Scott Guthrie, Silverlight, and the Enthusiasm of the Microsoft Community

Over on, O’Reilly windows editor John Osborn did a nice wrapup of his experience at Mix 07.

There were two things that were particularly interesting in John’s report. The first was the way he described the enthusiasm of the crowd for Scott Guthrie, who has been leading Microsoft’s web tools initiatives since he and Mark Anders first cooked up ASP.Net as a skunkworks project:

…for me, the memory that stands out is a human one: the near standing ovation the 4000 conference attendees gave Scott Guthrie, General Manager of the group responsible for ASP.NET 2.0, ASP.NET AJAX, and now Silverlight, when he walked onstage at the Monday keynote to take the audience through the major announcements of the day.scottkeynote.jpg

Over the past few years, Scott has emerged as one of the most prolific and accessible of Microsoft’s bloggers, even as his responsibilities have increased. Like many of my peers, I often find myself going first to his site for a concise technical synopsis whenever a major announcement is made. You could sense a genuine warmth in the applause (and cheers, even) which took several moments to abate. What did it mean ? It struck me as both an appreciation for Scott as a person and for the steady stream of new frameworks and tools the UI Frameworks and Tools team he leads has released to the Microsoft developer community as the web has evolved.

A lot of people in the open source community don’t realize that Microsoft has its own superstars, its own popular heroes, people who are known and idolized by their community, just like Linus Torvalds, or Larry Wall, or David Heinemeier Hansson are by the Linux, Perl, or Ruby on Rails customer base. I’ve been struck by this whenever I’ve attended Microsoft events. John nicely gets across this enthusiasm, this personal relationship with the developer, in his post. It’s important for open source enthusiasts to recognize that the same dynamics occur in other technical communities. And I second John’s assessment: Scott really is an amazing developer and communicator.

The other thing that was really interesting was just how strategic a release Silverlight appears to be for Microsoft. John wrote:

The real star of MIX 07, of course, is the Silverlight 1.1 Alpha (formerly known as “Codename WPF/E”), a new version of Microsoft’s cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in for delivering so-called Rich
Internet Applications (RIA). Think of it as a new development platform, one that happens — by design — to play well with the HTML DOM, with JavaScript, and with the backend server of your choice, preferably ASP.NET, but also PHP or even Rails….

The Silverlight CLR weighs in at roughly 4 Mb and installs on first download in less than 30 seconds. The execution environment is very fast, beating JavaScript handily, while providing functionality that’s just not possible without a runtime like .NET. This amazing, shrinking CLR was achieved by leaving some things out (like COM), by extreme refactoring (like reducing the color enumeration from hundreds to six or nine) and by assigning space budgets to the various feature teams. The goal is to keep the size below its current 4 Mb, but if future applications need more, Silverlight will allow them “pay for play”, enabling them to add types to the framework as required. Silverlight, says Guthrie, will allow “friction-free” deployment of .NET.

The RIA game really is heating up. Macromedia (now Adobe) started evangelizing this idea a long time ago, but it was Ajax that made it on the tip of every industry strategist’s tongue. It’s going to be very interesting to watch whether Silverlight and Sun’s JavaFX make headway against Flash and Ajax in this space, or whether it’s already game over.

A key part of the story of course is cross-platform appeal, especially on phones and other portable devices. Flash and Java already have the cross-platform story down, but Sun is way behind on easy development tools for designers. Microsoft tends to be siloed as to platform (Microsoft only) but they have great dev tools. If they can get adoption on Mac and Linux machines, and on non-Microsoft phones, this could be a very interesting horse race.