Silverlight Trials and Tribulations

silverlightwarning Regular readers of this blog will know that my background is primarily in the Microsoft development world, with the odd foray into Java (and more recently, experiments with Ruby and Processing). So when Microsoft announces some new tool or framework, I'll pay attention and see what's up.

Right now, there's a good deal of hype and excitement around Silverlight... which sounds great to me in theory, but in practice has been largely a disappointment.

And I saw that as a user, not a developer. I can't even think about using it for development at this point because, frankly... it simply doesn't run for me as a casual web user.

Rich Ziade nails some of the issues in his post from Friday, called "Microsoft-Centered Design":

So I'm perusing the various blog posts that have streamed out of the MIX 08 conference and some interesting talks are available online. So I head on over to the MIX 08 site to view some sessions and I run into this:  [image of the "You need Silverlight" placeholder] ..  Yep, I need to download Real Player, I mean Silverlight to watch these videos. Silverlight, for the less enlightened, is Microsoft's foray into streaming video, rich media and rich apps on the Web (aka Microsoft's Flash).

I agree with Rich's premise that Silverlight apps (or at least the demos we've seen so far) don't really provide much reason to use it over Flash -- a time-tested, well-supported platform for rich web apps.

But I find the problem with Silverlight to go even deeper:  For me, it simply doesn't work.

I use Firefox as my browser... and despite lots of examples and statements about Silverlight being not only cross-browser, but also cross-platform, I can't get it to run in Firefox. On any machine I've tried. To date, that's five machines. All of them are running similar setups:

  • The most recent production version of Firefox (currently 2.0.0.12), with extensions:
  • del.icio.us Bookmarks (for quick access to my bookmarks)
  • Firebug (for debugging and development)
  • Flashblock  (to block Flash content from loading until/unless I want to see it)
  • Google Toolbar  (because... well... because it's the Google toolbar)
  • Remember the Milk for Gmail   (because seeing my tasks right next to email rocks)
  • Tab Mix Plus  (because I want to choose how/when/where new tabs are opened in Firefox)
  • IE Tab (see below)

Note that what I'm NOT running is the NoScript extension, which reportedly causes problems for Silverlight in Firefox.

I can't tell you how many times on these machines I've gone to download the various versions of Silverlight and see if maybe... just maybe... THIS TIME will be different. So far, no joy.

silverlightsave The issue isn't made any easier by the various versions floating around... Silverlight 1.0, Silverlight 1.1 Alpha, some sort of refresh/CTP version for 1.1, and now Silverlight 2.0 as of Mix08. This thing's been around for just a year now and there are already more SKUs of Silverlight than there are of Windows XP.

Of course, things do appear to work fine in IE7. But I don't want to run IE7 as my browser. I've got Firefox and its extensions tweaked to be exactly the way I like it.

The only way I'm able to get Silverlight content to run inside of a Firefox window currently is via the "IE Tab" extension -- which loads the IE rendering engine inside of a Firefox tab. In doing that, though, I lose the integration with the rest of Firefox. And it's only cosmetically different from having two browsers open to begin with. I don't want that.

I would like this to work. I really would. So far, it seems that the newer Silverlight 2.0 will run inside of Firefox -- however, the vast majority of the Silverlight content out there (which, as Rich points out, could be provided in Flash without losing any functionality) is NOT targeting Silverlight 2.0. It seems to mostly be in 1.0 or 1.1.

So until Microsoft gets this working correctly in Firefox, I find myself having to make a decision every time I come across that drives-me-up-a-wall "Get Microsoft Silverlight" badge -- do I really care enough about this content to deal with the frustration and go outside my normal workflow to view it?

More often than not, the answer is "no," which is a shame because there are some interesting videos out there in Silverlight format (the screenshot above is from Jon Udell's Perspectives video audio interview on MS Robotics).

As a developer, the notion of using XAML to build applications that can be run via Silverlight as well as via a WPF rich client sounds really cool. But how can I get excited about a new developer platform that's completely broken for me as a user?

Update: In the comments, Jon Udell clarified that the Perspectives link above is audio and not video and I've since downloaded the MP3 version. The "Get Silverlight" badge made it look like a video to me and seeing that badge repeatedly without being able to get it working in Firefox prompted the post. Thanks, Jon!