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Departments - Browser 10/01/05

Next Stop for Mobile Enterprise Software: Rich Internet Applications
Tony Rizzo

Rich Internet application (RIA) vendors have been working for many years to provide a means for building Web-based applications that eliminate the page-update delays associated with browser-based applications. Anyone who has used Web applications knows how painful it is to wait for a page to be downloaded each time data needs to be entered. Perhaps the most classic case is the Web-based e-mail client. Need to read an e-mail? Make a selection and wait for a page update. Need to delete an e-mail? Make a selection and wait for a page update. You get the picture. Even with fast broadband connections, those interminable page updates eat up most of a user’s interaction with the application. RIA vendors emerged in the late ‘90s with methods in place for eliminating the need for browser page updates as part of the user interface (UI). Companies such as Laszlo and Droplets (which are still around) and others such as Curl (that have since disappeared), provide platforms for building graphically rich Web applications that do not require page updates. Just as these companies began to find footing—initially in consumer-facing applications, Macromedia came along with its Flash player and more or less ate up the market, leaving the rest of the RIA community to barely stay in the game. What can a 21st century RIA-based Web application do? A great example is the New York Stock Exchange’s MarkeTrac service (http://marketrac.nyse.com/mt/index.html). An enormous amount of backend, real-time data makes its way across the Internet in this application, and the UI is as crisp and fast as if the application were running locally. Another example is Google’s latest contribution to mankind, the mapping service Google Earth. What does any of this have to do with mobile software? As we at The 451 Group have been researching the RIA space, we see strong indications that as workforces move from hard-wired, desktop-centered environments to connecting to intranets and Web-based enterprise applications via mobile devices, RIA vendors will have significant new opportunities to help enterprises build dynamic and bandwidth-efficient applications. Those companies that grasp the RIA possibilities early on (in conjunction with other things, such as mobile VPNs) will end up with a definite competitive advantage. Companies worth keeping an eye on in this space include: JackBE, Tibco General Interface, Nexaweb, Canoo, BackBase, Laszlo and Droplets. Over the last year Laszlo has put its platform into the open-source arena and has seen significant uptake in enterprise interest. Droplets has chosen to focus on supporting COBOL environments—an unusual but very welcome opportunity for what is still a huge population of COBOL programmers. Macromedia also continues to play here and now provides what the company calls its Flex platform. Hopefully the suggestion that these RIA players are worth exploring will prompt mobile-savvy readers to visit the vendors’ Web sites and dig in. There are significant differences among each of the vendors, but the end game for all of them is to help enterprises deliver full, rich, Internet-based—and mobile-enabled—applications that are able to completely replace desktop-bound software.

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