The importance of tools in rich Internet application platforms

The RIA space is white hot. Microsoft, Adobe, the vast number of Ajax frameworks out there and companies like Laszlo Systems, Curl, and Appcelerator are all focused on creating great platforms and applications for rich Internet applications.

The RIA space is white hot. Microsoft, Adobe, the vast number of Ajax frameworks out there and companies like Laszlo Systems, Curl, and Appcelerator are all focused on creating great platforms and applications for rich Internet applications. We might even see JavaFX this year. Back when I did my predictions for this year I said that some of these smaller RIA players would have less than stellar years this year. I stand by that but I wanted to flesh it out a little bit because I think the main reason is tools. And all of these companies can adjust/enhance their offerings by changing the tooling strategy.

Tools are a big part of any job but they aren't everything. A great carpenter with great tools will create a great piece of furniture. A great carpenter without great tools will probably still build something amazing. But a good carpenter with great tools can transcend his or her ability in some ways to create something very special. Development platforms are no different. The better your tools are the easier it will be for more people to create great things on top of your platform. The only problem in today's RIA landscape is that there are really only two companies with great tooling stories. Not coincidentally, they're also the biggest players: Adobe and Microsoft.

The tooling is also one of the big reasons that the rivalry between Adobe and Microsoft is so interesting. To paint a broad brush, Adobe has great design tools and Microsoft has great developer tools. Adobe has made a lot of inroads with Flex Builder and because we based it on a pretty good existing toolset,we got some instant credibility in the developer space. Microsoft made a big splash when they rolled out their Expression Suite as a competitor to Adobe's design tools. One of the unique things about rich Internet application platforms is that you need both great design tools as well as great developer tools. That's one area where smaller companies are going to struggle. Microsoft and Adobe both have the resources and the know how around tools which they can build on as they cross over into each others territory.

So what's the solution and what's my prediction? First, I realize I say this with a lot of bias, but that's not the intent. If I were smaller companies I would build off of the bigger companies tools. I started thinking about this when Coté and I were on the podcast talking about JavaFx possibly hooking into Adobe's design tools. If other RIA companies can take advantage of the Microsoft/Adobe toolchain, then they don't have to worry about building from scratch (hard). They can simply plugin to the existing market and focus on the interoperability between those tools and their own platforms. In the Ajax world, which still hasn't quite nailed the tooling yet, this could be a huge differentiator.

There are still risks. Microsoft and Adobe are obviously looking to make their tools play best with their platforms so being an addon is kind of a tricky situation. But I think the importance that everyone has started to place on experience means that both the design and development tools are going to be a very key part of the story. How those tools evolve, and especially in the realm between designer and developer, will be a important subplot to the adoption of RIAs.

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