BEA Systems showed off a prototype technology that aims to extend the familiar web browser and make it a more useful tool for people working on a laptop or handheld computer with only occasional internet connectivity.
The goal is to create a "universal client platform" that will allow mobile workers to get as much use from their applications when they are travelling as they would when they have a permanent connection to the internet, said BEA chief architect Adam Bosworth at BEA's eWorld conference.
The technology, known as Alchemy, extends the idea of a web browser by adding an additional memory cache for fetching and storing information that a user might want to view offline. It also includes a server component that handles synchronisation requests from clients and can tap into other sources of data to complete transactions.
BEA has been working with several industry partners to develop Alchemy, including Nokia and Intel. It will draw from existing standards as much as possible, including XML-based technologies such as XQuery, and when Alchemy is complete it will be made available on an open-source basis.
BEA is not aiming to supplant Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser. Instead, the technology is likely to come in the form of a plug-in for existing browsers, said Erik Frieberg, a senior director of product marketing with BEA.
Bosworth did not offer a time frame for when Alchemy might find its way into product form, but suggested that work remains to be done.
"It's not a product, it's a concept. We've proved to ourselves that this is a doable task," he said.
Besides making workers on the road more productive, Alchemy could help businesses cut costs by allowing them to develop an application once that could be delivered to all types of clients, Bosworth said. The server component of Alchemy includes templates that would tailor the application for the type of device being used.
Several suppliers already offer client and server software for deploying applications to mobile devices. Sybase's iAnywhere division is viewed by many analysts as the market leader, and also promises to let companies develop an application once and deploy it to multiple devices.
While Alchemy may overlap with some products already available, its breakthrough may be that it proposes a standard for the caching architecture that could be shared by other suppliers. Most, if not all, existing products use proprietary cache technologies, said Shawn Willet, principal analyst with Current Analysis.
Application interfaces for Alchemy are built with simple HTML tools such as Macromedia Dreamweaver and Microsoft's FrontPage, meaning developers would not need to learn much in the way of new skills, Bosworth said.
Alchemy users could go out and "prefetch" data before going offline, meaning an application could download the latest information about customers, for example, and store it in the cache. It could also be set to synchronise automatically whenever a network connection becomes available.
Bosworth is something of a guru in the world of XML and web services. Like some of BEA's other top engineers he spent time working at Microsoft, where he played a big role in its XML strategy in the late 1990s. He also oversaw the development of Microsoft's Access PC database and the HTML engine for Internet Explorer.
He was largely responsible for WebLogic Workshop, BEA's development environment which mimics the visual, ease of use features of Microsoft's Visual Studio.
Meanwhile, BEA yesterday released the WebLogic Control Pack, a set of "controls" for its Workshop developer environment that are supposed to make it quick and easy for developers to build applications that tap into web services functions offered by Amazon.com, eBay, eBay's PayPal service, FedEx, Google and United Parcel Service.
They are available now at BEA's dev2dev portal. BEA is also sponsoring an open-source community at http://www.codehaus.org where developers can exchange Workshop controls.
James Niccolai writes for IDG News Service
This was first published in May 2004