Whither (or should that be wither?) WPF?

18 March 2009

Scott Guthrie's big keynote of MIX09 has just ended and we're left with the aftershocks of some pretty exciting news. The Silverlight 3 beta was released (along with the SDK, and other goodies) and Scott took us on a whirlwind tour of what's new and what's coming up with it.

Old and new mice The shocker to me was the GPU hardware accelerated support for Silverlight 3. In the browser! I'll let you ruminate on that a little while to let it sink in. Furthermore there's 3D support as well, and Silverlight exposes all this to the media features to enable better, higher definition, video. That may have been the impetus for it, but it's also very much available for lowly business apps too. To prove it Scott showed off some of the 3D effects on a normal datagrid app. (Live update from MIX09: ah, not quite 3D but essentially perspective transformations; Perspective 3D, if I got the term right.)

And then another shocker: Silverlight running outside the browser as a desktop app, either on Windows or the Mac. Absolutely fascinating in my book, given our own experiments in that area. Some nice demos of Silverlight in Blend were shown off as well.

So what do we have? Silverlight 3 reaching outside the sandbox to use hardware graphics acceleration and 3D for video, and Silverlight 3 running as a desktop app. Oh, and, it's cross-platform.

But... What's WPF used for again? What's the value proposition for WPF? Why should anyone even begin a new WPF business app now, when they can spend the time creating the same app in Silverlight, running in the browser and on the desktop (several desktops)? The only thing I can come up with at the moment is that WPF has a richer run-time. And, um, well, that's it. Someone is whispering over IM that it has a better data access story as well, but I can't imagine that's going to be a differentiator for very long. (Live update from MIX09: seems there's a new Data Access layer for Silverlight 3 based on Entity Framework, so I was frighteningly right.)

Look, it seems clear to me that Silverlight is getting all the love (branding, promotion, what have you) from Microsoft at the moment for one very good reason: Adobe. Which browser media/RIA add-in is almost ubiquitous these days? Adobe Flash. What are Microsoft concentrating a lot of effort on? Silverlight, the competitor to Flash. Hmm.

Want to write an RIA? There's a plethora of different ways to do it, but the one I see most often these days is Adobe Flex and, er, Flash again. But, man, you have to learn ActionScript. Oh, and here's Silverlight using C# and VB. No competition. Want some controls? The Silverlight Control Toolkit on Codeplex will do you fine (100+ controls!, says Scott) and you can always pay vendors like ourselves to get controls with richer, deeper functionality.

All of this is to mass web developers against the current norm for media over the 'net and RIAs. Nothing against it, mind: out of such competition we all get better software and features. But let's not kid ourselves, Silverlight is in a fight against Flash for the mindshare of media/RIA developers, but I'm seeing WPF as collateral damage.

And I look at our roadmaps for this year and I wonder.

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