The above warning message sums up everything I dislike about proprietary web technologies. Silverlight is a fairly new Microsoft technology from 2007 and Moonlight is its Open Source and not up-to-date equivalent that I have to use because Microsoft does not provide Silverlight for Linux. Since most software only run on Windows anyway why is this so upsetting? Well, everything is different on the web.
First, the premise for Rich Internet Applications (RIA) like Silverlight, Flash and even Java is ok: A website usually does not provide much “action” in itself so having an extra plugin running on the website with some access to the underlying system resources as well as built-in extra functionality will provide a better user experience. Microsoft writes on the Silverlight website:
Silverlight is a powerful development platform for creating engaging, interactive user experiences for Web, desktop, and mobile applications when online or offline
That sounds good and I do not necessarily disagree with the premise for RIAs but the question is: Why did we need another RIA platform that doesn’t really work? I don’t exactly know. However, it is understandable from Microsoft’s viewpoint, given their history of locking-in people to their platforms and the fact that they have legions of .NET developers that are probably very comfortable staying in their own environment when writing web applications. For them, Silverlight is probably bliss.
But there are some problems, one of them being its availability. As of this writing, Silverlight is only supported in roughly 61% of all browsers, according to statowl, or roughly 69%, according to riastats. As the above warning message suggests, it does not work perfectly on (my version of) Linux, even with the newest Chrome browser and Ubuntu 11.04, the arguably best supported Linux version out there. Indeed, most of the Silverlight applications that I have looked at did not work very well, including an app that I was offered to work on1 and popular services such as Netflix which currently does not work with Moonlight.
Again, the question arises: Why is this so bad? Isn’t this the same as always? No, it is a problem because the beauty of the web is its openness, and this openness is what Microsoft is challenging. The same applies to Flash. You may call Apple snobbish and manipulative if you like but Steve Jobs does have a point regarding Flash as a platform:
In my opinion, this would apply to Silverlight also. To be fair, Microsoft is embracing standards like html5 in Internet Explorer 9 but at the same time, they continue to push Silverlight forward. Some people think that this is not a problem since html5 and Silverlight are not direct competitors. But because of Microsoft’s power, Silverlight applications are shooting up everywhere which cuts off some users from using certain services of the Internet, something we have not seen on the same level with Flash. And this is a troubling development.
There is only one way of avoiding that Silverlight will dominate the next decade of web applications as Flash did in the past: Stop developing applications for it. My choice should now be clear. But I fear that I am almost alone.