Sharing the wealth

Rich Internet Application tools add functionality and cross-platform capability

Adobe, Microsoft and Sun each have sections of their Web sites devoted to their Rich Internet Application development tools. These include free software downloads, documentation and samples of software developed with their products. 'Jump in, it's not that difficult!' said Granicus' Javier Muniz.

Adobe AIR

labs.adobe.com/technologies/air/

Microsoft Silverlight

www.microsoft.com/silverlight

Sun JavaFX

www.sun.com/software/javafx/

Web applications are a great way to share data regardless of your location, but they lack the full usefulness of desktop applications. At least, they have until recently.

Adobe Systems, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems this year have all released test versions of cross-platform Rich Internet Application (RIA) development software and client runtime environments that let Web applications break free from the constraints of browser design.

'The idea is that you can have interface conventions that go beyond what you would see in normal Web pages,' said Michael Cot' an analyst at RedMonk, an industry analysis firm. 'They seem more like desktop applications than they do like Web applications.'

These tools are now available for free download, and the final versions will be released by early next year. Government administrators need to be prepared to develop applications using these tools and support customers who want to use RIAs developed by third parties.

'This is extremely powerful and leverages a lot of the technologies [information technology] is already familiar with,' said Javier Muniz, chief technology officer at Granicus, which uses Microsoft's Silverlight tool.
Let's take a look at these three new tools, their capabilities and how they differ.

Lighting up the Web

Microsoft recently issued a 1.0 release candidate of Silverlight, formerly known as WPF/E, with a final Version 1.0 due later this year. A more robust Version 1.1 is in beta.

'Silverlight works together with the Microsoft Expression Suite and Visual Studio to improve the designer-to-developer workflow,' said Brian Goldfarb, group product manager at Microsoft. 'This improves the quality of the result and reduces development cost and time.'

Silverlight is a 1.2M cross-browser, cross-platform plug-in based on the company's .NET platform. It works with Microsoft Internet Explorer, Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox browsers running on Windows or Macintosh computers.

The software provides a common runtime environment so an application needs to be written only once to run on any of the platforms. Application development is done using Microsoft's Expression Studio, including the upcoming Expression Blend design tool, and video encoding is done with Expression Media. .NET developers would then code the application using Visual Studio.

'Developers add coding logic to the design layouts created by the designers,' Goldfarb said. 'Developers no longer need to approximate in code the original vision of the designer.'

Goldfarb said Silverlight will be particularly useful to organizations that already have media encoded in the Windows Media Format. That was a driver behind Granicus' decision to adopt Silverlight. Granicus provides integrated public record systems for hundreds of state and local governments and is looking to expand into the federal sector. The company provides users with a player that not only shows a video of a meeting but also cross-references it to transcripts and supporting documents.

'You can search for a topic and not only find the video of people discussing that topic but staff recommendations and any presentations done on that topic, all in one easy-to-find place,' Muniz said.

Because time stamps on the video and documents are linked, users can go from the document to the point in the meeting when it was discussed. Or when viewing a video, documents pop up at the point they were introduced.

Previously, however, that link worked only in Windows Media Player on a PC. The third-party plug-in for Macs didn't provide the same level of functionality. The company has more than 10,000 hours of public meeting video and wanted to enable overlays on the video for all users, but moving to Flash would have entailed a huge expense to transcode all the video content.

With Silverlight, however, both platforms can provide the same user experience.
'We can also do closed captioning with it, which we could not do easily with the third-party plug-in,' Muniz said. This complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, he added, which 'is a big deal for state and local governments.'

Special FX

In May, Sun announced JavaFX, a new family of products including JavaFX Script and JavaFX Mobile. JavaFX Mobile is an operating environment for mobile devices based on Java and Linux. JavaFX Script, released in alpha format at May's JavaOne Conference, is a scripting language that gives developers an easier way to create rich applications using Java code. It integrates with NetBeans IDE and Eclipse, and Sun plans to provide additional tools for content authors and developers who prefer design-centric tools.

'JavaFX allows a broad range of developers to easily create and leverage rich media content and create dynamic visual applications leveraging traditional user interface elements, as well as 2-D, 3-D and animation effects and transitions,' said Bob Brewin, chief technology officer at Sun's software division. 'While it has always been possible to do so using existing Java technologies, JavaFX dramatically increases productivity, allowing for the creation of these applications and user experiences with a fraction of the effort or time it would take before.'

JavaFX enables the creation of rich applications that run on top of existing Java platforms. Because it makes direct calls to the Java application programming interfaces on the platform, using JavaFX is far simpler than directly accessing the underlying APIs. JavaFX applications will run on the desktop Jave Runtime Environment or on JavaFX Mobile. Sun is releasing JavaFX as an open-source product.
'JavaFX applications will run on the same [virtual machine] and ' with the possible addition of some libraries specifically designed to augment the ability of applications to leverage rich time-based media and visual effects ' there should be little or no change to existing installations,' Brewin said.

Local access

Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), originally called Apollo, was renamed and released in beta format in June, along with a beta version of the Adobe AIR Software Development Kit. A final release is scheduled for early next year. Rather than being a browser plug-in, AIR applications have the look and feel of normal desktop applications.

'If you want a browser-based application, Flash player has far-reaching, rich capabilities,' said Pam Deziel, director of product management at Adobe. 'But if you need access to the local file system, drag-and-drop, menus and notification, then use Adobe AIR.'

AIR allows developers to use a variety of familiar Web development tools ' including HTML, JavaScript, Flash, Flex, and Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language ' to develop applications that integrate local and Web sources. Users install a copy of AIR and any of the applications that will run on it. Rather than opening up a browser to access the applications, users will find them in their system trays, start menus or as a desktop icon. The applications can run in a stand-alone mode or access Web data when a connection is available, a feature useful for mobile workers with spotty network connections.

'You can keep working when you go off the network and then synch things up when you go back online,' Cot' said.

There are no government-specific demonstration applications for the platform yet, but there are consumer examples that show the integration of desktop and Web features. Users can, for example, drag an address out of their contact list into Google or Yahoo Maps, and it will automatically map that address. A music player lets users create playlists that mix songs from an online service with those on the hard drive. The eBay application lets buyers drag a list of items for sale into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, and sellers can post pictures directly from their webcams. Many more applications will be available by the time AIR is officially released.

'We have 1,300 pre-release partners and they are doing some surprising experimentation,' Deziel said.

The technology to create RIAs has been around for several years ' what's new is the ease of use. 'It is less about the new applications you can create [than it is the] ability to create applications you would likely not have attempted before, either because of complexity or the time or knowledge base required to do so,' Brewin said.

Muniz said his firm spent about 40 man-hours creating the Silverlight version of its video player. Deziel said she has seen an experienced Web developer at a trade show create a new AIR application in a few hours. What makes it easy is that they are all based on tools that developers are already used to working with. Cot' said that because they can all create better user interfaces, the primary consideration is probably picking the development platform you are most familiar with. If you are a Java developer, look at JavaScript. If you work in .NET, there is Silverlight. For Flash and Flex developers, AIR is ideal.

'If you are comfortable with the technologies, these are all easy to use,' Cot' said.

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