The rich get richer: RIAs for the enterprise

Mike Downey was supposedly working, but like a lot of enterprise employees he was also hunched over his laptop screen, surfing on eBay.

In this case, however, the senior product manager at Adobe Systems Inc. was exploring a version of the online auction site that has been downloaded to his desktop. It offers him a series of options to break down keywords and get more specific results, and can send him an automatic alert based on how his particular bids are coming along. Think of it as your own private eBay, but still connected to the global Internet marketplace.

“The eBay team was looking to have a more custom user experience and richer branding, but with the popularity of their interface, you can’t easily change it,” said Downey, who was in Toronto last month at the Festival of Technology and Design. “If you move the buttons and links on their Web site somewhere else, that puts their business at risk.”

Instead, eBay is an early adopter of Adobe’s Apollo, a software product than can run applications both online and offline. Doing so means a company like eBay can avoid the high costs of infrastructure – including servers, lab space, memory and power – that would be involved in creating a beta of a new site.

Although still only in alpha form, Apollo is one of the tools being used to create rich Internet applications (RIAs), which offer the potential for hybrid business applications that connect to the Internet only when users need them to.

“Being on the desktop is kind of like the Holy Grail – you’re right in front of people all the time,” says Ron Rogowski, an analyst with Forrester Research who wrote a report on RIA business scenarios last month. “But the desktop gets crowded. We’re going to see some shaking out of applications finding their rightful home.”

RIAs have been under development in some form for several years, most recently through an approach based on asynchronous Java and XML (AJAX). Adobe, however, hopes Apollo and its Flex tool will offer developers additional resources to create RIAs in AJAX or another framework. Earlier this month, Adobe said it would open source Flex.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has announced its own lightweight cross-browser plug-in, called Silverlight, to support rich media. Formerly called Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/E), Silverlight was introduced at the Mix07 conference for designers and Web developers in Las Vegas late week. Rini Gahir, senior product manager for Microsoft Canada’s developer and platform division, acknowledged it will compete with Flash, allowing Windows or Mac applications to run on Internet Explorer, Safari or Firefox with a less than two megabyte download.

“It’s going to offer developers much broader reach, being able to run on multiple platforms,” Gahir said. Downey, however, said Silverlight won’t yet enable browser-based apps to work on the desktop. Apollo, meanwhile, also lets designers work with their existing AJAX skills. “You don’t want to program across Linux, Mac and Windows,” he said. “We have one set of APIs in Apollo that will automatically translate. It also simplifies testing.”

Gahir said RIAs are attractive to some early adopters because they allow more dynamic content, such as video and animation, than what you’d find on an HMTL page. They may also change the relationships within the teams involved in application development.

“RIAs aren’t just about a rich user interface but functionality that needs to be managed,” he said. “Designers can build prototypes with screens or drop downs and then share them with developers to create the UI and build the code to make it work.”


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