Silverlight is Microsoft’s new browser plugin for Rich Internet Applications, and since the unveiling of the latest alpha version it has been dubbed a “Flash killer” by many commentators. Silverlight is a Flash competitor to be sure, but a Flash killer? I think that may be overstating the case.
Amongst all the hype about the death of Flash I have also found a handful of articles that cast doubt on Silverlight’s chances of success, but on the whole I think they miss the mark somewhat. Two criticisms leveled against Silverlight are its lack of availability on the Linux platform, and potential indifference from end users, neither of which I see as the major challenge to Silverlight adoption.
Let’s consider the issue of Linux support. For a long time Flash support for Linux was very poor, yet that did little to hinder the adoption of Flash on other platforms. Even if Microsoft themselves don’t deem it worthwhile porting the Silverlight plugin to Linux, there are already independent developers working at the task, and it’s just a matter of time until the OS is catered for.
As for the issue of end user adoption, to my mind what is actually more crucial is Silverlight’s acceptance by developers and designers. It is not a question of users seeing no need to switch away from Flash, but rather website developers feeling compelled to make the switch to Silverlight. If developers take Silverlight to heart, get excited about the platform and promote it in the web community, its adoption rate could be very fast. If that happens, end users will have no choice but to follow. After being welcomed to three or four websites with the greeting “you need to download the Silverlight plugin to view this site”, only the most stubborn user would still resist. On the other hand, if web designers and developers fail to become excited about the potential of Silverlight it will gain only a negligible market share, and end users will remain blithely unaware of its existence.
In my opinion this is the real challenge Silverlight faces, capturing the hearts of web designers and developers, especially those who currently work with Flash.
Microsoft certainly have their work cut out for them. If Silverlight is going to “kill” Flash, it stands to reason that the current field of Flash developers will need to abandon Flash and defect to Silverlight. Flash has a 10 year history and a robust developer community who will be unlikely to jump ship unless Silverlight proves to be a vastly superior product.
The other scenario in which Silverlight might “kill” Flash is if the flood of Silverlight applications is so enormous that Flash’s current market share seems insignificant by comparison. For this to happen, Silverlight will need to appeal to developers who are intrigued by RIAs, but don’t see Flash as a compelling proposition. However I expect Microsoft will face stiff opposition on this front too. After all, whichever way you slice it Silverlight still relies on a proprietary browser plugin, which is precisely what turns so many web designers off Flash to begin with. Silverlight does offer a “language neutral” scripting interface, as opposed to Flash’s reliance on Actionscript, which ought to ease the transition for newbies, but whether this is sufficient to eclipse its single vendor affiliation remains to be seen.
Regardless of whether Silverlight proves to be a runaway success, the next few years are bound to be a very interesting time for RIAs!Tweet