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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

What About Silverlight?

Silverlight is a small, lightweight version of the .NET Framework targeted at rich web scenarios (as an alternative to Adobe Flash and Flex, for example). Silverlight chose to follow WPF’s approach to creating user interfaces rather than creating yet another distinct technology—and this approach has some great benefits. It was first released in 2007 and, like WPF, is already in its fourth major version. Silverlight 4 was released in April 2010, a few days after the release of WPF 4.

The relationship between WPF and Silverlight is a bit complex, and there is some confusion about when to use one technology versus the other. This is further exacerbated by the fact that WPF applications can run inside a web browser (as XBAPs) and be just as “web based” as Silverlight applications, and Silverlight applications can run outside a web browser, even in an offline mode.

Silverlight is mostly a subset of WPF plus the most fundamental classes in the .NET Framework (core data types, collection classes, and so on). Each new version of Silverlight includes more and more WPF functionality. Although compatibility with WPF and the full .NET Framework is a goal for Silverlight, its creators have taken some opportunities to learn from mistakes made in WPF and the .NET Framework. They have made some changes and begun to support new features that don’t yet exist in the full .NET Framework. Some of these changes or additions have been later adopted by WPF and the full .NET Framework (such as the Visual State Manager and layout rounding), but others have not (such as video brushes and perspective transforms). There are parts of WPF and the .NET Framework that Silverlight will probably never support.

The bottom line is that the question to ask yourself isn’t “Should I use WPF or Silverlight?” but rather, “Should I use the full .NET Framework or the small .NET Framework?” If you will require functionality that exists only in the full .NET Framework, then the choice is pretty simple. And WPF is the recommended user interface technology to use with the full .NET Framework. Similarly, if the ability to run on a Mac or devices other than a standard PC is a requirement, then the choice is also clear. And Silverlight has only one user interface technology (although it interoperates with HTML nicely). Otherwise, the best choice depends greatly on the nature of the software and the target audience.

Ideally, you wouldn’t have to make an up-front choice of which framework you want to target. Ideally, you could use the same codebase—even the same compiled binaries—and have an easy way to morph the application to exploit capabilities of the underlying device, whether your program is running on a mobile device, a full Windows PC, or a Mac. Maybe one day that will be true, but in the meantime, having a common codebase that can work for both WPF and Silverlight involves a bit of work. The most common approach has been to create a Silverlight-compatible codebase with #ifdef blocks for WPF-specific functionality, so you can compile separately for Silverlight versus WPF with minimal divergence in code.

It is my expectation (and hope) that the distinction between WPF and Silverlight will fade over time. While Silverlight is a much cooler name than Windows Presentation Foundation, the fact that these technologies have different names causes trouble and artificial distinctions. The way to think of Silverlight and WPF is as two implementations of the same basic technology. In fact, inside Microsoft, largely the same team works on both. Microsoft talks a lot about having a “client continuum” to target all platforms and devices with common skills (what you learn in this book), common tools (Visual Studio, Expression Blend, and others), and at least common code (a .NET language such as C# or VB along with XAML, for example) if not common binaries. While it would be overkill to call this book WPF and Silverlight Unleashed, it should be comforting to know that the knowledge you gain from this book can help you be an expert in both WPF and Silverlight.

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