Microsoft and HTML 5: Solving the Compatibility Problem

At the Professional Developers Conference 2010 (PDC10) last week, a Microsoft executive misspoke, or at least over-generalized, regarding the software giant's plans for HTML 5 and Silverlight, kicking off an online debate about the viability of the respective technologies and a hasty public statement on Microsoft's corporate website. But this episode underscores a much deeper problem around compatibility that is going to dog businesses of all sizes for years to come—a situation that will only be exacerbated by the popularity of heterogeneous smartphone platforms.

What started all this was a set of comments by Microsoft Server and Tools President Bob Muglia about Microsoft's strategy for Silverlight. "HTML is the only true cross-platform solution for everything, including \\[Apple's\\] iOS platform," he said. "Our Silverlight strategy and focus going forward has shifted ... Silverlight is our development platform for Windows Phone."

This seems straightforward enough. But with developers up in arms over the possibility that Microsoft was deemphasizing Silverlight on the PC and on the web, the software giant was doing some backpedaling early this week. "Silverlight is very important and strategic to Microsoft," Muglia wrote in a statement on the Silverlight team blog. "\\[It's\\] a core application development platform for Windows, and it's the development platform for Windows Phone."

I have to be honest: That revised statement is more in keeping with my understanding about Microsoft's plans for Silverlight. And if you really care about Silverlight, please do read the whole open letter

This specific topic isn't of particular interest to me, however. Most businesses are never going to embrace Silverlight, at least not on Windows or the web. Heck, many businesses still haven't moved off of Internet Explorer 6. Silverlight isn't even on the menu. It may never be.

What I am interested in is how we solve the compatibility problems that have arisen in the wake of the platform diversification that has been sweeping IT. And this is across the board: On servers, on the desktop, and now on mobile devices.

Embracing Disparate Platforms

While the server is unique and perhaps outside the bounds of this discussion, the client desktop and mobile devices come with arguably identical issues around compatibility. But unlike in the past, these issues are no longer insurmountable, or at least don't have to be. And the solution, in both cases, is HTML 5. And the driver, in both cases, is user demand.

The latter is perhaps easier to explain. Whereas it was inconceivable that many users in a typical business would be able to choose a Mac over a PC, that's no longer the case. Thanks to steady and regular market share gains, the Mac now has an appreciable share of the market, especially in the US, where Apple has exceeded 10 percent market share.


The demand for Macs comes largely from the demand for iPhones, which is in turn even more voluminous. A good experience with the iPhone leads to evangelism with other users, and also to repeated trips to the Apple basket, with more and more users considering and purchasing other Apple products, including Macs, iPads, and iPods. It is, as Apple recently noted, a virtuous cycle.

Android has benefitted from a similar popular demand on the mobile device side, and with Google's platform, users also have more choice, both with hardware models and with wireless carriers. Android and iPhone smartphones (and, to a lesser extent, Macs) are recasting the possibilities for knowledge workers, and not just those that are always on the go.

The Future Is Web-Based Applications

The problem with these disparate platforms, at least theoretically , is compatibility. This was a bigger issue in the past than it is now, however. As Google noted at its Google I/O conference earlier this year, no major new PC-specific applications have appeared in the past several years. Instead, all the major new apps have been web based, and run equally well on standards-based browsers on any desktop OS, including Windows, the Mac, and even Linux.

And while some Windows-centric shops are still building Windows-based applications, many intranets and extranets are completely web-based, and if they're not, they should be. Embracing web standards can eliminate a lot of problems, and for those few remaining monolithic desktop apps like Microsoft Office, heck, there's a good version for the Mac too.

And when it comes to web standards, the industry is rallying around something called HTML 5, which is really HTML 5 plus a host of related technologies, including in-progress versions of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), the JavaScript/ECMAScript programming language, and more. HTML 5 is more promise than reality—right now—but even Microsoft is embracing it, the company's predictable backpedaling on Silverlight notwithstanding. It's pretty clear that the changes we're seeing in Internet Explorer 9 are only the beginning: I expect this trend to accelerate in Windows 8, due just 18 months from now.

On the mobile side, HTML 5 is a bit more future-leaning, but could, I think, bridge the gap between disparate and incompatible platforms like the iPhone, Android, and, soon, Windows Phone, just as it is on the desktop. Today, these smartphones all run different OSs with incompatible apps. But if developers create mobile web solutions instead of native apps, as they have on the desktop, this problem can be erased where possible. In many cases, there won't be any need to develop three completely different apps in different environments, and with different languages. Instead, they can create a single web app.

Microsoft is wise to restate its goals for Silverlight. But make no mistake: The software giant is embracing HTML 5 as its path to the future. You should as well.

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