Silverlight: Good for Adobe, Bad for Microsoft

August 12th, 2009 by jeremychone

While many see Microsoft Silverlight as an Adobe Flash killer, I actually think Adobe should rejoice that Microsoft is competing with Adobe on its own turf (i.e., media plug-ins) rather than putting all its energy, as it once did, into Web standards and innovation (IE 5.0 was the most robust and compliant Web browser of its time).

If Microsoft were to take a similar approach to the one it embraced in 1995, when it actually took the lead in Web technologies and provided the best Open Web browser implementation, new media functionalities such as video and 2D/3D would become an intrinsic part of the Web, making media plug-ins irrelevant to its future. In other word, if Microsoft were to go full Open Web (with SVG, Canvas, Smil, HTML 5, Video, and CSS3) Adobe Flash would be history in couple of years. However, Microsoft decided to follow Adobe’s plug-in strategy by forking visually rich capabilities into the plug-in world and throwing itself into a completely new market.

Why? Why follow when you can lead?

I think there are three main reasons:

1) Adobe is an easier target.

Between Adobe and Google, Microsoft might think it has a greater chance of winning against Adobe.

Microsoft has probably concluded that Open Web is a much less predictable entity given the complicated relationships among the various open source, standard, and commercial entities (e.g., Mozilla, Google, and Apple). Additionally, given Google and the open source community’s progress on the Open Web front, Microsoft might have feared being able to lead the way this time.

Thus, opting for the plug-in route had the advantage of slowing down Open Web technologies (and consequently Google) and narrowing down the competition to Adobe rather than Google and the open source community.

2) Expanding from the developer market to the designer market is safer.

The desktop software market is comprised of the three main following buckets: office productivity, developer tools, and designer tools. The only place where Microsoft is still not the leader is the designer tools segment, and that is where Adobe excels. Conversely, Adobe is seeing its next tools growth opportunity in the developer market.

Consequently, Microsoft and Adobe have created a new battleground, “designer-developer workflow” where they are both promoting an ultra rich visual experience for Web applications and positioning their respective tools and plug-ins as the ultimate solution for maximizing designer-developer productivity. Microsoft sees it as a way of leveraging its developer base to move into the designer market, and Adobe sees it as extending its designer market to the developer one.

While Microsoft could have focused on providing the best developer and designer tools for Open Web development, it probably felt more comfortable, as Adobe did, controlling the designer and developer experience by owning the language, runtime, and application model. Additionally, from a market standpoint, it is fair to assume that Open Web developers might not be as marketable as developers open to proprietary Web technologies. So from a business standpoint, Microsoft is opting for the safe route and is betting on what it knows best, controlling the developer, and now the designer, experience end-to-end.

3) Microsoft hopes to slow down commoditization.

Last but not least, Microsoft must fear that going full Open Web would backfire, by accelerating its operating system commoditization, and would give good wind to new operating systems, such as the mysterious and aptly named Google Web OS. Microsoft wants neither to fall too far behind on Open Web technologies nor to give them more momentum that they already have.


While I can understand each of these points, I still think that Microsoft’s lukewarm approach to Open Web technologies is the wrong strategy. The Web has always been open in nature, and making pixels fly faster or smoother will not alter that. Given all the passion and strategic interest surrounding it, the Open Web will happen with or without Microsoft. Microsoft would be better off fully embracing and leading Open Web technologies, as it did back in the late 1990s, and redefining the Web design and development market. If a disruption wave is coming your way, surfing it is better than being smashed by it.

I would even go further by saying that Silverlight is helping to maintain the Adobe Flash mainstream. Adobe Flash is an amazing piece of technology, by all accounts, and future versions are poised to be even better. While Silverlight might have some technical advantages here and there, overall, Adobe Flash is still the best media plug-in available as far as functionalities and reach. And given all its antitrust restrictions, Microsoft is even finding itself in a difficult position to aggressively distribute Silverlight. So at the end of the day, the more Microsoft is selling plug-in development to Web developers, the more Adobe will benefit. In fact, Microsoft Silverlight’s marketing department should be commissioned by Adobe.

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Disclaimer: This article is by no mean bashing or promoting Microsoft, Adobe, or Open Web technologies. Rather, it is simply an independent reflection on Microsoft’s current Web technology strategy.

18 Responses to “Silverlight: Good for Adobe, Bad for Microsoft”

  1. Jeff Putz Says:

    Not even close. Microsoft pursued Silverlight, derived from WPF, because it was the fastest way to get legions of .NET developers into a browser-based (and now out-of-browser) rich UI platform. It’s not more complicated than that. I don’t believe that Microsoft is worrying about Adobe at all, because from the stand point of people building and using the tools, they don’t really compete.

  2. Jeremy Chone Says:

    @Jeff, Interesting, I have read this argument about Microsoft not really competing with Adobe on Silverlight. I am half buying the argument. From the naming to the features, it really looks to be a direct shot at Adobe Flash.

  3. JC Says:

    I’m one of those WPF guys. I spent the last decade creating WinForms and WPF rich client apps and the move to Silverlight was painless and much faster than learning html, javascript, css, dealing with statelessness, etc etc. Plus I can still use Visual Studio – I basically build Windows apps for the browser now ;)

  4. Jeremy Chone Says:

    @JC, thanks for your perspective, which validate Jeff’s point of view.

    So, I guess there are two ways to look at Silverlight. The Windows way (not covered in this article) and the Web ways.

    For a Windows/.Net programmers point of view, Silverlight/XAML is be seen a just an evolution of the Windows programming model. And in this picture, there is no much Flash, since Flash was never there at the first place.

    Now, from a Web developer point of view, Flash and Open Web are the incumbents, and Microsoft is the new comer and has to make room for itself. So, it has to compete against these two entities.

    Now, the question is “Is Silverlight’s cross platform support a lure, as IE on Solaris was, or a serious cross platform commitment from Microsoft.” If the later, then, Microsoft is gearing head to head against Flash and Open Web.

    Thanks Jeff and JC for your constructive feedback.

  5. Lorenzo Says:

    And is really WPF/Silverlight much easier than HTML/CSS/Javascript? I don’t think so.

    Javascript frameworks have made DOM scripting child-play and learning those 3 things of CSS that would make styling much less painless than doing it the WPF way takes 5 minutes.

    Also Visual Studio is not a very good markup editor and it’s painfully slow compared to any other editor out there.

    To all the others that are afraid of WPF/Silverlight, just take a week to try it out in some non-trivial scenario, then come back to post their impressions in these comments.

  6. Michael Ramirez Says:

    I think Adobe and Microsoft are going to the same place but from two different directions. Adobe wants to make it easy for current AJAX/HTML developers to transition to RIA & Desktop using what they already know Javascript/HTML/CSS. Microsoft wants to make it easy for .NET desktop & web developers to transition to RIA using what they already know .NET/C#/VB/Visual Studio. Bottom line is developers will always prefer to use what they already know. You can see this in the evolution of programming languages. Everybody knew C so C++ needed to extend C so that the transition was easy. The same happen for C++ to Java and Java to C#. But Adobe has two disadvantages Actionscript 3 and Flash Builder. AS3 still has a learning curve despite based it on Javascript standards and most web developers never used Eclipse. So again the pattern is clear. Don’t force the developer to learn something new and from what I can see Microsoft has the advantage here.

  7. John Dowdell Says:

    Hi Jeremy, for “Why did Microsoft make a cross-browser plugin?”, I always assumed it was for the reason Jeff mentioned, to deliver on the goals of the “Common Runtime” project. This predates the Apple “HTML5″ proposals. Would have been faster to export Visual Studio to SWF, but I can understand how they, like others, wish to control their own runtime.

    I think Silverlight did help Flash, just as the iPhone later did, by raising the expectations of audiences in general, getting the whole industry on-board with that old “experience matters” goal.

    I’m not sure on that “Adobe should commission Microsoft Marketing” though, that kind of decision is above my pay level…. ;-)

    (And Dreamweaver is explicitly focused on the HTML/JS/CSS delivery channel… Adobe’s about publishing, in general.)

    Here’s some more on “How Silverlight may have helped Flash”:


  8. Craig Says:

    Jeremy, I tend to agree with Jeff, they don’t really compete. While we have high profile Silverlight sites such as the Olympics that MS likes to push, they are really just marketing. Most similar sites will probably be done in Flash. 90% of Silverlight development will be line of business and enterprise apps, not web sites. I have never seen Flash used for development in the enterprise.

  9. Jeremy Chone Says:

    @John Dowdell, Good points and thanks for the links.

    I was working at Netscape at the time Microsoft crushed us. While some blamed it on Microsoft’s monopoly, I always thought it was because Microsoft played the Netscape game better than Netscape, by providing the most robust and standard compliant browser of its time (IE 5.0).

    Unfortunately, nowadays, Microsoft seems to do the strict minimum as far of browser/standard implementation, which definitely play in Adobe’s favor. Why going Silverlight when Flash is so ubiquitous and rich.

    BTW, I am a big fan of Adobe’s tools. I think that Photoshop is one of the best software application to date, and I definitely like the new Flash CS4 and Adobe Premiere CS4. This is why, at the end, I still think that designers are better off sticking with Adobe’s products.

  10. Jeremy Chone Says:

    @Craig, thanks for sharing your experience. Interesting that you did not see any Flash/Flex for Enterprise application. I thought Adobe Flex had made some inroad in this market.

  11. Pooran Says:

    Interesting read. on lighter side.. Free Browser [ if Microsoft were to go full Open Web (with SVG, Canvas, Smil, HTML 5, Video, and CSS3) ] doesn’t bring money to Business, while dev/designer buying tools does. Fast to Market is key. Like Craig mentions Line of business apps are the key. Flash/Flex licenses cost a bomb compared to what MS stack provides. Silverlight is free. Use Microsoft Web Platform to develop apps .. again free. Enterprise application market is really hot. Hopefully the best one win

  12. Fallon Massey Says:

    I hope you have a day job, comedy isn’t working for ya.

  13. stelt Says:

    @Jeremy Chone, in line with your thoughts, Microsoft just received another serious push towards open:

  14. Jeremy Chone Says:

    @Stelt, yes, I am pretty familiar with the svg-web project, definitely a killer project.

  15. Yannick Roehlly (yannick1974) 's status on Wednesday, 02-Sep-09 09:41:32 UTC - Says:

    [...] a few seconds ago from choqoK [...]

  16. Jon Davis Says:

    “Why?” I’ll tell you why. The purpose of Silverlight is to retain the .NET developers. Microsoft was losing them to ActionScripters. Retaining the Visual Studio crowd was the point of it all. Everything else was candy.

  17. Jeremy Chone Says:

    @Jason I am not sure that Flash/Flex was a real threat to .Net (at least for enterprise developers).

    However, I now agree with your comment and many other ones on this post that Microsoft also wanted to evolve their .Net/Win32/… platform to be more Browser centric and Silverlight was the right vehicle for it.

    So, I think that Silverlight has two driving forces. First is to evolved Microsoft .Net platform to the Web (this is your point), and second, it is to try to capture the Web developers to build rich Web application (i.e. Web Office type) with Microsoft technology rather than Open Web or Adobe Flash.

    In this article, I covered only the second one.

  18. Russ Says:

    “I have never seen Flash used for development in the enterprise.”

    That made me lol….a lot. I’ve worked for bloomberg, at&t, time warner, mckesson, and a number of fortune 100 companies. Flex/Flash is the defacto.

    Even google’s approach is Flex/Flash. Im glad Microsoft is getting involved as competition helps us all.