Silverlight and Bing Maps: Good or bad for the web?

imageBy now you may have heard about the recent release of the new Bing Maps Beta. It’s a pretty total retake on the concept of maps on the web, integrating maps, aerial imagery and street-side photography all into one seamless experience. The web-übergeek crux of the matter: It’s powered by Silverlight.

Various writers have already pounced on the matter, berating Microsoft for pushing Silverlight in a web where HTML 5 should rule. One of the best writeups on the matter was TechCrunch MG Siegler’s version, so I’ll only link to that one; much more is available at a search engine near you.

Why did Microsoft use Silverlight?

That’s obvious: The HTML/JavaScript/AJAX stack would never have performed well enough. Even the Silverlight implementation is slowish, but it’s usable. 3D is heavily utilized, and you can also see it on your CPU load meter. No doubt Silverlight is the thing that makes this possible. Of course, Microsoft also has an interest in demonstrating the Silverlight technology – the main point of which is to improve the usability and visual appeal of web applications.

But MG Siegler brings up a good point: Given that examples like this do push users to actually install Silverlight and therefore drive developers to create more content on it, is the visual greatness worth the possible detrimental effect? And thus, it all boils down to the inevitable question: Are plug-ins like Silverlight and Adobe Flash good for the health of the web?

Plug-ins versus HTML 5

It would be misleading to dive into this without reminding that the latest Silverlight installation figure was 45% – less than a half of the world’s surfboards are equipped with Microsoft’s plug-in. On the other hand, Flash adoption rate is very close to 100%. Also, the number of Flash applications, all the way from banners to games and business apps, is magnitudes higher. So definitely, Adobe’s Flash belongs to the same conversation.

I have traditionally found it hard to position myself on the subject. But during this Bing Maps debate, I’m starting to find my stand. Plug-ins are not evil. Uninformed use of them is.

While pushing the responsibility to developers sounds like a cop-out, there is a point here. HTML standardization and browser development has proven to be slow. At times, it has been slow enough to look like had stalled totally. Plug-ins are one of the forces that push the web ahead and feed the standardization.

image_thumb2[1] Usually a key article in the debate is HTML 5’s ability to embed video without a plug-in. A worthy addition, and one that might well render plug-ins obsolete in that segment. The combination of SVG and the HTML 5 canvas element is another valid stab at removing the need for plug-ins – things like animated charts may well be powered by the pure browser in the future.

But make note of the future tense. HTML 5 isn’t here, and it’s not even close. Elements of it are slowly becoming useful in large-scale web development, but don’t hold your breath. Five years passes quickly. Of course, Microsoft has a hand to play in the game – but at least for now, it seems they are taking the HTML 5 train seriously, if a bit slowly.

Standardization isn’t the first evolutionary step

imageAdobe Flash brought us lots of pain, but it also brought us totally new ideas on how to use the web. It brought us the first wave of technology necessary to address these needs. The lessons from Flash projects, but also its object model, documentation, deployment and developer tools have helped shape HTML 5. They have also helped shape Silverlight, which is a next-generation web UI plug-in technology.

Driving new ideas cannot happen at the rate HTML is evolving. Browser adoption and upgrade rate is far too slow to support pushing out new ideas in HTML. Innovation is not only inventing tag names and DOM, it is also an exercise in identifying customer needs, web trends and whatnot. Feedback cycles must be more rapid, and the current technology of embedding HTML engines deep within browsers is a major problem – and definitely one that Microsoft products have contributed to.

Were Silverlight just a copy of Flash, its use would be detrimental to the web. It would only splinter web developers and cause more headaches in the form of additional plug-ins.

But Silverlight also addresses issues overlooked by Flash and the HTML 5 stack. Full-fidelity client/server object model, richer language support, DRM, 3D and Deep Zoom are all features in which Silverlight has been an important experimentation ground, and will serve as a valuable guideline on what works and what does not. Perhaps some of that work will eventually get rolled into a hypothetical HTML 6 or get discarded as an epic failure, but nonetheless, it adds to our experience pool.

Was it worth it?

Making something pretty isn’t always easy to justify. Sure, Bing Maps would be more broadly compatible if it was based on AJAX. Many Flash apps would be far more accessible, were they powered by standard HTML forms. And yeah, banners are less annoying when implemented with good old-fashioned GIF files.

image But then again, people scoff at Nethack because its visuals suck. The same people cheer at great looking demos in conferences. Many dissed the idea of engineering a Windows 7 boot logo as vain, but many of my friends go “Wow” when they see the glow animation for the first time.

imageThere is a point in aesthetics. There is a point in more productive programmability. HTML 5 is great, but it’s a codification process. That’s what W3C is best at. HTML 5 is not so much of an innovation push, but an effort to bring many new things back to a normalized, stable state again. And that’s great, because that’s just what we need – but not at the cost of stalling the development of the next wave. Silverlight 4, Flash 11 and whatever are welcome, as long as they aim at pushing the envelope, not just grabbing market share.

But we as developers have a responsibility to choose right. When we push a simple image slideshow out in Flash or Silverlight, are we really using each technology to their best? Would an AJAX-based solution be a more forward-looking solution?

We must be very conscious on what we choose. Silverlight is an accessibility issue, it has a negative impact on searchability and it definitely sucks on mobile platforms. At the other end of the spectrum, a roller coaster is dramatically inaccessible to some, yet it does provide much value to the society. What is the justification for the existence of a roller coaster? Can a similar argument be made for proper uses of Silverlight?

Perhaps Microsoft did limit its audience by introducing a technology dependency the world isn’t ready for. On the other hand, their late efforts with Silverlight may well push us to expect and benefit from a new level of UI on the web. The future will call the judgment, both on Bing Maps and Silverlight.

December 3, 2009 · Jouni Heikniemi · 2 Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Web

2 Responses

  1. Kim Lautner - February 18, 2010

    I use both Bing and Google search engine and i dont see much difference in their search results. I use google for searching hard to find academic topics and Bing for general search.

  2. Layla Collins - April 28, 2010

    I use Bing and Google whenever i want to find something on the internet. I think that both search engines are very good. :

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