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Are you ready for 'rich internet applications'?

Aug. 22, 2007

A screenshot of an online spreadsheet from Google Apps.

For a few months now the internet world has been buzzing with increasing talk of a new kind of online experience, one that replaces static web pages with what are essentially software applications that run partly on a web server and partly on individual users' PCs.

The generic term now emerging for this new class of online experience is "rich internet applications."

A distinguishing feature is that instead of having to reload an entire web page every time one piece of information changes, the servers running the sites can update bits of information on the page while you watch. The over-all effect is more like that of software running on the PC than looking at a traditional web page. One of the better-known examples is Google Inc.'s popular Google Maps tool for finding locations and directions.

Many of these online applications are built by combining a simple programming tool called JavaScript with Extensible Markup Language, also known as XML — a more powerful variant of the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) traditionally used to build websites. The programming technique has come to be called AJAX, which stands for Asynchronous Javascript and XML.

AJAX isn't the only game in town. There are other software development tools that can be used instead of JavaScript to deliver the same type of result, such as Adobe Systems Inc.'s Flex.

The idea of writing software that operates over the internet isn't new, but it has been gaining steam for several years. Companies like Salesforce.com Inc. have done very well in the corporate market by running business systems on their own servers and charging customers a fee to log in on the internet to use them — a concept called software as a service (SaaS).

Rich internet applications offer a way of improving that experience and bringing it to the average web surfer.

The online pitfall

All this adds new meaning to what was a mere marketing slogan a decade ago: the network is the computer. But there's a problem. If the network is the computer, the minute you are no longer connected to the network, nothing works.

And while it's much easier to stay connected today than it was a few years ago, there are times when doing so is difficult or impossible. Internet access on airplanes, for instance, is still the rare exception rather than the rule, and there are still a fair — albeit declining — number of public places where reliable wireless access isn't available.

A screenshot from Salesforce.com's SalesforceSFA 7.

That's an obstacle for companies such as Salesforce.com that build their businesses on online software, and for those like Google that are trying to expand their offerings into new areas with services such as Google Apps, the stripped-down online alternatives to Microsoft Corp.'s desktop Word and Excel.

"That's the main stumbling block really for the SaaS solutions right now," says George Goodall, industry analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

The next level

Some developers are starting to bring forward solutions to the problem. And these solutions open to the door to a lot more possibilities than online business software.

Adobe, the San Jose, Calif., company best known for the Adobe Acrobat document reader, is a prime example. It recently announced the first public beta test version of Adobe Integrated Runtime, a piece of software designed to extend rich internet applications to the desktop.

The goal of AIR is "taking rich internet applications to the next level … by bringing web development techniques to desktop applications," says Pam Deziel, director of product management for Adobe's platform business unit.

With AIR, developers will use tools like Flex and JavaScript to write applications that will look to computer users like desktop software. These programs will be able to interact with websites and retrieve data through the internet when connected, but keep functioning when not online.

Big Spaceship in Brooklyn, N.Y., is using AIR to develop Red Bull Media Center. The simple application will provide access to high-resolution video clips of sports stars and events sponsored by the maker of the energy drink Red Bull.

Thanks to AIR, says Michael Lebowitz, founder and chief executive officer of Big Spaceship, users will be able to watch those clips whether or not they're online. "You can actually pull these things down [while your computer is online] and watch them when you're on your commute or when you're on the train or wherever you might be."

Google, meanwhile, announced Google Gears at the end of May. It's a similar tool for extending online-only applications with the ability to work when the local PC isn't connected to the internet. Once you download a simple web browser plug-in, any web application that has been developed to take advantage of Gears will be able to keep working even when you're not connected to the internet — though of course you won't have access to new information without a connection.

Google Gears is an open source system and it uses JavaScript, so any application developer will be able to take advantage of it, says Linus Upson, an engineering director at Google in Mountain View, Calif.

Upson predicts Gears will give a boost to the concept of software as a service — a business Google itself has moved aggressively into with its development of Google Apps and its recent acquisitions of SaaS companies GrandCentral Communications and Postini.

Based on the buzz in the internet development community, offerings like AIR and Google Gears seem poised for increased adoption in the coming months. As they start becoming a more common feature of the online world, they could help overcome users' resistance to the idea that software doesn�t have to run on the individual PC.

That in turn could tilt the balance of power in computing from established software players like Microsoft to those — such as Google, Salesforce.com and other SaaS companies — that deliver their offerings online.

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