Could Silverlight Solve Microsoft's Mobile Troubles?

Several sources told this week that they expect Microsoft to make Silverlight 4 the platform for building native applications in Windows Mobile 7 and future generations of Windows Phones.

Such a move wouldn't be unexpected: Windows Mobile 6.5 is based on the Windows CE 5.2 kernel, which is the same version that powered Windows Mobile 5 when Microsoft launched it in 2004. Microsoft was expected to launch Silverlight For Mobile last year, but that has yet to come to pass. Partners have long clamored for Microsoft to support Silverlight in Windows Mobile because they believe the flexibility this would give them translates into easier application development.

"We need to have .Net available to developers in order to compete more effectively, and Silverlight is the key to taking back the application platform for mobile," said one source, who requested anonymity.

Silverlight, which is based on .Net, could enable developers to reuse the code they create for desktop applications to build applications for mobile devices and the Web. Silverlight development is also moving much more rapidly than Windows Mobile: Microsoft launched Silverlight 3 last July and released the beta for Silverlight 4 just four months later.

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"Being able to easily develop mobile applications using Web technology would be a huge advantage over what we see now with the iPhone or Android SDKs and native application development," said Dave Meeker, director of emerging media at Roundarch, a Chicago-based Web development firm that works extensively with Silverlight.

Asked to comment on whether Silverlight 4 will be the platform for Windows Mobile app development, a Microsoft spokesperson offered the following statement:

"As we've said in the past, Silverlight will support future versions of Windows Phone -- however, we have nothing new to announce," the spokesperson said in an email.

In recent months, Microsoft officials have studiously avoided mentioning Windows Mobile 7 by name. This was seen earlier this month when Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices division, deftly avoided mentioning Windows Mobile 7 while responding in vague terms to a series of pointed Windows Mobile related questions in a meeting with financial analysts.

However, Microsoft recently began dropping hints about Windows Mobile related news that's on tap at the Mobile World Congress in February and the MIX10 conference in March. "Yes, at MIX10 you'll learn about developing applications and games for the next generation of Windows Phone. Yes, we'll have Phone sessions, and we can't say more yet," Microsoft said in a coquettishly worded blog post earlier this week.

While most partners would welcome Silverlight as a mobile application platform, the prevailing view is that while Silverlight has the potential to make Windows Mobile 7 competitive, it shouldn't be viewed as a magic bullet for all that ails Microsoft's Windows Mobile business.

"There also has to be innovation, simplicity and an 'it just works"' level of reliability for it to have a good chance at success," says Andrew Brust, chief of new technology for twentysix New York, a Microsoft partner in New York City.

Ken Winell, CEO of ExpertCollab, a SharePoint-focused solution provider in Florham Park, N.J., believes Silverlight could help stop the slip in market share that Microsoft has been seeing with Windows Mobile. "Silverlight and all it has to offer would be a competitive advantage," he said.

But even with Silverlight in its mobile arsenal, Microsoft will have a tough time catching up with the likes of Apple and Google, which have built up momentum by offering fertile, simple platforms for application development. According to partners, Microsoft needs to focus on winning some smaller battles before it can expect to start winning mobile wars.

"Microsoft is the absolute underdog here," said Brust. "Only a contrarian would predict a win for them. But they've come through such challenges before."