Josh McArthur

The curses of proprietary technologies

12 Jan 2013

As a web developer, I’ve got a pretty good pick of websites - I know what companies are prepared to stick with tried and tested technologies, and combine it with just enough new stuff to make browsing their site pleasant and easy to do.

Every now and then though, I’m forced out of my comfort zone, and need to find information on something else, and when I do so, it’s not long before I come across some really nasty stuff. Sometimes, it’s just a hard to use website, when what I really need is specific product information - for example, trying to find out what BBQ’s Placemakers carry - when I don’t just want to be directed to enquire at the nearest store. The thing that really gets me though is when a retailer completely ignores the open and multi-platform/multi-device nature of the web, and instead chooses to use something that is closed, only works with special software installed, and drives customers away.

Typically, the most common example you will see is Adobe Flash - a decade-old technology that even Adobe is scrambing to get killed off. The example I want to bring to light this evening however is even worse - it’s Silverlight, on a local jeweller’s website, Micahel Hill Jewellers.

Silverlight is a piece of software that Microsoft built to compete with Flash, back when Flash was really popular. It provides the ability to read files from the user, gather input from webcams, microphones and animate content. It also requires that it be installed on each computer that needs to use it, and does not work on Google Chrome, or very well on Mac at all (Indeed, when I DID install Silverlight, Firefox blocked it, as it causes problems for the browser itself.

This, generally, is a case of the wrong techology for the job. Michael Hill is a retail jeweller - that means that they want as many customers checking out their products as possible, both in stores and online. I imagine online purchasing must seem tempting for them, but to me it seems like a dead-end - jewelerry purchases are typically expensive, and as such, it’s a better idea to focus on providing really good customer service support while you browse online (such as being able to ask dedicated support staff about specific products).

By depending on Silverlight, Michael Hill is making the wrong technology decision. Because they are using Silverlight, their (potential) customers can’t check prices or products on their iPhones, Android or any mobile device. They also can’t access the site from public or shared computers that they cannot install software onto, or do not wish to install software onto. In a way then, Michael Hill can claim the dubious honour of having one of the least accessible public websites available online.

Certainly, the capabilities of the site do not indicate that any sort of framework such as Silverlight is necessary, but what is the alternative?