Explaining Rich Internet Applications
Websites bore me. There, I said it. This includes the many bloated social networks that pop up on an hourly basis. I’m a minimalist. Even my sentences are short. I just want my web applications that do exactly what I need them to do—nothing more, nothing less.
I spend most of my time on my desktop and not in my web browser, which is the inverse of many people I know. Most of my friends and colleagues do much of what they do via their browsers (check email, gather information, play games, etc). This is not to say that I’m not online—that would be ridiculous. I live online, I just don’t want to have to work around unnecessary functionality within a browser to get my stuff done.
This is where Rich Internet Applications (RIA) come in. From da wiki:
Rich Internet applications (RIAs) are web applications that have the features and functionality of traditional desktop applications. RIAs typically transfer the processing necessary for the user interface to the web client but keep the bulk of the data (i.e., maintaining the state of the program, the data, etc.) back on the application server. RIAs typically do the following:
- run in a web browser, or do not require software installation
- run locally in a secure environment called a sandbox
For the record, I hate the term “Rich Internet Applications”—I much prefer Distraction Free Browsing, but I digress.
RIAs enable me to utilize certain web apps directly from my desktop – or atleast that’s how I use them. I’m not referring to widgets, by the way – I don’t like those either (that’s another post). RIAs tend to have a smaller installation footprint, which in turn means minimal work to get the app up and running. Many of you have installed Twhirl—all that really took was installing Adobe AIR. Upgrades to apps tend to be done transparently and in the background and they tend to be mostly OS agnostic.
Adobe AIR seems to be the most popular tool used by RIA developers. AIR is a runtime environment that can use many existing web technologies (Adobe Flash, Adobe Flex, HTML, and Ajax) to create desktop applications. Many of the AIR apps that I have come across tend to be browserless and operate as true desktop applications, which makes me happy. I don’t want to have to rely on bloated browsers to get my stuff done. By going the desktop app route, these applications can take advantage of unlimited local storage and file system access. Browser-based applications are limited by the restrictiveness inherited by using a browser (ie, cache limits, potential crashes, etc).
eBay Desktop is a great example of what I’m talking about. Here’s an application that exists completely outside of the browser, yet offers all of the functionality of a traditional browser—and more. Other AIR-based applications include:
You know Microsoft would be in the mix, right? Well, they are – with an application called Silverlight. To be honest, I dabbled with it about a year ago, but have not had a reason to check back in. Unlike AIR, Microsoft is positioning Silverlight to be a direct competitor with Flash and Flex – I’m not a Flash/Flex guy, so my interest in learning more about Silverlight is low. Let me know if you’ve seen any interesting Silverlight applications out there—would be interested to see how it’s being used.
Other promising applications in this space include Mozilla’s Prism and Safari’s Fluid projects. Actually, these are VERY cool. Both technologies are based on something called Site Specific Browsers (SSB), which is a technology that enables you to create desktop-like apps out of individual websites. Why would you need something like this? Well, if you are a multi-tab Firefox poweruser like me and have experienced a crash that took your Gmail down with it, you’d begin to see how valuable something like Prism and Fluid would be. Imagine having a crash-proof (or somewhat crash-proof—things always crash) Gmail or Digg client? Like AIR apps, SSBs are desktop applications and have a tighter integration with your OS than traditional web applications. More importantly, SSBs come sans the annoying chrome that come with web browsers (menus, toolbars, blah blah blah). This is distraction free browsing at its best!
Other real world uses of RIAs
Twitter is a good example of its potential. As described above, eBay has already created a very useful app that their community has taken a liking to. How about taking Tripit.com off of the web? If you are a Google Reader user, use Google Gears to download your feeds onto your laptop and read them offline. How’s about a currency converting RIA? Maybe a word or phrase translator?
What RIAs do you use? What new RIAs would be useful for you?
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