Get Rich Online: Rich Internet Applications Pay Big Dividends

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As the Internet matures, businesses and individuals have increasingly moved online to access applications that used to be the exclusive domain of the desktop. Some organizations, especially those with a global presence, find that, even for mission-critical processes, it makes sense to use Web-based applications, which have a central database and common user interface and are available from whatever location one might log on. On the consumer side, users have come to expect services such as email via the Web as common practice, and increasingly use the Web to access RSS feeds and bookmarks, and in some cases even to store, access, and share files from anywhere they have an Internet connection.

Known as Rich Internet Applications, these Internet-based applications increasingly provide a desktop look and feel with right-click and drag-and-drop capabilities and more. Not surprisingly, there are a host of development tools available for businesses and consumers, and the consumer side has captured the attention of Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Adobe, and a host of other companies. This article takes a look at the burgeoning Rich Internet Application (RIA) space and explores some of the reasons for its growing popularity. 

That's Rich 
"Rich Internet Applications combine the richness of desktop software and the reach of the Web," says Jeff Whatcott, senior director of product marketing in the Enterprise and Developer Business Unit at Adobe Systems, Inc. Whatcott says that if you take a historic look at desktop applications, they have traditionally taken advantage of the processing power on the user's PC, but as the Internet gained in popularity over the last ten years, developers began to build applications on the Internet to take advantage of its ability to provide wider access. He says that up until fairly recently on the Internet, it was a challenge to deliver a sophisticated desktop-style application, but with recent technological advances, RIAs can have the best of both of these worlds: sophistication and reach. 

Red Monk analyst Stephen O'Grady believes this is because the landscape has changed since the early days of the Internet, when many companies tried (and often failed) to move applications online. O'Grady points to such factors as a cultural shift—a greater willingness on the part of businesses and consumers to use the Internet in the same fashion as the desktop; wider proliferation of broadband, which makes it easier to use an application online; and more refined browser and application-development technology, which allows for more sophisticated tools to build these applications.

Greg Sterling, an analyst at the Kelsey Group, agrees that consumers are ready to be more accepting, for many of the same reasons. "In the first round of Internet development, a lot of ideas were suggested or talked about, but the infrastructure was not mature enough to layer these models on top of it," says Sterling. This has changed, and "with online repositories like del.icio.us and Furl, consumers are more comfortable storing information online. So long as there is reliability and speed and some reassurance about privacy, consumers are going to be open to this," Sterling concludes. 

Not everything is set to go online, cautions O'Grady. "Consumers are more ready for the online model, there's no question in my mind. But do I subscribe to the notion that we will never buy a box of software again? I don't, because some areas are better served as client-side. If you don't have connectivity, it won't work in every context," says O'Grady. 

While consumers may be motivated by convenience, business is motivated by the bottom line, and hosting applications on the Internet may be less expensive, says Coach Wei, founder and CTO at RIA developer tools company Nexaweb. "We believe the Internet can have an impact on many different areas including consumer behavior, but we also believe the Internet has tremendous impact in terms of operations," says Wei. "We've seen lots of examples of companies wanting to move applications to the Web for the reason that it dramatically lowers operations costs."

Development Tools Develop 
O'Grady says that advances in development tools and technologies are a chief reason we are seeing a wider proliferation of RIAs. "Technologically, we have seen improvements in what can be done. Ajax [Asynchronous JavaScript and XML] technologies and XML and other individual pieces have been around for a while, but there really has been an explosion in interest in these topics and in examples of what can and can't be done in the context of the browser in the last 12 to 18 months," says O'Grady. "I certainly expect to see more of that going forward."

Adobe's Whatcott says that while Adobe embraces Ajax, it also offers its own approach, called Flex, which uses the Flash Player to deliver RIAs. "Flex is a tool and a framework and a set of server technologies that you can use to build and deploy Rich Internet Applications that run in the Flash Player," Whatcott says. He says that they are also working with Ajax developers, but that while Ajax and Flex provide similar functionality, he believes Ajax is limited because it must take into account the different browser technologies that are available. "Ajax is a set of approaches that people use to build Rich Internet Applications in a browser using DHTML and XML connectivity available in most browsers. It is architecturally similar, but what is different is that Flex takes advantage of the power of the Flash Player. Ajax is dependent on the lowest common denominator in the browser," he says. This means if data connectivity is different between browsers such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari, developers have to use what's common between the browsers. 

While O'Grady thinks that the Flex/Flash approach is viable, he believes it has issues because it doesn't adhere to browser conventions. "There is no question that Flash has certain advantages over what you can do in a browser," says O'Grady. "Latency is much lower and you can build more sophisticated interfaces, but Flash still breaks certain user conventions. You can't bookmark pages within Flash applications and you can't typically use the back button. There are still things to me that prevent it from being the environment of choice for developers." He continues, "Flash is ubiquitous, or close to it, but it is still held back by these basic restrictions because Web developers want to give users applications that use typical browsing habits without having to retrain them. It's not insurmountable, but it is still an issue. Flash has a place in the development of next-generation Web applications, but I don't think it's perfect for everything. There are still folks that want to use the base technologies available in the browser and leave it at that."

Whatcott says that with Flex, Adobe/ Macromedia was trying to build a familiar development environment for developers from the ground up. Wei says Nexaweb also built its development tools with developers in mind, but where he sees Adobe/Macromedia as more tuned to developing consumer-facing applications, he sees his company better suited to enterprise-level applications, and Nexaweb designed its development tools with this audience in mind. "We looked at this particular issue for quite awhile. On the one side, what we need to do as a company, as a vendor, we need to deliver the value customers are looking for in terms of high performance, reliability, and security. Beyond that, we also fully realize that whatever we deliver has to be compatible, has to fit in with what the customer's developers are using," Wei says. To that end, the company developed tools based on XML and Java, so he says that customers using Nexaweb tools are developing normal J2EE applications based on open standards and open architecture.    

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