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AJAX World - The Rise of RIAs and Reshaping User Expectations

Today's online experiences often fall short of user expectations

Today's online experiences often fall short of user expectations. For many consumers and business users, it is no longer enough to simply interact with static pages of information. Instead, a growing number of users want Web applications that deliver the responsiveness, performance, rich media and interactivity typically found in desktop applications.

The shortcomings of today's online experiences lie in how traditional Web browsers function. Built on an early paradigm - the request/response page metaphor - Web browsers include forward buttons, back buttons, and stateless communication protocols that fail to retain input once users leave a screen. The reality is that much of the demand and potential for Web services today has outgrown the capabilities of existing browsers and applications.

The rise of rich Internet applications (RIAs), a term Macromedia coined in 2002 with the release of Flash MX and Flash Player 6, is a response to changing business requirements and to the frustrations that developers and end users have with traditional Web applications. RIAs combine the rich interaction of desktop applications with the development and deployment model of the Web. Supporting real-time interactions and an intuitive user interface, RIAs make user experiences more engaging and meaningful. Users can interact directly with Web services, access and analyze data, and take advantage of functions like dynamic charting and drag-and-drop for richer, more streamlined interactions.

The Benefits of Thick and Thin
Adoption of RIAs is well underway. Industry leaders like Google and others are transforming Web applications to offer engaging experiences devoid of tedious "click-wait-reload" processes long familiar to Web users. Companies are also realizing RIA advantages in-house, creating business dashboards for managers to drill down, analyze, and report on critical sales and customer data in real time. Given the power and potential of RIAs, it's not surprising that the Gartner Group predicts by 2010 that at least 60 percent of new application development will include RIA technology.

In many ways, the growing acceptance of RIAs is a natural progression of the Web. For years, HTML fulfilled its duty by delivering static content to users requesting information. People were excited by the ease of accessing information and simply accepted limited interaction, presentation, and printing capabilities as the way of the Internet.

The restrictions of HTML, however, became more apparent as Web developers wanted to emulate the richness of desktop applications. RIAs offered a viable option, with applications that can harness the local processing power of desktop hardware and systems, which reduces server loads and also provides better user experiences.

Equally important, RIAs address the need to provide more compelling and productive end-user interactions that go beyond the capabilities of traditional Web applications. Improved responsiveness, the ability to work with large or complex data sets, the flexibility to manipulate screen views, and other routine functions - all common and popular in desktop applications - are prompting IT groups to look to RIAs.

A Maturing RIA Market
RIAs are ideal for IT managers who want to capitalize on the reach of the Internet and the benefits of Web deployment, without sacrificing application richness and interactivity. The applications can be developed and maintained at a fraction of the costs compared to creating and managing desktop applications. IT staff appreciate the cost-effective development, deployment, and maintenance of applications, while end users enjoy easy access to interactive and powerful tools.

RIA development options are keeping pace with increasing business demand for the applications. For instance, AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) describes an RIA development model using existing Web technologies, including HTML, XHTML, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), JavaScript, and XML. The intent of AJAX is to increase Web page usability, interactivity, and application speed for the end user by exchanging small amounts of data with the server behind the scenes, so that the entire Web page doesn't need reloading each time the user interacts with the page.

The popularity of AJAX is a clear sign that the market needs RIAs. Part of the appeal of AJAX is that it overcomes some of the limitations that developers encountered using only HTML. AJAX is one approach for building RIAs but it has its own boundaries as well. While the Web programming is great, AJAX lacks the ability to provide application or UI constructs to build more dynamic and flexible RIAs that end users will demand.

Enhanced Engagement, Better Performance
What are developers' options when they need levels of functionality beyond HTML, JavaScript, and AJAX?

There are several solutions for building Web-based RIAs - some leverage existing Web design patterns while others introduce new ones. IBM and Sun offer a variety of solutions, ranging from RIA development frameworks and runtimes to components that bring rich Internet capabilities to existing Web applications. Microsoft too is introducing an additional programming model for desktop developers to build RIAs.

Adobe's RIA tools, such as Adobe Flex, allow Web developers to build compelling RIAs for the Web or desktop using technologies and design patterns already familiar to Web developers. Adobe Flex provides a programming model for building RIAs for both the browser and the desktop. RIAs built with Flex also leverage an enterprise-class runtime based on Adobe Flash Player, so end users can easily manipulate data and blend audio and video on any device at anytime. Achieving similar capabilities in a traditional HTML environment would be cost-prohibitive and time-consuming for developers.

With Adobe Flex, developers can take advantage of server-side data management services and data channels for enterprise integration. Enhanced data services in Flex 2 benefit applications requiring high-performance data transfer, real-time data streaming, message-based publish and subscribe, transparent cross-tier data synchronization, automated paging of large data sets, and occasionally connected applications. The dynamic data services simplify the move of Web services from static, request-response modes to dynamic "push" models.

Flex is built on J2EE as a plug-in to the Eclipse Development Environment. The data that RIA developers need to access is often stored in databases that are connected to J2EE servers. Flex 2 data services makes it easy for developers to connect RIAs to a J2EE database, such as a Salesforce automation or CRM system, through Web services and implement a rich, interface so users can more easily engage with vital enterprise information.

RIAs developed in Flex currently support a wide range of essential business and end-user applications, from guiding call center representatives through service calls to providing customers with real-time, online support using video, chat, and co-browsing help. With RIAs, insurance companies can link multiple systems to handle new account enrollment via an intuitive UI, while banks can streamline complex, multi-step workflows for mortgage application processing.

Overcoming Browser Limitations
As is evidenced by the tools available today, developers can continue to push the boundaries of RIAs, getting closer to desktop functionality to provide more expressive, immersive experiences. Users can enjoy offline or online interactions with applications, but also readily engage with rich media that includes integrated and seamless multimedia content.

To deliver on the full promise of RIAs, Adobe is providing capabilities that allow developers to easily combine the richness and power of desktop applications with the development and deployment model of the Web. Adobe's Apollo project is a new cross-OS, cross-device application runtime that will extend the reach of RIAs to the desktop. With Apollo, Web developers will be able to leverage their existing skills in HTML, XML, JavaScript, AJAX, Flash, or Flex to build RIAs that break free of browser and platform constraints, allowing them to run on the desktop.


More Stories By Luis Polanco

Luis Polanco is senior product manager, Platform Business Unit, Adobe Systems.

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