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Microsoft Silverlight is/was a browser plug-in released in 2007 and used for writing and running rich Internet applications, such as streaming media, multimedia, animation, and so on. It is similar to other applications such as Adobe Flash, though it was associated with a variety of user issues and never took off in popularity as much as Flash did.

Silverlight was deprecated by Microsoft in 2012 and gradually lost support from browsers in the following years, leading us all to press F. But what is the full story of Microsoft Silverlight and its downfall?

Release and Subsequent Adoption

Initial Release and Perceptions

Silverlight was initially released on September 5, 2007 and (understandably) drew comparisons with web-based plug-ins with similar functions, such as Flash, Java, Quicktime, and so on.

Despite this, some people were very optimistic and excited about Microsoft Silverlight and billed it something more than a competitor. It was particularly lauded by some for its potential applications for web developers. One of the key highlighted differences was the Microsoft opened up APIs under liberal licensing terms so they were available for developers to view and use to build other applications.

Silverlight applications were written in a text-based markup language that made it easier for search engines to find them, whereas Flash applications could not be found unless wrapped in crawlable code, which meant for work for developers.

Microsoft could also choose to host Silverlight media files, which would take the financial and infrastructural burden of hosting large files off of developers.

Supported Platforms

Silverlight was available for both Windows and Mac OSs and could be used with most major browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc.). Between its release and 2012, five version of Silverlight were released, with version 5 coming out May 8, 2012. These versions all varied in terms of platform compatibility and support.

A free software implementation called Moonlight was developed by Novell in order to create support of Silverlight versions 1 and 2 for Linux and FreeBSD, but the project continually lagged behind the Windows and Mac versions and was eventually discontinued and abandoned in 2012 due to lack of popularity.

Adoption and Discard

In the years after its release, Silverlight was somewhat widely adopted, but not to the same degree as Adobe Flash or Java. Statistics from Wikipedia:

According to statowl.com, Microsoft Silverlight had a penetration of 64.2% in May 2011. Usage on July 2010 was 53.6%, whereas as of May 2011 market leader Adobe Flash was installed on 95.3% of browsers, and Java was supported on 76.5% of browsers. Support of these plugins is not mutually exclusive; one system can support all three. Not all Web sites require a browser plugin.

Silverlight was adopted by several major players, such as Amazon Video, Netflix, the 2008 and 2010 Olympic games and so on.

By 2011, it was evident to many professionals that Silverlight was already on its way out, and Microsoft officially announced that the application would be deprecated in 2012 and that Windows 8 would use HTML5 instead, as the new standard allowed media to be embedded and played without use of a plug-in. Some of Silverlight’s major partners, such as its last major supporter, Netflix, also switched over to HTML5 shortly thereafter.

Chrome was the first major browser to completely lose support for Silverlight. As of December 21, 2015, Chrome version 45 was incompatible with the program and past versions required ghetto hacks to work around errors. Between 2015 to 2017, all major browsers phased out support for Silverlight, save for certain versions of Internet Explorer (if you consider IE a major browser).

What Went Wrong?

Silverlight Never Had a Chance to Grow

Silverlight v.1 debuted with some bugs, and although subsequent versions and updates fixed some of these, the platform as a whole was never quite ironed out and it was still common for Netflix users to experience Silverlight crashes by 2014.

Whereas platforms like Flash and Java were mature and stable platforms that were familiar to the general public, many people were never completely sold on Silverlight. Although Silverlight was designed with developer tools at the forefront, some developers were worried about Silverlight’s lower degree of adoption as compared to rival platforms.

Because they wanted their products to be accessible to as many people as possible, it made more sense to create them using the applications that people were already using, thus creating a downward spiral for Silverlight. It’s kind of like how no one wanted to leave Facebook for Google+ because “no one uses Google+.”

Another flaw of Silverlight was that it never got a functional plug-in for the Windows Phone or Windows Mobile versions of Internet Explorer, despite the fact that it was one of two application development platforms for Windows Phone.

Questionable Management?

Silverlight may have also suffered from some internal issues, as the product manager, Scott Barnes, has spoken of several times. In a blog post, Barnes went into excruciating and somewhat nonsensical detail about his time working on Silverlight and its downfall.  

In 2011, Barnes was already very vocal about the foreshadowed abandonment of Silverlight, saying that abandoning the platform in Windows 8 in favor of HTML5 would be a mistake, and that everyone seemed to be under Microsoft “mindcontrol.”

Regardless of who was at fault, there seems to have been a great deal of friction between Barnes and Microsoft, which undoubtedly hurt the project and may have hastened its shutdown.

The Decline of Web-Based Media Plug-Ins

Aside from any personal issues that Microsoft Silverlight had, its demise was also caused by the advent of HTML5. Before HTML5, rich media could only be played through plug-ins like Flash or Silverlight, but the new HTML standard made it easy to embed videos with a brand new <video tag>.

With HTML5, plug-ins like Silverlight were superfluous and the more popular ones have declined in usage as well. From Wikipedia:

As of February 2018, fewer than 0.1% sites used Silverlight, 5.3% used Adobe Flash, and 2.4% used Java.

RIP

Although the application’s other issues may have hastened its demise, Silverlight’s fall was all but inevitable with the rest of the media plug-in extended family. Even Adobe Flash, previously top dog, has been ushered out due to the security benefits and improved convenience of HTML5. Adobe Flash was rebranded as Adobe Animate in 2015 and announced as discontinued in 2017. The end of its life is scheduled for 2020.

Is Silverlight still Alive and Kicking?

No One’s Ever Really Gone

Today, Silverlight is essentially dead, but despite everything somehow clings to life…

As you can see, Silverlight 5 is still available for download with the most recent update having been released surprisingly recently, on January 15, 2019. You will however, have trouble running it on most OS/browser combos. It should still work if you’re running IE v.11 on Windows 10.

What If I Need to Use Silverlight for Some God-Forsaken Reason?

Supposedly some random businesses/sites (such as Dayforce, whatever that is) still require a Silverlight plug-in to use some features, even though the application is 99%. If you’re running a macOS, good luck accessing anything that requires a Silverlight plug-in.

If you’re desperate, apparently this workaround can be used to run Internet Explorer v. 11 on a Mac, or you can install this random SeaMonkey browser on your computer which I guess has a working Silverlight plug-in as well.

Aside from that, Silverlight is dead for all intents and purposes (RIP) and only 0.1% of people will ever need to use it. It looks like support will officially end in 2021.

A Moment of Silence

So let us take a moment of silence for Microsoft Silverlight, and its noble compatriots Adobe Flash, Java, and even poor, sweet Quicktime. Those plug-ins allowed us to waste tons of time back in 2007 when we are all still young scrubs. You won’t be missed (due to the superiority of HTML5) but you will, at the very least, be remembered.

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