Apple, Computers, Linux, Open-source, Software, Thoughts, Web, Windows

The Rich-Internet-Application Bubble

It doesn’t seem to be a question of if, but when we will see the Rich-Internet Application (RIA) bubble burst. Adobe’s Flex platform, and Microsoft’s Silverlight platform promise the world, but their implementation seems to be flawed. The entire discussion seems to always remind me of the story of Java. Consider the following advantages and disadvantages of an RIA system over traditional HTML / Javascript / CSS:

Advantages:

  • RIA platforms promise “rapid application development” (so cliche in the development world). A developer can create a visually rich and interactive application inside the comfort and power of an IDE.
  • RIA platforms can consume data at a level that is not currently possible with current existing web technologies. SOAP, XML and other services can be consumed in a stateless web application.
  • Web applications are treated like traditional applications, offering added benefits like running offline

Disadvantages:

  • RIA platforms are specific to an IDE – in short controlled. Adobe’s Flex promises to be open source, but only on the client end. The “black box” will probably remain just that.
  • If open-source specifications are achieved (unlikely with Microsoft Silverlight) It will take years for alternate IDEs, and editors to support its functionality on a level comparible to what is currently offered
  • RIA platforms add another layer of complexity to an increasingly growing software stack with the need for web services to interact with database sources as the RIAs ironically are not able to.
  • HTML, Javascript and CSS are all free, standardized, open-source, cross platform, and ubiquitous. Microsoft’s Silverlight and Adobe’s Flex are both controlled and shaped by a single company.
  • RIA platforms require a browser plugin, since the technologies generate data that is not directly consumed by any current browser.

Hopefully we remember the failed promises of Sun’s Java VM. The marketing term “write once, deploy everywhere” has become something of an inside joke in the technology industry, as this is hardly ever the case. It should be more appropriately named “write once, deploy anywhere that supports platform ‘x’. This is made worse by the fact that as closed-spec platforms, the RIA browser plugin development is left to the companies pushing the platform. How well do you think Microsoft will support a Silverlight client on Linux, or iPhone?

Performance in RIA platforms has also historically been a sore subject. Java code runs by creating a host-specific virtual machine that abstracts all of an operating system’s details. This works against performance, as the virtual machine will always be the limiting factor – there is simply too much overhead involved.

What each of these companies are pitching to developers is the idea that HTML, Javascript, and CSS are old, and cumbersome to work with. Further, browser inconsistencies make truly agnostic client-side scripting, or styling very limited in implementation. Solutions like Prototype.js, or the CSS browser reset are needed to write agnostic code.

I just don’t buy into it.

First, HTML, Javascript, and CSS are made cumbersome by the fact that no browser (except possibly Safari) adhere to the standards agreed upon by the W3C consortium. Microsoft in particular is selling a tool to abstract browser development, while their browser consistently remains one of the least compliant available.

Second, I think that the success (undeniable when looking at their ubiquity) of HTML, Javascript, and CSS are due to the fact they are free, accessible, open-source, and standardized. Anyone who wants to be a web developer can start right now without ever spending a penny. Developers wishing to use RIA platforms must purchase a developer license to use the IDEs to generate the code.

I hope that the developers of the Internet don’t fall prey to the seduction of RIA offerings. RIA is simply a product being pushed soley on the basis of profit – not with the promise to make the web a better place tomorrow. Instead, I encourage everyone to ride out this wave, and let the technology’s bubble burst.

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