The Future of Rich Internet Application (RIA) Technologies

Yesterday I had a briefing with Harley Manning and Ron Rogowski, senior analysts for Forrester Research. About halfway through our presentation we came to our slide on the various RIA technologies. Harley and Ron had some great insights and questions for us about the state of Applets, AJAX, Flash, Flex and WPF; we spent about 15 minutes on this slide alone. 
Harley then hit me with a question:


How does the RIA technology landscape change over the next 5 years?


I think this is an extremely interesting question, one that deserves more time and thought than an hour phone call. I an going to try and approach this question from several different angles.

1) What technology will win? Microsoft’s WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation), AJAX, Adobe’s Flex / Flash, or some other 4th party?

2) What evolutions and revolutions on the technology front are coming?

3) How will companies leverage RIA technologies?


AND THE WINNER IS…
At effectiveUI we are forced to make decisions and recommendations on RIA platforms all the time. With its ability to leverage various media formats, rapid development process, ubiquity across multiple platforms and browsers, and the strong support for designers, the flash player is easily 5 years ahead of any other RIA technology. For the last 2 years, the answer for most of our customers is almost always the flash player. You will not hear me go on some anti-Microsoft religious rant, nor will you hear me stand on a soapbox for open source deployments. We are entirely focused on the best solution for our customer’s problems, and right now we can solve 99% of our customer’s needs on Adobe’s technologies.

So … the future ….

Just because Adobe is top does not mean they will stay there. Microsoft knows how to compete, and I believe that they are seeing RIAs as a real threat to a significant portion of their business. But, in THIS race, compatibility will be Microsoft’s weakness. Microsoft is focusing WPF primarily on IE, with the hopes that WPFE (Windows Presentation Foundation, Everywhere) will start to gain market-share across other non-Microsoft systems.

That brings us to AJAX development. Almost every AJAX developer I am talking to now has had major issues with compatibility, performance, scalability, or development times. The issues are primarily based around compatibility. Each OS and Browser have slight nuances that make a single code base almost impossible (especially on large, sophisticated deployments). Many times developers find themselves coding around browser inconsistencies. Many times I have heard our AJAX guys tell me, “well, it should work…”

Adobe most certainly can not “coast” to success, Microsoft is going to give them a hard run, especially because Microsoft controls the vast majority of desktops. But compatibility will be more and more of an issue. We thought the “browser wars” were over, but the race has just begun. Add to the equation Mobile and the rising popularity of Mac, and things get really complex. Ultimately, I believe Adobe will prevail due to having no stake in an operating system, they are focused on the ubiquity and pervasiveness of the flash player.

TECHNOLOGY ADVANCEMENTS

The fact is…most of the technology accomplishing 99% of what is required by today’s consumers/companies already exists. The issue is not about more creating more capable platforms, but about leveraging the current platforms to their full potential. Weather the prevailing platform is the flash player, javascript, WPF, or some other emerging technology, I believe the innovations to come will include enhancements with 3D performance,development practices, componentization, measurement, and applications that support occasionally connected functionality.
 

-3D

Our customers come to us for better user experiences. 3D environments can provide very exciting product configurators, virtual worlds, and navigational systems. However, leveraging 3D has to be done very carefully… users will be quickly turned off if the interfaces are complicated, or too futuristic. The next versions of the flash player must include some support for dimensional renderings to keep up with WPF.
 

-Performance

In the last year we have seen 100 fold performance improvements for the flash player, however, there is still a long way to go. Hardware acceleration support will help, but is is not the panacea for most online applications. With hardware acceleration, what you gain in performance, you lose in compatibility. When looking forward, look for those platforms that equally address performance AND compatibility.
 

-Development Methodologies & Best Practices

In the last year we have seen huge improvements in our ability to collaborate across larger development teams which allow us to create more  sophisticated applications. This was primarily due to the increased support for developers. The “black art” of traditional RIA development is now taking lessons from C++ and Java developers and the results will produce more scalable, easier to modify, and simpler applications to use.
 

-Componentization

“AJAX”, at my last count, has over 150 open source component Libraries…this is a double edge sword. Open source creates more community support, but many times these libraries are not compatible with one another. Where it has to go is more standardization across AJAX, and more “industry” supported libraries from Adobe and Microsoft.
 

-Measurement

Standards for measuring RIAs are in their infancy. Companies like Omniture and WebTrends all say they have RIA measurement tools, but they are stuck in html, page based metaphors. These tools have difficulty tracking the event driven structure of RIAs. Measurement will be critical for adoption so companies can improve and measure their 
return on investment
 

-Always Connected

There is a ton of buzz around the term Occasionally Connected Applications. There will be a move to allow users to work offline, and sync back to a server once back online again. However, more and more people are virtually connected “always”.. between SMS, mobile email & browsers, wifi and cellular pc access, there will be a rapid need for applications to account for being always running, on multiple devices. Connected applications in the next 5 years will need to have the ability to run on multiple devices, and auto-magically allow those devices to synchronize the data between them.
 

LEVERAGING RIA TECHNOLOGIES

This is actually a much more difficult question. I have been very surprised how slowly the RIA wave took to actually gain traction. In reality, companies only pay lip service to “customer first”… most companies are very self centered, thinking instead “what can my customers do for us”. This is easily seen with how most companies deal with other areas of their digital presence, like how run their email marketing campaigns. They send out a campaign with an expectation of 1% conversion rate. That means they are sending out irrelevant communication to 99% of their customers and are perfectly happy with the results. Personalization, simplification and sophistication will be the next wave of consumer, government, and corporate applications 
 

“Personalization”:

More niche markets will emerge and customers will demand software that better “conforms” to their needs. The internet has the ability to individualize consumerism more now then ever. When you think of manufacturing advancements over the last 5 years, companies have the ability to build one-off products with better economies of scale. However, the process for consumers to specify their requirements are very manual… RIAs will be the critical path to success for customization and product configurators of the future. Now apply the same advancements to healthcare, government services, media & publishing, and financial services … personalization and individual control will be more commonplace than any other time in our history.

“Simple”:

Most of the newer, successful web applications are just plain easy to use. They are familiar, task focused and have more content and very little interface. You may ask, “Is simplicity really an innovation?”.. good question. When talking to Marc Eaman (head of corporate evangelism at Adobe), he told me that most RIAs focus on the “power user”.. which result in approximately 5% of the actual user population. These RIAs try to squeeze in all of the features that the power user would require, but by doing that they alienate the remaining 95% of their user base.  He called the solution “developing to the edge of the enterprise”.  In other words, Eaman was recommending that when you are developing applications for internal corporate use, develop for the occasional user, not the power user. The same tactics will be applied to consumer facing applications.
 

“Sophisticated”:

Wait … didn’t you just say “Simple”? Why yes I did… but there is a difference between ease of use and software sophistication. By limiting the features an application allows, those features will mask complex data algorithms, tie in disparate systems, and create workflows that users can only dream about now.  I believe that as simplicity increases, so will the demand for more complex systems in the back-end to manages these applications.

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29 comments
  1. Excellent analysis. I guess your view point allows much broader set of requirements to be fulfilled by RIA platforms.

  2. Is it possible that the need for RIA won’t be here as fast as expected?

    Let me use webmail as an example. Microsoft and Yahoo’s webmail solutions is an attempt to move Outlook to the web. While admirable, they are not innovative and clunky.

    On the other hand, Gmail showed us that you can do email in a much faster way (without all the drag and drop) and organize information differently (with tags/labels). There is definitely resistance to organizing information in a different way. I have seen this being an issue with customers who think that one piece of information should only belong in one category. Maybe we don’t need RIA, but different ways of presenting information to users?

    I’m not saying RIA isn’t the next big wave, I’m just wondering if there is that much of a need for it sooner than later?

  3. boredandblogging…

    Contrary to what you may infer from my last post, I don’t see RIAs as a “wave” but more like a natural evolution. Many companies are talking about how important usability is, and RIA technologies just give them a broader pallet from which to paint from. HTML is quite adequate for most online information. However, when you want customers or employees to interact with that information, you may consider leveraging RIA technologies for the simple reason of making your application more usable.

    There are other advantages that i will be blogging about later… look for a blog from me soon: “why care about RIAs?”

  4. After reading my comment again, I realize that I didn’t articulate myself well enough. I agree with you that RIA is the next evolutionary step. I think I was asking how soon we would need RIAs. Even though the Ajax technology has been around for years, it has only started to see widespread usage. I’m not sure we have seen all the novel experiences with Ajax yet, especially if there is innovation in how information is presented to the user (like what gmail did for webmail).

  5. I agree on many points here. Especially the “simple” paragraph. The challenge here is to develop Rich Internet Applications which are easy to use for the “common” user.

    This user is accustomed to standards of interfaces in current (Windows) applications. Each Usability analist can tell you how a webpage should look like (navigation on top or left, go easy on flashing banners, what do colours mean etc). When RIA’s are used more and more the interface standards are not defined yet, and espacially Microsoft will have a problem there because you can design WPF in so many different look and feels. Adobe’s Flash (Flex) for sure has a great interface standard now, but still: how you should design the application itself isn’t sorted out properly yet.

    I think in the next year we will see a lot of different interpretations and then… perhaps… real Usability guidelines will develop.

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  7. Mark Nankman said:

    Great post! I agree that Adobe is currently holding the best cards. Their RIA platform is way ahead of the competition. Because of their advantage, Adobe has the luxury of focussing on the quality of their RIA development environment environment and tools. This is clearly visible in the latest release of their RIA technology flagship Flex. Also, Adobe is reaching out to the Java developer community, to create more awareness of the enterprise capabilities and qualities of Flex. Fruits of these efforts are the adoption of Flex by Oracle and SAP. Adobe is in the lead and taking very sensible steps to stay in the lead. I see only one other company that might be able to gain on Adobe in the next 5 years (probably much sooner): Microsoft…

  8. Noj said:

    Great Article. I was actually thinking of specializing in one kind of an RIA Application. Flash seems to be good. With Adobe’s new Apollo, which can run on desktop environment, and sync back to the server when connected, much more productivity is acheived.

  9. sujatha said:

    Good article. It is rightly said that it doesnt matter whether Ajax scores over Flash or flex and vice versa but whether RIA helps target right content and also enhances better User experience

  10. Great Read!

    I especially agree with your input about “Personalization”. It’s the age of technology but easy to use is the need of the hour, with every technology dependent person looking at saving time not getting lost trying to figure out a complicated interface.

    Internet Solutions India

  11. Rafael said:

    It is 2009 and your article is on target. Not only is Adobe adopting native 3d, and RIAs aiming increasingly at the mobile market with say the “Open Screen Project”, but your take on simplicity and sophistication hit the mark too. You have gained a new follower.

  12. Great post man, keep up the good work ;-)

  13. taletid said:

    Cool post,.. more of them thanks..

  14. I kan only agree with our post. good work.

  15. I’m can’t agree with all of it, but for det most parts i think it’s a really god post..

  16. a-kasser said:

    Nice articel… please keep them comming.

  17. A lot of good argument:) nice work..

  18. very nice wordpress blog, i just love the design. some of the artikel i really outstanding..

  19. mlinaje said:

    It’s nice to see a two years old post already alive. So, the issue is on the target already, but maybe a revision could be useful (past expectations, present and future). Now mobiles (mainly from the middle of 2007) are supporting standard-based RIAs (i.e., AJAX at the moment)with their limitations (iPhone, Android).

    Also HTML 5 is gaining attention and more since the announcement from the W3C to discontinue XHTML 2 at the end of this year.

    Maybe we trend to think that technologies appear/update faster than they really do…

    what do you think about these issues?

  20. Akassenu said:

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed the read.

  21. Thanks for the great post, i believe RIA is the way to go..

  22. Sam said:

    This is a great post (a great site, in fact) but I will take issue with the statement that compatibility is Microsoft’s weakness. The RIA market is not about compatibility, it is about strength. If a developer wants compatibility they will use HTML (5?). The RIA battle will be won or lost in the enterprise because that is where companies are looking to trade compatibility for the ability to simplify their development model and deliver more robust apps. The enterprise is where Microsoft plays most and plays best and that is why they have a leg up. Silverlight is as much a platform as a technology. It leverages existing investments in Visual Studio, TFS, and it integrates nicely with Microsoft’s server platform. Continued development of tools like Entity Framework and WCF RIA make Silverlight an even more compelling choice for the enterprise.

  23. That post was written years ago – the landscape changes now every six months. It is much harder to make UI technology recommendations now more than ever.

    Microsoft makes some compelling platforms for sure, but they are no longer the obvious choice for some enterprises. Every question we get on platforms has an answer that starts with “It depends”

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