Building RIAs : OpenLaszlo

This is the first in what will become a series on the technologies that can be used to deliver Rich Internet Applications. For the first part, I am going to talk about OpenLaszlo, the open source solution from Laszlo Systems.

"As with anything on the Internet, Pandora's challenge was to build user adoption, sustain usage and create a viable income stream. To achieve these goals, we not only needed to deliver a better listening experience with more music that people would love, but our site also had to be intuitive and easy-to-use. We examined all the leading Ajax application development players, but OpenLaszlo was the only one that could give us the open source advantages, easy development environment, and fast learning curve that we needed." - Tom Conrad, Chief Technology Officer of Pandora

This is the first in what will become a series on the technologies that can be used to deliver Rich Internet Applications. For the first part, I am going to talk about OpenLaszlo, the open source solution from Laszlo Systems which I first talked about in my article on Cooqy.

Get Started with Open Laszlo:
Cost: Free (Open Source)
Language: LZX
IDE: OpenLaszlo IDE
Killer App: LaszloMail
OpenLaszlo is probably the most interesting player in the world of Rich Internet Applications. They don't have the size of Microsoft or the experience of Adobe, but they have carved out a fantastic niche as an open source RIA solution and their brand loyalty seems to be through the roof. They are also a lot more nimble than either of the two companies above, and it has made for a very deep, developer-centric product offering. The company was founded in 2000 and in 2002 they released Laszlo Presentation Server (LPS), which they say is the first Rich Internet Application platform. In 2004 they made the decision to make LPS open source and what we know today as OpenLaszlo was born.

The main thing that separates OpenLaszlo from the pack is that their goal is to provide their developers with as many options as possible. Currently, they do that by providing the capability to compile applications into Flash 6, 7, and 8 or in the near future, DHTML. With OpenLaszlo, you can code once, and then use the exact same code to deploy in your chosen runtime. A great example of this is their LZpiX Demo, which shows you the code for an application and then shows you how that application looks as either Flash or DHTML. The differences between the two are minimal. Full DHTML and Flash 9 support isn't available yet but the company is planning to ship a preview release soon. The most intriguing thing about this model is that the OpenLaszlo team can branch out into any RIA vertical. They talked about the possibility of incorporating WPF and Java in the future, thereby enabling deployments on mobile phones and other interactive devices. By coding in OpenLaszlo, you will have the option to take advantage of almost any RIA technology out there.


The beta version of OpenLaszlo IDE is based on Eclipse, so many developers will be right at home in developing OpenLaszlo applications. In addition to the code view, there is a preview mode which allows you to see how your application is going to look when it's compiled. It's also a paltry 9 meg download so getting started is very easy (assuming you have Eclipse).

OpenLaszlo uses LZX, an XML based language along with a combination of straight XML and JavaScript. LZX allows for animations, drag and drop, transparencies and databinding, which when compiled, as mentioned above, can be outputted into Flash or DHTML. This gives developers much more flexibility in how their applications can be deployed.

Because it's entirely open source, OpenLaszlo has a strong following and everyone from big enterprise companies to small, one-man startups have embraced it. It has also fostered a very strong development community with people contributing to the project in a myriad of ways. The open source aspect is particularly appealing to developers who are just getting their feet wet in RIAs, because everything is free and it's easy to jump in. However OpenLaszlo has also attracted some very heavy hitters in the web world to its ranks. Notables such as McGraw-Hill, IBM, Barclay's Global, Pandora, and SureWest are all flying the OpenLaszlo banner (See a sampling of OpenLaszlo applications in the photo gallery here on ZDNet).

The combination of an open source, rapid development environment and almost total runtime independence make for an incredibly compelling way to build Rich Internet Applications. The team at OpenLaszlo, and the community around it, have given developers a world class way to start building RIAs. As the platform matures, they will be able to quickly adapt to the RIA market and continue to give developers immense flexibility in how customers see their applications. Cross platform is one of the most important parts of RIAs, and OpenLaszlo does it better than anyone.