The Future for Rich Internet Applications

I’ve just come back from Adobe’s MAX Europe developer symposium in Barcelona. Aside from a bad case of ‘convention food overload’ – there’s only so many cold octopus canapés I can take you know – the content was really pretty compelling.

I’ve just come back from Adobe’s MAX Europe developer symposium in Barcelona. Aside from a bad case of ‘convention food overload’ – there’s only so many cold octopus canapés I can take you know – the content was really pretty compelling.

Rather than just making camp in the press-room and being fed an endless stream of “product managers” and “evangelists” to interview, I was informed that Adobe had opened up all the sessions to the press. What more excuse would any self-respecting techy need to dive in and out of as many meets as possible.

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Essentially, the theme of the moment is the new development opportunity thrown up by AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime). This cross-operating system runtime represents a technology plateau where we will witness a new breed of occasionally connected applications which put less strain on the business function, developers themselves and the IT operations department that supports them.

AIR allows developers to use their existing web development skills to build and deploy Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) to the desktop. With developers spending less time on coding but producing more easily maintainable software with more features, Adobe says the business function will see improved ROI and increased completion rates for e-commerce driven applications as they can still be accessed by users offline. The operations team in turn also benefits from smaller server loads and lower bandwidth demands.

Adobe’s senior manager for developer relations Mike Chambers recently said that AIR will empower millions of web developers to make their RIAs first-class citizens on the desktop. With the fast start up time of a traditional web application, the user does not need to start their browser to navigate the pages of the site and several are already in Beta form such as San Dimas, the codename for EffectiveUI’s RIA version of eBay. There is of course only so much the user can do before they need to go online, synchronise, update pages or complete a transaction.

Critics of AIR are keen to cite its synchronisation limitations, its security provisioning given its access rights to a user’s file system and its immaturity and unmanageability within large scale corporate networks. Indeed, Microsoft has technology developments in close proximity to Adobe’s latest brainchild and says that AIR is relatively unproven in enterprise environments. Additionally, Microsoft is keen to point out that that .NET is proven at the enterprise level while it has Silverlight to propel application solutions in this space.

Unsurprisingly, Adobe is standing its ground in the enterprise arena and states that, “In terms of AIR in the enterprise space we’re providing a solid platform and developer tools for delivering occasionally connected applications, which is ideal for traveling sales people, remote staff, field service engineers and community workers,” said Ben Forsaith, Adobe’s business development manager for developer. “With speed of development - as AIR apps are created using existing web skills - ease of installation, desktop integration and local data storage, we believe AIR addresses a lot of challenges currently faced by enterprise developers,” he added.

Looking at the practical aspects of working with AIR, its HTML engine is WebKit and this is technology that, according to Adobe, allows anyone with basic web development skills to create a desktop application. Adobe’s goal is to maintain complete compatibility with existing WebKit implementations so that use of WebKit does not result in a new HTML engine that developers have to account for. The company has also become a member of the WebKit community and actively submits fixes and changes to the WebKit project for consideration.

“Flash has carved a niche in the web space and as people begin to look for easy ways of creating functional components, they may naturally turn to technologies that they know,” said Clive Longbottom, service director, business process analysis at Quocirca Ltd. “However, although it is cross-platform, Flash is not that easy to use, so is not a mash-up tool for the average business user and is not seen as being a ‘real’ tool by enterprise developers, who will look to .NET and J2EE for this. RIAs may well become part of the solution, but I feel that this will be a hybrid approach as so much Flash usage is on web sites – therefore it does not create the whole environment, just certain parts. AIR + .NET or AIR + Java/J2EE would seem to make a lot more sense and would tend to keep everyone happier.”

In truth, the RIAs emerging today are a quantum leap ahead of their predecessors. The online collaborative word processor offering from Buzzword.com is built with AIR and displays sophisticated zoom and colour functions previously unseen on the web. Similarly, EffecttiveUI’s home page is testament to why the term ‘rich’ has was chosen in the first place.

The next logical step for this technology would be for these applications having moved from the web to the desktop, to finally be able to extend to mobile. It’s no coincidence then that mobile deployment is currently in development and may be no more than eighteen months away. At the desktop itself, we have moved from plain old web pages to RIAs and now to first stage Beta for lightweight desktop applications such as San Dimas, the next move must be to native applications with a heavyweight install for offline operation. This ‘final’ tier of development is on the roadmap and may be around before the end of the decade.

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