on this area for the time being…So resource will move away from Silverlight, but Silverlight doesn’t need such a large investment or resource now, since it has matured and become a full fledge part of the .NET family.

HTML 5 support

HTML is the interface to websites and web applications, and it seems to me that the press and many blog writers don’t understand this. Do they realise that ASP.NET v4 delivers HTML to a web browser? So Microsoft concentrating on HTML 5 is expected. ASP.NET (no matter your flavour of it) will need to have the capabilities to deliver HTML 5 web applications, so Microsoft needs to concentrate on this. But does this mean they are ditching Silverlight, no of course not. Did the creation of Silverlight mean Microsoft walked away from HTML presented content with ASP? Did it mean we no longer have win forms of WPF? No, of course not….Yet Microsoft were not exactly moving these along rapidly were they…

No Silverlight 5 for the moment

Some are pointing that they haven’t seen any indication of when Silverlight 5 will be available. All I can say to that is, “How many versions do you expect?” The complete .NET platform is only at v4.0. Silverlight has gone through a rapid development and period of evolution, moving quickly from v1.0, through to v4.0 now (in just over 2 years!). The latest version of Silverlight brings it in line with the .NET family, so Silverlight needed to go through a rapid development phase to catch up, it was a long way behind…

Silverlight as Windows Mobile 7 development platform

Yes, Silverlight is the development platform for Windows 7, and that’s great news to the development community. The fact that Silverlight development focus at the moment is being switched to the mobile platform is again, not surprising. After all, Silverlight has gone through rapid development on the computer. Microsoft has worked hard on tools, templates etc for developers to be able to create powerful desktop (OOB) and RIAs using Silverlight. So, it now needs to do the same for the mobile platform. Microsoft need to make it as easy as possible for mobile developers to quickly deliver powerful mobile applications, so concentrating on Silverlight tools for mobile is obvious…

Yet again I feel the press, and bloggers, don’t understand the importance of this. Silverlight is Silverlight, on the mobile and or on the web, it is still the Silverlight technology, the only difference is on the mobile, we have to follow some stricter rules about our UI and we get different tools and templates to use. Why? Well we have restricted UI space, and we need to be able to allow the user to bring up the keyboard etc etc. It isn’t an alien world, Silverlight on the mobile to developers. It is Silverlight. Just like the managed code behind in Silverlight is not alien .NET, rather it is .NET. This means developers can develop applications for multiple platforms, PC, Mac, Phone, without leaving visual studio, without learning new techniques, without learning new syntax etc. This is great, and because of this Microsoft maximises the number of developers who potentially can develop for the desktop, web and mobile…..

Withering Silverlight? Don’t be stupid…

Well obviously no…Silverlight simply won’t be going through so many quick iterations as it is now in-line with the .NET family. Microsoft are now concentrating on Silverlight mobile templates and tools and ensuring the mobile world for Silverlight developers is just as rich as it can be on your PC.

Concentrating on HTML 5 is a good thing, Microsoft has always been committed to HTML 5 and as HTML 5 slowly gets closer, Microsoft needs and wants to be at the forefront. Web applications will be delivered in HTML 5, that has always been the case. Just like ASP.NET web applications deliver HTML 4 at the moment. Silverlight will still be used on the web to plug gaps HTML 5 cannot fill, it will still be used (and will be more and more so) in an OOB (out of browser) state, effectively providing desktop powerful applications over the web and no doubt will continue to grow.

Silverlight is now a full part of the .NET family, it has caught up, and the .NET family will continue to be the core Microsoft technology for all devices…

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Silverlight 4 PivotViewer…I like it…A lot…

2 07 2010

There aren’t many controls that I see that make me sit up and think “wow”, however this really is one of those. For a while now I have been coming up with new ways in which to allow users of our workFile ECM product to access massive amounts of data visually, allowing the user to search through them in a graphical way that is both intuitive, but more importantly in a fashion that is usable rather than just looks pretty. We have had quite a lot of success with this, however in certain areas our solution just isn’t perfect, and for these areas we revert to more traditional methods of understanding / navigating data. The main issue is usually the potential amount of data the user may have to look through…

Let’s have an example. A while back I was asked to consult for a company that were looking at a solution that needed to look through vast amounts of pictures and graphics. The vendor had a very visual solution; it looked great and performed ok, for small sets of data. It involved using nicely animated thumbnails of data, which the user could then navigate, very similar to the standard tree view with details pane. However, the problem arises when your node could contain hundreds of thousands of images (which the customer did have). While the demo looked great and all the representatives from the client thought it would do the job perfectly I had to speak up and ask just how it would cope with say 500,000 images in a single node….. The vendor looked a little shocked and said “you would navigate in the same way or break the node down into several other nodes”…The client looked fine, however again I had to point out that scrolling up and down searching for a single image in 500,000 or popping into every sub node to find my image would take a hell of a long time. It was at this point that the vendor and the client both realised that this solution wasn’t going to work for them….Now this may seem obvious, but the issue with cracking graphical interfaces in this fashion is that, while they work great on smallish subsets of data, they really do fall down to massive vast amounts of information (you can’t beat a good text based search can you…..or can you…)

This morning I decided to finally look at the PivotViewer with Silverlight 4, and, I was very impressed. I have to say I like it a lot…All of a sudden I have a tool that can give me just what I have been looking for (without anyone here having to spend a long time coding).

What is PivotViewer

Basically it is a Silverlight 4 based control that allows you to graphically represent collections of data. You can filter and sort this data quickly and move between different views of your collection allowing users to quickly identify just what they are looking for, or perhaps trends in data for example…

What could we use it for?

Well there are many things it could be used for. A couple quickly spring to mind. Imagine a way of quickly and accurately reviewing your quarterly sales in a graphical format. Then imagine being able to break that data down (using the same graphical format) into each month, then week, then day. Or perhaps you want to compare cars based on fuel economy, price, and number of seats. As a user, you can filter and re-filter all this information graphically so you can quickly and intuitively find what you are looking for…

There are many uses for this particular tool, and it could indeed lead to RIAs that deliver a completely new way of providing us with data and even navigation…

Interested?

Well if you are interested, have a look at http://www.silverlight.net/learn/pivotviewer/





HTML 5 – It’s not the end of internet plug-ins

4 06 2010

I have posted a number of times now about HTML5 and my concerns that people see it as a complete replacement for internet plug-in such as Silverlight and Flash, allowing RIAs to be delivered in pure HTML 5. One of the main people who keep going on about HTML 5 is Steve Jobs (though I think a lot of this is trying to convince the users of iPhones and iPads that Flash has a short life ahead). However, it seems that more and more people are sharing my opinion that HTML 5 will not kill of Flash and Silverlight, and that its adoption is a hell of a long way off in general…A recent report and article from Forrester illustrates this…

HTML 5 traction and buzz….

There is for sure a lot of buzz around HTML 5 in the past couple of months, least not because of Jobs, but also because Google has recently open-sourced its VP8 video codex. To date, abilities and licensing issues surrounding such video converters have been one of the sticking points for beta HTML 5, however this is not the only issue. Though there is a lot of internet buzz, it seems that adoption of HTML 5 is a long long way off, with browsers only supporting small fragments of HTML 5 currently. It seems that for wide spread adoption, as users we will be waiting until 2020 or sometime around then…That’s not exactly close is it…Its again another reason why I am not at all “hyped up” about HTML 5, it’s just so far off….

So while HTML 5 is a long way off, just think how much traction Flash and Silverlight will gain in this period. Silverlight is the new boy on the block, but has already around 60% adoption across all machines. That’s rather impressive, all this while HTML 5 is in beta releases and going through a lot of, development pains and issues shall we say…

There is also the issue of cross browser issues. Just like HTML 4, HTML 5 will suffer at the hands of different browsers. The author of the Forest report (Hammond) stated “Until you get consistent behaviour the question will be why you would use HTML 5 when it actually creates more challenges than it solves from a testing and deployment perspective.” I have to say, this has always been an issue with HTML in general, especially when delivering internet applications, and it is one that won’t go away for HTML 5…Though HTML 5 is supposed to be intended as an enterprise-class product, the reality is that the architecture of HTML 5 with the browser has a number of issues and draw backs, even when talking to web services. Though the aim is for HTML 5 to allow easier building of “applications” the fact is that HTML and that side of the web architecture was never designed with this in mind….

Test once…You are all done…

Ahh, well this is not the case is it with HTML. Unfortunately you will need to perform tests on all the browsers out there, and no doubt, place “HTML fixes, CSS fixes and JavaScript fixes” into your application depending on what browser is running it. This does make life a lot harder for testing and development, oh, and of course ongoing support. However, this problem is just not there for Flash and Silverlight, because their architecture is completely different and in many ways separate from the browser and the web in general, indeed you can run Silverlight out of the browser fine…

Hammonds recent report – titled “Does HTML 5 Herald the end of RIA Plug-Ins? Not Really” – found that application delivery through RIA amongst businesses rose to 34% in 2009, up from 26% in 2008. This illustrates the increase use of RIAs amongst businesses, especially with technologies such as Silverlight develop further, all this while HTML 5 is still in its draft phase…

For traditional website material, you could still use HTML and HTML 5 if you wish, however for complex functions and applications, I would always recommend the use of Silverlight, there are just so many hurdles you negate while being able to use a technology that isn’t restricted by the browser web architecture.

Open aspect of HTML 5

So many people claim they love the idea that HTML 5 is “open”. And there are some good arguments made for this, however I have yet to see one example where these arguments are valid. Especially arguments that users may have to pay for Flash or Silverlight use, that you can become restricted to what browsers you can use, or that you are dependent on them for your support…I don’t see an issue or potential issue with any of these arguments, they are just created so people try to feel more safe with an “open” technology controlled by many rather than a single company…

However, this open aspect of HTML 5 may also work against its progress and adoption, especially as open standards are very slow to develop. HTML 5 has been in development for a decade now, and though early candidate releases are recommended for 2012/13, it is a while yet before we see HTML 5 as the standard version of HTML being used. On top of that, cross browser issues and W3C adoption is even further off…

Architecture…

RIAs require processing on the client, or at least they should do. Users expect “thick client” performance and usability in an RIA and on top of that, access to hardware components, such as storage, web cams, other applications running on the client etc etc. The architecture behind the web and HTML jsut doesn’t allow this. Though HTML 5 will bring us a richer web, with easier video playback, website animations and improved usability (a little like Ajax has done), it will always be behind Silverlight for example, that can take advantage of hardware on the client, keyboard interactivity, integration with other applications and the ability to work in a “disconnected state” from the internet….

My own view on the use of HTML 5 in the future…

It simple, for typical web content, HTML 5 will provide a greater level of interactivity, animation and improved user experience. It will no doubt be used for “simpler” RIAs, however its adoption as a serious RIA for businesses is plain fantasy. RIAs need to deliver more, and therefore organisations will continue to look to plug-ins, especially Silverlight more and more. I also believe that websites available to the general public will also have more aspects delivered in Silverlight, even once HTML 5 has gained traction, simply because Silverlight can deliver a better end user experience without many of the hassles associated with web development and HTML, CSS and JavaScript across multiple browsers…..





Silverlight 4 or HTML 5?

6 04 2010

I have been asked this question a number of times in the past 2 weeks, and it is something I have posted about a little in the past https://andrewonedegree.wordpress.com/2010/02/04/abandon-flash-silverlight-for-html-5-no-way/ however, I think I need to clarify my position on this a little further and make it clear just what is the choice here…

HTML 5 and Silverlight 4 are very different “technologies” if you can call HTML a technology. HTML 5 is designed to bring a richer “environment” to websites, basically allowing it to do many things we have taken for granted with Flash and Silverlight, such as animations and the playback of video. However, apart from this, all three are quite different and have their own positives and I guess negatives.

So to answer the question, Silverlight 4 or HTML 5 you have to understand just what you are trying to do, and more importantly (at the moment) when you want to be able to do it…

When?

No matter what your requirement, if you are looking to implement in the next 12 months, then HTML 5 is a no go. HTML 5 has been in development for over a decade now, and it is still a very long way off (well in terms of all its capabilities). Certain browsers have been shown to support HTML 5 in the next year, but this is just elements of HTML 5, not the full monty. All this means, if you want to enhance your website / business application with HTML 5, you are better off waiting for at least another year probably longer before you start evaluating its potential use. For many, this isn’t really an option, so it means a lot of the HTML 5 talk is nothing more than hype and fancy (alas this is true).  So if you cannot wait that long, then I suggest you look at Silverlight.

However, that all being said, if you are thinking longer term, then let’s look at what you want, and if you should be looking at Silverlight x (by then) or HTML 5….

What you want?

If you are looking for just some animation, smoother interactions around the screen and video playback, then HTML 5 may well be the best option for you. This is where HTML 5 will make its mark, providing web users with better experiences. However, this is where HTML 5 capabilities also stop. You see, like HTML 4 currently, developers need more if you want to do more than just show content – they need the capabilities to integrate with web services, interrogate databases, perform calculations, apply business / user rules etc. To do all of this, developers use ASP.NET / PHP for example, which in turn has web pages formatted using HTML. With HTML 5, you are buying into this same architecture, with all its positives and negatives. Dont think that you just do everything in HTML 5, because this won’t be the case..

So when would you think about Silverlight 4? Well, if you want to do more in terms if a rich user experience, and or in terms of functions and capabilities then you will need a more powerful environment, that means managed code. Let’s just compare video for the moment. With HTML 5 we will have the capabilities of showing and playing video in the web browser. However, with Silverlight, you not only have this capability, but also the ability to do much more, such as rotate this, show a video on-top of another video, merge other content on the video, provide video links, add special effects, show video in other controls – the options are limitless….Now let’s take things further, away from simple video playback…What about providing real functionality, processing capabilities etc all things that are typically used for business based applications? Then you need something that provides a “proper” development environment….So Silverlight will for sure be your platform of choice….

Silverlight presents a different architecture in which to use. Applications are accessed across the web, yes, however they execute and run on the client PC, very similar in fashion to having an application installed on your machine via DVD. (The browser does not execute their code, it is simply used to “host” the Silverlight application). This means the application uses your PC processing power directly, it doesn’t need a browser to interpret its format or what it wants to do / show. In addition, Silverlight doesn’t need to rely (or keep talking too) the web server for all requests, many are executed / calculated there on the client machine. In addition, this also means that we can choose to run our application outside of the web browser, ensuring we are not limited to the limitations a browser places on our application. From a developer’s point of view, Silverlight is managed code, and runs on the .NET platform (which provides designers and developers with all the freedom they need to deliver applications that meet all requirements).  From a business point of view, this means there are no restrictions on what you want to achieve with your application.

Quick conclusion…

Its down to time and requirements. If you need something within the next 12-18months, then HTML 5 wont be for you. If however, you are looking for a “richer” environment that doesn’t need complex capabilities, application integration options and is really only used for displaying content across the web, then HTML 5 will be your choice. Finally, if you need to do more, such as provide business type functions and capabilities, then Silverlight 4 will be for you, or at least a mix of classic ASP.NET and Silverlight…..





Redefine the way we use the web, to unlock its potential…Web 3.0?

6 02 2010

This is something I have been thinking about for a number of years now, but more so recently with a lot of talk of HTML 5. Basically we haven’t really changed the way we use the internet (from a technical point of view) since the web became mainstream shall we say. Sure, we now use it in new ways which we hadn’t dreamed of (habits and the way we communicate with each other), but essentially the web still works the same way it always has. We use the web as content rendered as HTML that is displayed back to us in a web browser. Even if HTML 5 is the magic version and delivers so much more in terms of animation and streaming has it actually changed the way in which we use / the web works for us? No…

Let’s not go back to the good old Mainframe environment…

It seems more and more IT professionals and large organisations see the web as the new mainframe, especially when you start talking “thin client” and “cloud computing” (the cloud could be seen as our mainframe..scary). When you start looking at mainframe environments and then cloud and thin client computing, you see that the basic concepts are very similar. So what do I mean, well, all of the processing happens on a server, the machine you actually use to access it, doesn’t really have to do anything. In a mainframe environment we have dumb terminals, in the new way of thinking (trying not to laugh, sorry) we have a PC that run’s a browser (this could be a very low spec machine), and if all we did is “cloud compute” we perhaps wouldn’t need anything else?

Sure I see benefits, some of which are green, but the negatives are so obvious to see. These are essentially the same problems we have with mainframes and the same problems that lead us to using the “PC” and the “Network” to replace mainframes?

Some thin client issues?

Let me give you an example. Imagine you and I are working as designers, creating 3D computer models of pretty much anything. We may even be responsible for animating these 3D models (think something like toy story, I don’t know why, it just popped in my head). Ok, now imagine you are part of a team of say 20 working on these models, of course you are designing Buzz, someone else Woody etc. Let’s think just how much “processing” power do we need for this – just you and your requirements? The answer, quite a bit, well a lot. Now image having to times that by 20. Oh, and now let’s have that processing carried out in a “thin cloud computing environment” (of course your application is written with the fab HTML 5 which means we can do anything), which at the end of the day needs a hell of a lot of work going on at the server, oh and traffic across our network… Do you see the problems?

Well basically, even with the advances of our hardware, the server will be doing too much and things won’t go well. The system will be going slow, maybe crashing, you as a designer will be going mad with frustration, along with the rest of your team, oh and not to mention you are working to a deadline so the project manager is now going mad. Let’s throw into the mix too, that our team is distributed across the States and the UK, and some of us love using Internet Explorer, some FireFox, some even Chrome…Hmm though in theory the web is great here, it is no match to a good old client desktop, some distributed servers…

Now I know I am focusing here on a situation that doesn’t lend itself to “cloud computing” or “thin clients” but if we believe all the hype of HTML 5, cloud computing why shouldn’t we be thinking this is possible? But, as our hardware advances so does our software (though at a slower rate granted) and we as users (be us general public users or business) expect more and more performance and capabilities. So while some of our user requirements do seem to lean us toward a cloud computing way of working, soon our requirements will no doubt swing back the other way (and wont we be repeating the Mainframe and PC story all over again?)

There is an answer

The answer is pretty simple to be honest and it is something Flash showed us the way to a number of years ago when it first started popping up on the web. The answer is a mixture of the two.

So let’s start evolving how we use the web properly (not just our habits) but how it is used. The web becomes a communications network and in some ways returns to its roots. We can still use it in the way we are used to, as in we find websites and we view them in a web browser, however, those websites that aren’t just presenting us with some information, or basic shopping facilities, websites that are more “applications”, get themselves installed on the client machine. So think MS Office on the web. Why install on the client? So that the user experience is not restricted by the web architecture, nor the browser, and that “processing loads” are removed from the server and distributed back down to the client PC.

Isn’t that what Flash was doing, installed and running on the client, err years ago? Yes, and that’s why Flash has worked so well to now…The problems with Flash are not what it visually looks like, nor its basic architecture (running on the client), the problems are that it doesn’t lend itself to being able to deliver “applications”. So it is great for the web to show animations, and funky banners, slick movies etc but don’t think it will be great at delivering that 3D modelling tool we spoke about earlier…

So let’s go back to our 3D modelling requirement in the designer’s studio. In our new web world we are now working with a RIA that actually runs on the client machine, uses local storage on the machine and uses the web only for bare communications and maybe storage of files that are to be shared. All of a sudden, all of the issues with “thin client” and “cloud computing” and server loads are removed, yet essentially we are still using the web and “cloud computing” to an extent…

So the answer is RIAs that use the client processing power and that do not run in the web browser.

Is this available…

Yes it is. Since Microsoft launched its Silverlight platform (which many see only as a competitor to Flash) it has been working towards this type of scenario, where we can maximise the benefits of the PC and the benefits of the web and cloud computing. Silverlight 3 was the first version to deliver an out of the browser experience and this has been taken further with Silverlight 4, with it being able to run as a trusted application on the client machine. Oh it also runs on Mac’s and PCs and if in the browser, any browser…

Silverlight, though in some ways similar to Flash and even the old Java Applets, is a new way of using the internet, rather than us re-inventing the same way of using the web with more bells and whistles. Like flash and Java applets, Silverlight essentially runs on the client PC. Which means we can utilise its processing power to do our work, it doesn’t need to go back to the server for updates to the UI, business rules or anything like that, and it can be done there on the client machine? However, it is connected and delivered essentially through the web as a communications network, so its data and files can be easily pulled and pushed across the web and stored there. Updates to the software are also delivered through the web, with the user being able to get the latest versions of the software just by using the software itself.

At present this is all still young, but the potential is there to change our web experiences and what we realistically should be using the web for. MS Office could be delivered as nothing but a Silverlight OOB (out of browser) application, allowing us to purchase it online and using it within moments. And it would look and feel just like the version we currently have from a CD (not the slightly less functional web version). Business applications could be delivered through organisations intranets, or their “cloud providers”. Websites that provide “secure” trade or partner areas would essentially have these installed on the client machine. Twitter, Facebook and other types of highly interactive websites would be delivered as RIAs installed on the machine (there is a prototype for Facebook already built and made, which you can download and use at http://www.silverlight.net/content/samples/apps/facebookclient/sfcquickinstall.aspx). You havent used the flexibility of the web at all, if you were on a new machine and wanted to get to facebook, still visit the website where you would get prompted to install the client, which would be a simply and quick install…and away you go, back on facebook.

The future then is…

Re-defining the web as a communications network and moving RIAs out of the web browser and down onto the client. By using the web in this fashion we get a truly distributed environment that has the benefits of the web, but also the benefits of the client machine…