Can Silverlight save Windows Mobile from plummeting sales?

Microsoft Silverlight logoWindows Mobile is steadily losing market share as consumers look to more frequently updated devices with a larger availability of apps. Despite the launch of Windows Marketplace for Mobile with 246 apps, and the opening of the store to Windows Mobile 6.x devices, developers don't seem as interested as Microsoft would hope. The company is hoping to reverse all the negative trends with the release of Windows Mobile 7, the upcoming version of its mobile OS that has seen multiple delays.

Microsoft is working hard to make Silverlight an important platform for building native applications in Windows Mobile 7 and on future generations of Windows Phones. We already knew that Silverlight for Mobile would arrive with Windows Mobile 7, the release date for which many expect will be announced at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona this month. But how much emphasis Microsoft will put on the technology in its mobile OS is yet to be determined. One thing is certain though: the company is going to try to use Silverlight as a way to kick start mobile development on Windows Mobile 7, hopefully giving it enough momentum to push both technologies forward.

From the little that we've seen Silverlight used, we have to say it's very powerful. Some may think it's too resource-intensive for the mobile world, at least in its current form, and we would have to agree. That said though, if Adobe can bring Flash to just about every platform but the iPhone, then we think Microsoft can pull off the same with Silverlight. It won't be easy—at least one major delay has proven that. The first community technology preview for Windows Mobile 6 was originally expected in the second quarter of 2008, but the whole project was pushed back to coincide with the release of Windows Mobile 7. Microsoft has no plans (that we know of) to bring Silverlight to Windows Mobile 6.x.

Microsoft hasn't said much recently about when Silverlight for Mobile will be released, as evidenced by a FAQ entry touting a "final version" in 2009. When that entry was originally posted, Silverlight for Mobile was to support Silverlight 2 content and .NET languages. It's quite possible that Microsoft is now working on porting some part of Silverlight 3 or even Silverlight 4, which went into beta two months ago, to the mobile world.

We're not the only ones surprised with the delay of Silverlight for Mobile. "The original promise of Silverlight was a unified RIA platform that worked on both desktop and mobile computers—recall that it was originally codenamed Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/E) way back when it was introduced at the 2005 PDC," Matt Rosoff, Research VP at Directions on Microsoft, told Ars. "I'm actually stunned that will have taken almost five years to get it implemented in Windows Mobile."

The only official word we could get out of Redmond was that development has not halted. "Microsoft is in the process of developing Silverlight for mobile, which will allow developers to optimize Silverlight applications for mobile form factors or run existing Silverlight applications on mobile phones," a Microsoft spokesperson told Ars. "At this time, Silverlight for mobile is currently under development, and we haven't announced any further details around availability at this time."

That sounds suspiciously similar to the statements we get back from the company whenever we ask about Windows Mobile 7, so we're not surprised the two products are closely tied together.

How closely tied together?

Silverlight in Windows Mobile would make it easier for Microsoft partners to develop applications because so many of them are already using .NET. Silverlight for Mobile will let developers reuse their existing .NET desktop code, content, and skills. Furthermore, it would be much easier to develop a single Silverlight application for the desktop (Windows, Mac OS, and Linux via Moonlight), for browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari), and for mobile (Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Symbian, and probably others). Sure, there would be some tweaking required to get said Silverlight application working on more than just one of those platforms, but it would still take a lot less effort than developing separate apps for each environment.

As a side note, Microsoft last week also posted this short message on its MIX10 website:

Yes, at MIX10 you'll learn about developing applications and games for the next generation of Windows Phone. Yes, we'll have Phone sessions, and we can't say more…yet.

The first part sounds like Silverlight to us, but since it's not explicitly mentioned, we can't take that as confirmation. Unfortunately, none of the Silverlight sessions posted on the MIX10 website mention Windows Mobile, and that's probably because there's only a Windows Phone Sessions Placeholder page right now.

Could the second part mean Silverlight for the iPhone? As much as we'd like to think so, we just can't see it happening unless Apple and Microsoft have been working on this behind closed doors. It would be a huge selling point if Microsoft could tell mobile developers that their apps for Windows Mobile 7 could easily be ported to work on the iPhone, but it's doubtful Apple would allow Silverlight on the device given that the far-more-popular Flash is unsupported. The iPhone part might simply be referring to Bing on the AppStore and how you can take advantage of it.

Another piece of the Silverlight for Mobile puzzle came to us last month when the Silverlight version of Bing Maps shed its beta status and was set as the default option (the alternative option is AJAX). Given how important mapping applications are in the mobile space, Microsoft will make sure the Silverlight for Mobile that will come included with Windows Mobile 7 will be more than capable of handling Bing Maps.

Rosoff agrees that Silverlight will play a role in Microsoft's own mobile applications. "I think it'll be most important for Microsoft's own development efforts. It could be used to enhance Office Web Apps for mobile browsers on WM7, or to enhance Windows Live/Bing sites and services for mobile browsers on the platform. I've got a lot of faith--perhaps unwarranted--that Microsoft's Windows Live story will become much clearer with Windows Mobile 7, and we'll finally begin to see the idea of instant automatic sync between clients and the cloud (using Mesh, perhaps) once that platform comes out, along with Windows Live Wave 4. I'm not sure how Silverlight will tie into that, but it seems like a quicker and easier way to create rich apps for a mobile device than the current model."

Speaking of mobile apps and browsers, it's important to take a look at the next generation of Office Mobile, as it will play a key role in Windows Mobile. Redmond has emphasized time and again that the Office Web Apps from Microsoft Office 2010 will work well across different browsers without any plugins installed, but Silverlight will play an optional role. We already know that Silverlight will be used to improve the experience of at least two Office Web apps (Word and PowerPoint). We also know that Office Web Apps will support mobile browsers, suggesting that Silverlight might play a role there, but this has not been confirmed.

As for Office Mobile 2010, which will also be available for Windows phones and non-Windows phones, Microsoft hasn't said whether it will require Silverlight. The technology is not even mentioned once in the most recent posting on the Windows Marketplace for Mobile as well via other unofficial resources. Microsoft probably wants those to work with Windows Mobile 7 and later (though some rumors have pointed to Microsoft breaking backwards compatibility with version 7, it would be a terrible thing to do).

"For third-party developers, I don't know if it'll make much difference," Rosoff told Ars. "The problem with Windows Mobile development isn't the complexity of the platform. It's the static (shrinking in terms of market share) installed base and the perception that Microsoft's mobile strategy is dead in the water and about to undergo a major platform transition. (Maybe, maybe not, but that's the perception.) As with PCs and game consoles, developers go where they have the best chance of recovering their investment, and right now that seems to be Apple."

For this reason alone, Microsoft will have a tough time getting developers interested in developing Silverlight applications for mobile. Add to that the fact that we haven't seen very many intriguing Silverlight applications for the desktop or browser. Nevertheless, Microsoft will most likely push Silverlight for Mobile as a platform for developing small lightweight Web apps, similar to the current widgets for Windows Mobile 6.5, but more intensive applications like Office Mobile won't have to be developed with Silverlight exclusively. There's a lot of hype in developing for the mobile space though, and if Microsoft can somehow redirect that into the Silverlight world, it should get mobile developers started whether they continue using Silverlight for Mobile or not, and it might just play a part in giving Windows Mobile the boost it needs. While it's too early to tell if Silverlight can save Windows Mobile, and it's unlikely that it can do so by itself, one thing is certain: Microsoft is sure as hell going to try.

Source: ars technica

Tags: Microsoft, mobile phones, Silverlight, Windows Mobile

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