Rich prospects as HTML comes of age

If HTML was a person, it would be almost old enough to drink. Unlike your average 18-year-old, however, HTML has hardly grown at all since it first appeared.

If HTML was a person, it would be almost old enough to drink. Unlike your average 18-year-old, however, HTML has hardly grown at all since it first appeared.

Traditional HTML pages still work on a click-and-wait basis, in which users must submit web forms to the server for processing before they can continue a task. This server round-tripping can make complex online tasks such as booking flights slow and laborious. The result: abandoned shopping carts  and lost revenues.

Rich internet applications (RIAs) are supposed to save the web from this 1990s clunkiness. Using a combination of server-delivered XML data and client-side code, the applications are supposed to deliver smoother browsing for end-users. Instead of clicking through pages of HTML listings when buying a digital camera on Amazon, for -example, you might use slider bars to alter criteria such as price, megapixel count and storage format. The results would change magically before your eyes, enabling you to choose your camera with only one trip to the server.

Most RIA development software suppliers recommend that the technology be used for specific types of application. Generally, applications that go beyond basic form-filling on a single page are candidates, particularly task-based applications such as online banking and reservation systems. Dashboard applications that collect lots of data into a portal-type environment are another good example, especially if they need real-time information updates.

Pioneers in RIAs -include Google, with its maps service, which automat-ically loads geographical data -before the user needs to see it, so that when a map is dragged around the  screen, it automatically updates itself without the user needing to wait. NetSuite has also used RIA capabilities in its integrated small business software, enabling executives to drill down into its business dashboard system more effectively.

RIAs are still mainly browser based, although two of the biggest players – Microsoft, and Adobe (with its Macromedia acquisition) – are hedging their bets by offering tools to develop and run RIAs both in the browser and as applications directly on top of the operating system.

Microsoft first hinted at its RIA ambitions at its 2003 Professional Developers Conference, when it unveiled the architecture underlying Windows Longhorn (now known as Vista). Much of that architecture has since changed, but XAML, the XML-based markup language that controls the Avalon graphics engine, has remained.

Avalon, now called the Windows Presentation Framework (WPF), will serve as the basis for Microsoft’s client-side RIA interfaces. The same code can run natively on top of the WPF outside the browser, or inside the app as an XML browser application (XBap). At the back end, the company’s forthcoming Atlas technology will extend the ASP
.net scripting system to support asynchronous RIAs.

Web designers and developers will use Microsoft’s Expression products to build RIAs for the Microsoft platform. Expression Graphic Designer is purely a graphics tool, whereas Expression Web Designer focuses on browser-based RIAs. Microsoft’s UK head of technology Mark Quirk characterises it as the natural successor to Microsoft’s Frontpage web -design tool.

The third product in the -Expression family, Interactive -Designer, is Microsoft’s next--generation Windows Forms Designer, a tool for building RIAs that run directly on top of WPF, without the browser. Some of the products will ship with Vista, and the Expression Web Designer will ship at roughly the same time as Office 2007.

Adobe is already selling some RIAs thanks to its purchase of Macromedia. Flex is Adobe’s in-browser RIA development and deployment technology. Currently on version 1.5, but with 2.0 in the works, it was -initially conceived mainly as an in-browser system, although version 1.5 enabled Flex applications to be run using Central, a system that runs applications directly on the operating system. 

One of the main differences between version 1.5 and version 2.0 (due to ship in the second half of this year) will be licensing fees, said Andrew Shorten, presales consultant at Adobe. Version 1.5 was licensed on a per-CPU -basis at £8,600 each. “So the entry point was relatively high. We are separating the components in Flex 2.0, making the software development kit – the framework for building applications – completely free of charge,” he said. Developers will be able to build applications using their preferred integrated development environment (IDE) and compile and deploy them to their website.

A separate IDE will be licensed for about £575 per developer. Adobe will provide a plug-in for the Eclipse IDE, including an integrated debugger.

SnappMX and Openlaszlo also use the Flash player to deliver -applications to the browser, -although in different ways. Snapp MX, from Canadian company NetCentrics, is a fast development environment requiring almost no coding. Using the IDE, developers create hierarchies of screens, populating them with fields and binding the fields to data sources at the back end. The developer then links the screens together, defining events that trigger movement between them.

After it is compiled, the Snapp MX-built application is delivered as a series of XML packets that are transformed by a runtime module cached in the browser. The runtime module displays the screens and talks to the back-end server. A single-developer licence for the system, which requires a back-end Cold Fusion MX, Java, or .net application server to work, costs about £290.

Designed by Laszlo Systems, Openlaszlit is an open source development environment that can be deployed in one of two ways on the server: either using the Openlaszlo Server, or Standalone Openlaszlo Output (Solo). The former compiles and caches the RIA at runtime using a J2EE server, and the latter precompiles the application for delivery to the client via a normal HTTP server. This lets it interact with different scripting engines, such as PHP.

Laszlo Systems has extended Openlaszlo to work using DHTML – that is, HTML controlled using Javascript and CSS – essentially bridging the gap -between RIA tools that rely on Flash, and those tools that ignore Flash in favour of the Ajax concept. Ajax (Asynchronous Java and XML) uses Javascript on the client to manipulate XML-based application data downloaded from the server. The interesting thing about Openlaszlo is its recently revealed ability to publish both Flash and Ajax applications from the same code base, giving developers more choice.

Openlaszlo is completely free. Laszlo Systems’ business model centres on consultancy, and selling applications that it has built using the Openlaszlo system. It is interested in pushing these applications into mobile phones and television set-top boxes. Its Digital Life suite combines a consumer-focused mail system with a photo organiser and calendar.

Laszlo bridges the Flash and Ajax worlds, but other players are focusing purely on Ajax-based RIA systems. Tibco’s General Interface is an IDE designed for building RIA applications that run in a browser window. Linking to any web server that can publish XML web services, it uses the Tibco GI engine – a collection of Javascript object libraries that can be used to provide predefined GUI widgets, data, event, and communication objects to an application.

Developers who want to deploy RIAs using Tibco GI will have to download a cacheable version of the engine to the browser. Downloading frameworks to the browser seems to be a consistent requirement for most RIA tools, whether they be Flash or Ajax-based (apart from Micro-soft, which uses the pre-installed WPF as its framework).

Tibco GI is available in two editions: pro and enterprise. The pro version is free for development and testing and comes without support. Only developers who -deploy an application online and charge users to access it must pay, starting at £290 for five concurrent users. The enterprise version, which is where the company will really make its money, gives you helpdesk access.

Tibco GI’s Ajax-based rival, Backbase, also uses its own Javascript library running in the browser. Whereas Tibco GI is entirely server-independent, Backbase sells several editions: the Java and .net editions are designed to hook into those back-end server systems, making it possible for developers to automatically update components of the RIA in the client as data changes on the server.

There are some other RIA suppliers, such as Sun Microsystems, which has added Ajax functionality into its Java Studio Creator Software, and Integra SP, with its Altio browser-based RIA development system – although Integra is currently lying low pending a merger with an as yet un-identified partner.

These applications all offer promise, but some of them also run the risk of breaking the internet in an attempt to “fix” it. Because the applications that these tools can produce are much more complex in their use of Javascript and Flash, they threaten cross browser compatibility.

For example, Tibco GI does not support the Firefox or Safari browsers. Instead, it is entirely Internet Explorer-based. And Microsoft’s reliance on the WPF will make it difficult to run applications written for that platform on an upper operating system. It is planning the version of the graphics engine called WPF Everywhere, but the quality of the interface will be scaled down, making it unlikely that applications will succeed on non--Windows platforms. Backbase, on the other hand, supports Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari.

Also, watch out for patchy mobile support. Tibco GI offers none, whereas Backbase is targeting some mobile phone platforms with its technology (although not Microsoft’s Mobile IE).

The standards question will be horrifying to standards stalwarts who worry about what an increasingly destandardised web will look like.

These companies will be attempting to define their own de facto standards. If they succeed, they will indeed have produced a web full of eye-popping applications and rich user interfaces. But at what cost?


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