Mike Daconta | The battle over Rich Internet Apps

Reality Check

Mike Daconta

Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) are Web applications with the seamless, responsive look and feel of desktop applications. This new category of software development began in earnest about two years ago with the introduction of Google Maps and its AJAX architecture. AJAX stands for Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language.

The chief effect of AJAX development is the ability to communicate with a server to receive XML data in the background, thereby eliminating the page-refresh problem. Traditional Web applications required a request for a new page to be retrieved and rendered with every change. This created a stark contrast between the smooth transitions in desktop apps and the slow, jerky transitions in Web apps. AJAX changed that and demonstrated that Web apps could compete toe-to-toe with desktop applications. So the battle started.

Web development fostered an increase in skill specialization by making it easy to separate ' and subsequently integrate ' graphics design work and programming. For workflow, this is a sign of the maturation of the software development process ' though it will not be fully mature until we have licensing of software engineers. In regard to the code, this follows a broader trend toward declarative instead of imperative programming.

In declarative programming, you statically describe the solution and allow an interpreter to implement it. In imperative programming, you specify each implementation step to build a solution. User interfaces are especially well-suited to declarative programming. Web browsers have been rendering declarative HTML for more than a decade.

Another huge side benefit of declarative programming, besides skill specialization, is greater validation between stages and greater application reliability via modularity. That has created a tipping point, drawing large players into the fray. Adobe Systems released Flex and Apollo for RIA development to leverage its installed base of flash developers and lead them to this new territory. Microsoft released Silverlight for RIA development for .Net developers. And Sun Microsystems released JavaFX for Java developers.

So what is really behind this battle of the titans? The answer: a lead in the emerging mobile application space where all the Web development trends converge. Open protocols, declarative programming and centralized data fuse to deliver new levels of productivity on a plethora of emerging mobile computing platforms.
Cell phones are part of that, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. The mobile Web pushes the boundaries of hardware and software to deliver rich, collaborative computing wherever you need it.

Who will win this war? Happily, the consumers and employees win with greatly enhanced functionality and empowerment. As for the vendors, Adobe certainly has the early lead because its platform uses the Flash player, which is synonymous with rich Web sites. But we are still in the early stages, and the ultimate winner will be the vendor that captures the hearts and minds of the developer community.

That means the war will go to the vendor that creates the most robust platform to enable developers to create the next generation of killer applications. Suddenly, application development is hot again. Take that, Nicholas Carr.

Michael Daconta, former metadata program manager for the Homeland Security Department, is Chief of Enterprise Data Management for Oberon Associates Inc.

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