Enterprises have enjoyed great benefits from the internet, browsers and web applications, but it is time for a change.
In the 1990s, HTML and HTTP gave developers a rallying point for interoperability. Simple and efficient, HTML enabled the blending of text and images into static pages for viewing within a browser, and HTTP provided a stateless protocol for delivery. Web pages were generated by the web server and sent to the client for rendering. HTML both opened the web to everyone, and at the same time, limited the interaction between the client and the server.
Meanwhile, client server computing delivered much richer client applications but introduced client distribution, installation and maintenance problems. The web complicated issues by introducing security requirements and a growing user reluctance to install client-side software to access remote internet services.
Until recently, it was difficult to build rich user interfaces for web applications. Dynamic HTML and embedded scripting have improved choices, but parity with desktop applications has not yet been achieved.
Organisations want the best of both worlds: rich user interfaces, simple development tools, simple software deployments and updates, no client-side software installation headaches, and applications that are built once yet have the same capabilities across multiple browsers, operating systems and devices.
Today, many products can meet these requirements - but they provide more than just a better user interface. They are powerful tools for improving sales, customer retention, staff productivity and network efficiencies.
Two initiatives, known as smart clients and rich internet applications (RIAs), are tackling the client server and web application user interface problems, respectively. Yet these are really two sides of the same coin.
Rich user interfaces for web-based applications are being addressed by Flash-based systems (Macromedia Flex and Laszlo), World Wide Web Consortium standards, open source offerings such as Mozilla, and some Java-based RIA initiatives. While Microsoft's forthcoming Avalon and XAML (Extensible Application Markup Language) and client-side Java systems are improving application deployment and management. Although Flash is widely used on the desktop and Java is pervasive across non-desktop devices, no single system meets all requirements.
Microsoft will be a contender once Avalon and XAML are delivered. Client-side Java is improving, and there are systems for layering rich web user interfaces over Java without distributing large applications to the desktop.
Businesses have largely dismissed rich user interfaces for enterprise applications. Yet many of these have matured considerably, enabling powerful client user interfaces while reducing network traffic. This is a market in flux, so there are legitimate lock-in concerns, as users weigh the benefits of smart clients and RIAs against what is possible with HTML.
Presentation is in transition, with many choices from traditional application development platforms and new XML-based interface presentation servers and clients.
Users should not dismiss XML-based products as solely for business-to-customer applications or advertising - they can provide a powerful infrastructure for addressing enterprise application user interface and network requirements.
It is unlikely that any single system will capture the market, but the four primary categories - Java, Flash-based, Microsoft, W3C standards and open source - address specific needs. And enterprises should evaluate and experiment with XML-based systems to improve user interfaces and reduce network utilisation.
Gary Hein is vice-president and service director at research and consultancy firm Burton Group
This was first published in December 2005