Rich Internet Apps: Best of Thick and Thin

By Michael Vizard  |  Posted 2008-01-09
Back in the days before the Internet went mainstream and the browser became the de facto user interface, there was a period where developers spent an inordinate amount of time trying to design rich user interfaces, with mixed results.

But with the advent of the browser, many developers gave up trying to design rich clients in favor of a more standard user interface that was familiar to end users and ultimately less processor intensive on the client and in terms of bandwidth across the network.

As we enter 2008, an interesting phenomenon is taking place, in large part due to the frustration with comparatively simple browser interfaces coupled with excessive amounts of client horsepower and plenty of bandwidth. People are discovering you can create rich Internet applications that are still relatively thin compared with the rich applications typically associated with the desktop.

The toolsets people are using to build these applications include, but are not limited to, different offerings by Microsoft—which as of late has been promoting a new Silverlight platform—a rival Flex platform by Adobe, and Curl, an application development platform that recently came into the open source domain under the auspices of Curl Inc.

Both Silverlight and Flex are being heavily promoted to Web developers, while Curl is trying to make a play for the hearts and minds of corporate developers. For those who never heard of Curl, it's not too surprising because most of Curl's market efforts are focused on Japan.

For example, Fumio Yamamoto, a manager for the IT/CB Team in Panasonic's CS Strategy Group in Japan, used Curl to extend an asset-tracking application that the company uses to track repair jobs in the field. Rather than create a new browser-based user interface, Yamamoto said the company used Curl to create a rich Internet application that had much the same look of the existing client/server application the company's technicians were already familiar with.

Yamamoto says Panasonic has saved about $300,000 because it can now send alerts to technicians in the field when a new problem emerges. In addition, it can more easily ensure that the part needed to fix a problem is in the right place at the right time.

Naturally, there are many ways to solve this kind of problem. For example, you could opt for a solution that allows a remote field worker to enter data in any handheld device and send that back to headquarters. But if the issue at hand requires any additional instructions from headquarters, a rich Internet application creates an environment through which visual aids such as schematics can be more easily shared.

And perhaps more important, Curl gives IT the ability to extend across the Internet many of the existing client/server applications that have been built for the enterprise over the past 20 years, without compromising the user interface built for the original application. If anything, IT can upgrade that user interface without turning everything into a comparatively dumb browser experience.

That ability will also become increasingly important as more pressure is applied to upgrade the end user experience surrounding enterprise applications in a Web 2.0 context. Whatever you may think of that particular buzzword, the fact remains that end users are going to increasingly demand a more collaborative, multimedia experience that mirrors the experience they are having in their everyday lives on the Web.

None of this means you should throw out your existing browser applications tomorrow. In particular, a rich client applied to a basic data entry application would probably be overkill. But any application that requires a fair amount of two-way communication of large data sets would probably benefit from a rich client interface.

The most important thing to note is that it is becoming more practical to take on these types of projects, which in turn is creating new opportunities to leverage IT to add business value.