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Friday, October 29, 2010, 03:00 pm PT (06:00 pm ET)

Apple's iOS pushes Microsoft to dial down Silverlight for HTML5

While Apple's success with its mobile iOS platform is credited with invoking the proliferation of HTML5 video at the expense of Adobe's Flash, it's also causing a major shift in strategy for Microsoft's Silverlight.

At its Professional Developers Conference this week, Microsoft scaled back its plans for Silverlight, instead refocusing upon HTML5 as the platform for dynamic content on the web. It specifically cited Apple's iOS as a core reason for doing so.

The original Flash-killer

Like Flash, Silverlight was originally aimed at delivering a cross-platform method for delivering dynamic, interactive content and video, particularly (but not exclusively) on the web. Since that's what Flash was already doing, Microsoft targeted Flash for replacement with Silverlight.

Four years ago, Microsoft removed Flash from default installation on new PCs starting with Windows Vista, and lined up a series of partners who delivered videos exclusively in the new Silverlight format, initially using Microsoft's own WMA 9 video format.

Back in 2007, the threat of Microsoft using its monopoly position with Windows to crush Flash was great enough for California and several other states to seek a five year extension of the terms of Microsoft's antitrust settlement so as to prevent the company from using Windows to "tilt the playing field" in favor of Silverlight and against Flash.

While the tech media didn't report Microsoft's assault on Flash with nearly as much gusto as their provocative assault on Apple for backing web standards over either company's plugin, proprietary development platform, it was web standards (and Apple's support for them) that won out in the end.

Apple leverages iPhone sales to marginalize proprietary plugin threats

Some fuss was made in 2007 over the fact that Apple's iPhone didn't run Flash, but nobody observed that the iPhone also failed to run Silverlight. In reality, neither Flash nor Silverlight were capable of running on a mobile device at the time; Adobe didn't ship a functional mobile beta of the full Flash until this year, and Microsoft has similarly just delivered its first mobile version of Silverlight in Windows Phone 7.

Over the last four years, sales of the iPhone, iPod touch and most recently the iPad have positioned Apple's iOS as the most attractive mobile platform to reach. According to NetApplications, iOS is the third largest platform (in terms of web use) behind Windows and the Mac, ahead of JavaME and Linux, and larger than Symbian, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, BREW, PlayStation and Wii combined.

Apple's mobile platform isn't "another platform to reach," it's the mobile platform to reach. This realization caused Adobe much grief earlier this year when it finally sank in that there was no straightforward way to get Flash-developed content to play on iOS devices like the iPad. Adobe has since rolled out demonstrations of tools designed to create HTML5 animations.

Desperately seeks standards

Microsoft has similarly backed down from its initial efforts to tie dynamic content to the proprietary Windows development tools within Silverlight. In 2008, Microsoft added support for H.264 video in addition to its own WMV 9, in large part due to the shift Apple had achieved in pushing widespread adoption of MPEG standards in iTunes and with the iPod.

With the continuing success of the iPhone and iPod touch, and particularly with launch of the iPad, Apple has done for HTML5 what it did with H.264 video and AAC audio before it: cultivated a huge demand for standards-based content on a popular device that's simply unable to play other, proprietary formats.

Microsoft earlier attempted to force adoption of its Windows Media Audio and Windows Media Video codecs in competition with the iPod, first with PlaysForSure and later with the Zune. However, its failure to even establish a beachhead in the war on Apple's iPod likely played a part in Microsoft's current decision to dial down the role of Silverlight and instead focus on HTML5 as the way to deliver dynamic web content.

Bob Muglia, president of Microsoft's Servers and Tools Division, told ZDNet's Mary-Jo Foley that, while Silverlight has some “sweet spots” in media and line-of-business applications, it's now seen primarily as the application platform for Windows Phone.

That positions Silverlight as being the "Cocoa Touch" of WP7, rather than a cross platform killer of Flash on the web.

Noting that "our [Silverlight] strategy has shifted," Muglia explained, "HTML is the only true cross platform solution for everything, including [Apple’s] iOS platform."

Microsoft's chief of engineering on Internet Explorer, Dean Hachamovitch, had earlier introduced the company's development conference, commenting in his keynote address, "HTML5 enables you to make engaging and interactive sites. With full hardware acceleration of the browser, HTML5 pages feel and run like an app or a game.”

And, most importantly, they can run on Apple's iOS.