Gates Calls AJAX 'Very Complex,' Touts Silverlight as an Alternative

During a Strategic Account Summit meeting in Seattle for investors and analysts yesterday, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates downplayed the role of Asynchronous JavaScript (AJAX) technologies in future Web development. Gates said this immediately following a demonstration of Silverlight created for Major League Baseball, one of whose principal virtues is that its back end is written entirely in C#, to run within the .NET Compact Framework.

"Over the last three or four years, people have been really finding the limitations of HTML to be very problematic," Gates told the audience, according to Microsoft's official transcript, "and they've been trying some browser capabilities that we had really going back over five years with Internet Explorer 4.0. But even though so-called AJAX-type technologies have forced very complex development, and they don't integrate into the traditional HTML very well. They've been experimenting with things that you download that let you do more interactivity and media."

Gates' statement coincides with last week's comments from his chief architect, Ray Ozzie, which also detach Silverlight from its technological bindings with AJAX. Together, they make absolutely clear their company's marketing strategy: to entice Web developers to adopt two classes of technologies with which they may not yet be familiar. Specifically, they are Windows Communication Foundation, which supports the OASIS WS-* Web services model upon which non-browser-dependant applications will depend; and applications development languages like C#, with their static typing and rigid, object-oriented rules.

For Microsoft's marketing plan to work, Web developers will have to buy into the message that they can accomplish more in the interactivity department using C# as an application platform, then using Microsoft's own ASP.NET AJAX and HTML.

But since Silverlight is based on the company's former WPF/E technology, which exposes services to AJAX as a .NET language just as easily as it does to C# as a .NET language, it may take more than a flashy, interactive baseball diamond for Microsoft to make a successful pitch.

As BetaNews has noted previously, all eight public demos of Silverlight applications on Microsoft's Web site are built on ASP.NET AJAX. Of course, some might argue that since those demos were designed to be accessible to visitors to Microsoft's Web site via a browser, AJAX was the better choice...maybe.

On the other hand, some developers might argue that since users will be connecting to Web sites first, and Web applications second, a more browser-oriented language like AJAX may be preferable to a rigidly-typed language like C#, designed for stand-alone applications.

As Microsoft's own developers are demonstrating, Silverlight applications using AJAX may be just as functional and "immersive" from the user's perspective as those written in stand-alone languages.

But Microsoft's incentives behind the "good/better/best" approach to Silverlight marketing may include a need to attract partners whose interests are to develop services that appear to stand alone from typical browser-based Web apps.

During a demonstration yesterday of the MLB application, Microsoft's technical product manager Brian Goldfarb described his company's new partner like this: "Major League Baseball has made a huge business of online access to content and games. Their player is an extension of their league, of their brand, and of their experience. And it has evolved dramatically over time. They're particularly interested in Silverlight because it can create an incredibly immersive experience that will capture their users' eyeballs for longer."

This won't be the first case of Microsoft struggling with locating the best point at which to split hairs, especially when making simultaneous appeals to "developers, developers, developers" and marketing partners. It's a legitimate market battle this time around, with Microsoft contending against Adobe and Sun in a field where it may not even be the #2 player, and where it's working to obtain something it hasn't had to wrest for itself in several years: a toehold.

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