Sunday, December 21

Get reach, get rich. Get real!

A quest for dominance in the technology to enable Rich Internet Applications (RIA) is causing a veritable feeding frenzy in vendor land.

The RIA space was, until last year, a relatively obscure and over-looked segment of the enterprise software market. The granddaddy is undoubtedly Adobe Systems (née Macromedia) who took the popular Flash rendering engine and evolved the design-time environment from a timeline-based movie editor to the beginnings of a programmatic IDE with the launch of Flex in 2004. The only challengers at the time, and for several years after, were AJAX-based solutions like General Interface (acquired by TIBCO) and OpenLaszlo (which morphed from being a product from Laszlo Systems to an open source project). Each of these solutions broke the mould of drab HTML user experiences in a Browser and got us several steps closer to combining the benefits of web-based computing with the rich graphical user interfaces of Windows or Mac.

In early 2007 Microsoft threw their hat into the ring with the release of Silverlight. This technology is much closer to the Adobe Flash/Flex model then it is to the AJAX approach. Industry watchers now had this pegged as a three-horse-race with each contender - Adobe, Microsoft and the AJAX community - packing a mighty punch in its own right. Adobe clearly owns the hearts and minds of the design community and the Flash Player is ubiquitous (estimated 98% penetration of internet-connected PCs). Microsoft has sway over the direction taken by millions of programmers from the ISV community to the hoards of in-house coders and web developers. Let's not forget that open-source has lost none of its sparkle and that AJAX is the technique of choice for developers who are committed to the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack. So it was a straight three-horse-race with enough choice to satisfy the whole community and to stimulate competition but without the kind of fragmentation that drives the industry nuts.

But someone came along to spoil the party, or at least muddy the waters. Who might be last to the party again? Sun Microsystems, which is odd when you consider their original Web 1.0 credentials and Java's claim-to-fame as the language of choice for serious web apps. This month Sun announced the release of Java FX 1.0 that is designed to lure the Java community away from proven solutions like Flash/Flex and AJAX. If there was ever a time to roll-out the cliche too little, too late then this is it! I caught a video of Johnathan Schwartz's announcement speech on the TechCrunchIT site. OMG - what is he thinking? The line about Silicon Valley mantra being 'get reach, then get rich' just left me cringing. I blogged a few weeks ago about Sun's current difficulties and pondered why Sun has never been able to properly monetize Java. Are we expected to believe that Java is a prime example of 'get reach, then get rich' and, if not, why even tar JavaFX with this brush? I plan to attend the launch of JavaFX 2.0 wearing a tee-shirt screaming 'Got Retched'.

While I am beating-up on Sun for being inexplicably late again, and this time so far behind as to be irrelevant, let's ponder their naming convention - JavaFX. I can't be the only person to have read that phonetically and come up with JavaF**Ks? Is this the admission that many of us having been waiting such a long time to hear?

I would like to give you a considered and thoughtful analysis as to how this late entrant compares with the other runners & riders in the RIA race but I can't figure it out and a quick surf around left me none the wiser. It's almost as though they are ignoring the fact that three alternative solutions exist and
already have considerable adoption rates and community support. Positioning is the most vital element to get right in enterprise software marketing and Sun have given me no clues to go on.

NOTE: Purists will pull me up for not throwing Google's hat into this ring with their recently publicized work around Chrome and Native Client. Google is clearly focussed on making JavaScript faster, more powerful and certainly more useful for serious apps than it is ever been. They are not, thankfully, yet-another flavour of RIA technology but in fact the most prominent flag-waver, and heaviest investor, in the whole W3C, JavaScript, AJAX, open standards approach. So that is why I am not singling them out for special attention.

My statement above - that I can't figure out the relevance of JavaFX - will no doubt be seized upon by Java purists who will lambast me for offending their God. So at this point in the proceedings I should establish my bona fides and point out that I do know a thing or two about designing and bringing commercial-grade Rich Internet Applications to market.

Back in 2003, while I was serving as Vice President of Marketing for MITEM Corporation, I had the privilege of overseeing the development and launch of the world's first enterprise-class application with a 100% Flash-based client. This product for the healthcare industry - called Blue Iris - was acknowledged by Macromedia as truly pioneering work and they made us a beta site for a product code-named Royale that became Flex 1.0. That year we were nominated for an award at their annual MAX conference and Information Week covered the story with great enthusiasm.

We thoroughly eval
uated all viable RIA technologies at the time - including General Interface and Laszlo - and settled on Flash because of its proven reliability, cross-platform support and because we trusted Macromedia to take the solution in the right direction and stick with it. It was a good decision to choose Flash and no exaggeration to say that Blue Iris redefined popular perception of what Portal applications could deliver in mission-critical situations.

It will come as no surprise to learn that generating Rich Internet Applications is planned for the
LANSA platform and so I have recently found myself back in the thick of this subject area. There is a need in the IBM midrange market for RIA's that are suitable for even the most demanding 'heads-down' user while remaining thin enough, and with sufficient cross-platform capability, to be easy to deploy and support throughout the application life cycle.

I obviously can't reveal our specific product plans but I can say that there is a lot of goodness to be found in the mature flavours of RIA technology available today and we will be delivering some groundbreaking new functionality in the not-to-distant future. Oh, and you can be confident that we will not be touching JavaFX with the dirty end of somebody else's barge pole.

1 comment:

Thom Davidson said...

You make some excellent points. At the end of the day, I hope everyone remains focused on what are the business benefits to a better interface. Sometimes I fear we are simply paving a cow path.

That being said, I do feel that all positive digital experiences start with user-centered design and the user experience should be a key consideration when designing software systems. Look forward to seeing what LANSA delivers.