There was a lot of discussion last week (and still some this week) about the 53,651 people who subscribe to TechCrunch and how those people don't count as the mainstream. Those are the most advanced users perhaps, but not the ones who will ultimately make a product successful. One of the reasons that I find Rich Internet Applications so compelling is their potential for reaching the mainstream on many levels. Clearly products like YouTube, Flickr, and MySpace have shown that there is demand for new ways of interacting with the web. Mainstream users are drawn to applications that make their lives easier. Increasingly those lives are being assisted by Blackberries and Treos and large scale adoption of RIAs may very well come from these devices.
This is one of the reasons that I think Google is behind Microsoft in the RIA space. Microsoft has a large mobile business that while losing money, is becoming more and more popular. Their mobile applications integrate well with their other products (of course) and that synergy will only get deeper. If Microsoft finds a way to leverage the developers of their WPF software into building applications for their mobile division, then it opens up a high growth platform for them. Microsoft is hard at work figuring out how to do mobile.
Google on the other hand, has focused on building out web applications. This isn't a bad strategy in itself, but the web browsing experience on mobile devices is mediocre at best. I have no doubt that will get better, but if users are going to compare an application from Microsoft that looks, feels and interacts the same way as one on their desktop, versus a web application which is limited by their mobile browser, it's going to be no contest.
Adobe's offering, FlashLite, has a lot of potential, but has so far lagged behind current versions of the FlashPlayer. I think there is a ton of potential to build mobile RIAs in Flash, and I hope that Adobe works out a way to release Flash versions concurrently for mobile and the other OSes. The big contract with Verizon is going to go a long way towards showing American users how powerful FlashLite can be for delivering content.
As you read the buzz today around Nokia, it's clear that mobile devices are going to have a big impact on the web. RIAs are a perfect way to deploy applications for those devices because they allow you to maintain a link to the desktop and work with the strengths of both your computer and your device. Multimedia, user experience, and interface are going to be key aspects and high quality RIAs excel in these areas. It could just be enough to show the mainstream the benefit of a rich internet and get them hooked on the next generation of applications.