Monthly Archives: December 2010

Silverlight 5: The Undisputed Champion for LOB Applications

In a previous post, I blogged about the struggles we’ve had with Silverlight that led me to consider WPF as an alternative for line of business applications. With the announcements made at today’s Silverlight Firestarter event about all the Silverlight 5 features, it seems like any incentive to make that switch to WPF has been eradicated. This post aims to take a look at some of those new features, and show how the gap is quickly closing between Silverlight 5 and WPF. Additionally, I’ll briefly dive into Silverlight’s exclusive features that ease development for LOB applications, yet are not present in WPF.

Performance!

Based on the Firestarter event, SL5 is cooking up even more improvements to the rendering pipeline that should alleviate scenarios where the visual tree gets overloaded. While exact details have yet to emerge, it seems that Silverlight will support an immediate graphics mode that will run rendering through the GPU. This was one of our largest blockers with Silverlight going forward, and it is a relief to hear that they have brought this WPF capability into the Silverlight realm.

DataBinding

If you’ve been working with Silverlight for awhile, you probably know that certain databinding scenarios can be a real pain. You probably also know that WPF has databinding facilities that solve these problems with ease. Well, the pain ends soon because Silverlight 5 now supports nearly all the features of it’s dying father, WPF.

One of my favorites is the Ancestor RelativeSource addition. As John Papa demonstrated in Firestarter today, there is a common scenario when performing bindings inside of a DataTemplate that don’t match your current DataContext. More often than not, you are forced to replicate properties/commands/collections on your child view models in order to satisfy your binding requirements, and often this can lead to redundant and confusing code. With Ancestor RelativeSource, you can find the DataContext of a parent element that is higher up in the visual tree hierarchy, and bind directly to it.

Another great feature is being able to bind to style setters. Often times there is a requirement to change visual properties of controls. But if you are trying to bind a style setter within Silverlight, it wasn’t possible without a heaping portion of hacky magic.

Finally, implicit data templates will make your annoying-converters-library much smaller. Often times when binding to a collection of dissimilar items, you are forced to use converters to get your data templates to render the intended layout. Of course, the more dissimilar your bound collection is, the more your library of one-off converters will grow. With implicit date templates, you have the option to bind to a list of different types, and let WPF dynamically determine which data template to use. This way your presentation logic can stay in xaml, and not in converter code.

Windows Integration

Another selling point for WPF is it’s ability to interactive with the windows environment from within your application, such as calling unmanaged libraries and Win32 APIs. A typical scenario is the process of exporting data to excel. In Silverlight right now, this workflow consists of the following steps:

  1. Prepare the xlsx filestream
  2. Offer the user SaveFileDialog to persist it to the local file system.
  3. The user types out an entire filename (since there is no way to specify a default in SL4)
  4. The user manually opens the file either from explorer/desktop or through excel

With Silverlight 5, you can skip the last three steps and open the file directly into Excel automatically! This is a huge time saver when your users constantly want to view their data in excel. And of course, there are so many more possibilities; in the Firestarter keynote, they demonstrated a Silverlight app that connected to a windows program to automatically import data off of a USB device. Rich OS integration used to be a major selling point for WPF, but with the advent of SL5, it has evaporated.

So far I’ve only touched on features that serve to even the playing field between Silverlight and WPF, but what puts SL5 over the top are the exclusive technologies and support that are actively being built around it:

  • WCF RIA Services – As I mentioned previously, there is no support in WPF for this great technology, and it isn’t coming anytime soon (if ever)
  • Fluid UI – Silverlight continues to build on the ability to easily create more natural applications. We see the beginnings of this with SL4′s ListBox support for Fluid UI, where you can effortlessly create transitions when adding and removing items. SL5 goes deeper and adds LoadTransitions. From the Firestarter event, this looks like the capabilities of the SL Toolkit’s TransitioningContentControl have been integrated into the VSM and animation system.
  • SL Toolkit – The state of WPF’s toolkit is a sad sad thing. With no release for the last 10 months (not even for the .NET 4 release), it looks to be nearly abandoned. Comparitively, there has been a .NET 4 release of the Silverlight toolkit, and it is much more feature complete and stable than it’s WPF counterpart.
  • Theming – This goes hand in hand with the previous bullet point, but there are a whole bunch of great themes continuing to be pumped out of Redmond. The WPF community has had to rely on rogue developers gracious enough to port the themes over.

Summary

There are many other improvements scheduled for Silverlight 5 that can help with LOB applications (Out of Browser, Testing tools, Text, Printing), but I’ll let the big dawgs like Scott Gu cover those details. For now, I think it’s safe to say that WPF is dead. But don’t fret; this just means that all of it’s most advantageous features are being reincarnated into future versions of Silverlight.

After last months scare that Microsoft might abandon Silverlight, I think it is safe to say that speculation could not be further from the truth; Silverlight is here to stay. It continues to get faster, leaner, stronger — and there is no better technology in the present or foreseable future that can be used to develop amazing line of business applications. With Silverlight 5′s release next summer and the beta still a few months out, there are going to be a swarm of developers clamoring to get their paws on these features (myself included). Until then, happy coding :)