What happened was, a sudden email from Sun PR went around about fifteen minutes to Christmas saying “SYS-CON wants predictions for 2008; right now would be good.” It happened that I was in the middle of doing three months and ten trips’ worth of expenses, thus bored out of my mind, thus happy to prognosticate. I gave them five, but, given the urgency, not much more than sound-bites. I think each of them is worth a little exegesis.

  1. RIA vs. AJAX: below, in this fragment.

  2. Windows Looks Bad.

  3. Rails Rules.

  4. PHP Problems.

  5. Social Networking.

Prediction · The short version:

There's a major struggle going on between “RIAs” (Rich Internet Applications) and AJAX, which tries to do everything in the browser using just what the browser ships with. RIA frameworks are AIR (“Flash, the Next Generation”), Silverlight (“Microsoft wants in”) and JavaFX (“Isn't open-source better?”) I'm not brave enough to predict who wins, but I do predict that 2008 will be a crucial year; either RIAs enter the mainstream, or they start to smell like a red herring left in the sun.

Suspicion · Ever since we’ve had the Web, we’ve had those who say it’s Not Good Enough. I’ve long been among the RIA skeptics, for a couple of reasons. First, let me quote myself, from here:

This notion, that the Web GUI is insufficiently interactive and we need something richer, is widely held among developers and almost never among actual users of computers, and it’s entirely wrong. I can remember when people were forced to use compiled Windows and X11 applications, and most of them were extremely bad because it’s really hard to design a good interactive UI; when the Web came along, more or less everyone abandoned those UIs in favor of the Web, almost instantly and with shrieks of glee. Yes, Web UIs are drastically constrained, offer a paucity of controls, and enforce a brutally linear control flow; and these are good things. I remember, in the early days, people saying “Once you know how to use one Windows app, you know how to use them all”. Ha ha ha. But you know what? Once you know how to use a browser, you are well on the way to being able to use most Web apps. The best AJAX apps are still very Web-like (as in, the Back button always works); but they’re faster and more responsive and nicer to look at. The worst AJAX apps are like bad Nineties VB.

I stand by my point: the people who want to add UI “richness” to the Web are always developers, never users. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong; after all, the users weren’t clamoring for the Web before it arrived, either.

My other problem is that while I like my Internet applications to be rich, I have this old-fashioned notion that “richness” is mostly about compelling words and pictures and sounds and especially, most especially, interaction with living people.

On The Other Hand · I use Rich Internet Applications all the time. Mail. iTunes. In fact all rich applications have become Internet applications: I can publish ongoing fragments with a keystroke in Emacs, and create a Web slide-show from Lightroom.

But that’s not what they mean when they say RIAs; they mean “Whatever lies in the direction that Flash is pointing.” Which puzzles me, because near as I can tell, Flash is most useful for watching movies portably (a la YouTube) and cool casual games like N and Desktop Tower Defense.

But I Could Be Wrong · I’ve always seen it as a big problem that at the end of the day, Flash is proprietary. So is Silverlight (although it’s damn interesting that it runs on OS X). JavaFX tries to remove that problem. Maybe if we unleash the creativity of all the people who just don’t want to be sharecroppers on someone else’s plantation, we’ll see some RIAs that are actually interesting to business.

But don’t kid yourself that it’ll be easy. The browser already offers what most people (who aren’t software developers) consider an excellent user experience, and AJAX, done well, makes it even better.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Martin Vidner (Jan 02 2008, at 00:35)

Regarding the usefulness of Flash apps, here is one that stands out for me: Potlatch, the easy editor for OpenStreetMap



From: Adam Ierymenko (Jan 02 2008, at 03:49)

I think you nailed the RIA issue by mentioning iTunes, IM clients, mail clients, etc. UI richness over and above the web is sometimes actually needed, but it only tends to be useful when it also allows you to integrate more closely with the OS and desktop, use more of the local CPU, store files locally, etc.

A rich app inside a browser is like a car in your living room. There's nothing that you can do with it that you can't due with ordinary furniture.


From: Aaron (Jan 02 2008, at 04:07)

Adobe's Flash VM may be proprietary and SWF is not a completely open specification (the spec is open, but creating a runtime is not), but the Flex libraries and compiler will be released as open source:


There's also a large collection of open source Flash and ActionScript projects on the web:


To me, this seems very similar to the situation with Sun and Java that we've lived with. For most of the history of Java, the JVM and language specification was proprietary, but that didn't stop an enormous open source community surrounding Java. My hopes (which might be misplaced) is that we'll see a similar situation with Adobe.


From: Troels (Jan 02 2008, at 04:26)

> (although it’s damn interesting that it runs on OS X)

Yeah. And damn interesting, that it doesn't run on Linux.

Funny thing is, I remember going to a talk last year, where Microsoft were showing off their new baby, and I explicitly remember they claimed it would work on Linux. Perhaps they just lied.


From: Hanan Cohen (Jan 02 2008, at 06:05)

Maybe it will be easier to create authoring tools using rich UI platforms, tools that will solve your Authoring Pain?



From: len (Jan 02 2008, at 06:06)

The 3D business seems to be breaking in both directions. There are the camps that want pure server side apps pushing to the browser and think minimal plugins or immediate rendering modes or extending XHTML to include 3D namespaces are the way to go. On the other side are the rich but relatively svelte clients (say 4mb download) that can run client side fine and can run with the server but rely on a client language. Then there are the apps that have a 40mb download, lock to the server and are proprietary.

Disconcertingly, the virtual worlds markets seem to prefer that 40mb download. It's a very odd market. The CAD worlds are slowly converging on the ISO standard. There really is no market-reliable 3D-html-like that has traction. Such things exist but the market itself is fractured with few forces having enough clout to create convergence.


From: Trevor (Jan 02 2008, at 07:02)

Ever hear of Nexaweb Platform or XAP? They're declarative XML languages used to make Ajax (in Nexaweb's case, AJAX or JAVA) RIA applications. They use beefed up UI components (mostly dojo) to create tables with sortable columns, trees, tab panes, and other useful stuff. They also include request services, databinding, and use xmodify for easy DOM manipulation, so you can repopulate a table with an XML event or change the contents of a section of your page without using DHTML

If this seems like an ad, I apologize, I do QA for both projects.


From: David Magda (Jan 02 2008, at 07:54)

I like Jakob Nielsen's line that Flash is 99% bad:

Although multimedia has its role on the Web, current Flash technology tends to discourage usability for three reasons: it makes bad design more likely, it breaks with the Web's fundamental interaction style, and it consumes resources that would be better spent enhancing a site's core value.


One other defficiency about Flash is that it's not indexable by search engines.


From: robert (Jan 02 2008, at 09:43)

Once again, the Web X.0 folks are re-creating the round wheel (or square one, depending on your point of view) of the 1980's: a VT-220 attached over RS-232 (@14.4) to a Unix database.

What you get for this is data integrity and character mode interface. Can be quite useful. One hears the AJAX folk talking about pick list type-ahead as if it were something new. It ain't (see above). This is the one (and may haps, only) thing useful about AJAX.

When the Web .9 came along, those of us old enough to remember the VT-220/Unix world laughed at the 3270 (i.e, very 1960s) block mode interface of the said Web. Same execution model: download a screen edit program, take input, send back edited screen, do file edits on the mainframe/server, send back answer. Very big improvement. Changes to programming have to be propagated from the mainframe, etc.

Now, we here about workflow, i.e. proceduralizing (if that's a word) what was an event driven interface; locally, anyway.

Those who do not know the past, are doomed to repeat it. And think about the congruence of XML and IMS, while you're about it.


From: Brian Campbell (Jan 02 2008, at 11:13)

Well, one of the big trends is actually getting AJAX to be able to do what the RIA platforms can. And work is proceeding rapidly on that front. Firefox, Opera, and Safari are all rapidly integrating new features that allow richer applications, like audio, video, more controls, canvas, SVG, web fonts, CSS 2.1 and 3, and so on. HTML 5 is working quickly to standardize all of those new features. And it's not clear exactly what is going on with Internet Explorer, but it does look like they are starting to really try to support standards and keep up with the other browsers, as their ACID 2 announcement shows.

So, I think the trend will be that people will continue to use a mixture of Flash and AJAX the way they are now, but once the new browsers are released, just plain old webapps will be able to do everything that people were using Flash for beforehand, and people will simplify and start to do everything in good old HTML and Javascript.


From: James (Jan 02 2008, at 13:00)

I agree Flash being proprietary is a problem - but so does Adobe (so it seems). Beyond the open sourcing of Flex internals they are working with Mozilla on EC4 specifications to keep ActionScript and JavaScript in line. They also contributed code (Tamarin) to get things moving.

It looks like H264 encoding in the new Flash player plus a 3d API built in will be a major competitive advantage - above and beyond the advantage provided by their current market share based on browser plug-ins.

Now - if they could only get search engines to competently index their data then I'd call them a shoe-in.


From: Andy (Jan 02 2008, at 14:43)

> One other defficiency about Flash is that it's not indexable by search engines.

So sick of hearing that argument. Simply make the flash consume an xhtml page that loads it that contains the data. The data will display as HTML if flash player is not available, and will be consumed if flash is. Voila, theres your indexable flash.

> So, I think the trend will be that people will continue to use a mixture of Flash and AJAX the way they are now, but once the new browsers are released, just plain old webapps will be able to do everything that people were using Flash for beforehand, and people will simplify and start to do everything in good old HTML and Javascript.

Not much chance of that.

1. What are you going to do about more complex animations? Animated GIFs? There is no real alternative available that I've heard of at all.

2. I don't think many companies are going to want to have their $200,000+ websites open source

3. Ease of development simply isn't there for ajax yet. Not even close. It amazes me how much I see people struggle with basic animations and transitions when coding ajax.


From: Avi Bryant (Jan 02 2008, at 15:46)

The iPhone is a potential game changer here: even if Flash and Silverlight etc maintain very good penetration on the desktop, their mobile penetration is low compared to AJAX. I do enough browsing by phone these days that I'd think twice about committing to any app that locked away my data behind a Flash UI.

There are other reasons I hate using Flash for anything other than games - no tabs, no back button, no native widgets, no human interface guidelines - but I think mobile is the one which will be the most compelling in 2008.


From: James (Jan 02 2008, at 18:12)

> Simply make the flash consume an xhtml page that loads it that contains the data

xhtml is not meant for that purpose and even using E4X I would cringe at parsing xhtml as a data source within any language. Consider your suggestion a workaround and the original comments as a request for a real solution.

>There are other reasons I hate using Flash [...] - no tabs, no back button, no native widgets, no human interface guidelines

Flex tries to solve these problems. SWFAddress adds more to the solution (e.g. back button + deep linking). The Adobe component library isn't something I am happy with currently but it is coming along.

> [...] I think mobile is the one which will be the most compelling in 2008

So does Adobe: http://www.onflex.org/ted/2007/12/meet-qvm-new-tamarin-vm-contributed-to.php

Many mobiles have Flash built-in and Apple was criticized for omitting it on the iphone. People are beginning to expect the plug-in everywhere.

Flash has changed significantly in the last 6-12 months and the road ahead (6-12 months) looks to introduce major enhancements.


From: W^L+ (Jan 02 2008, at 21:00)

Most of the time, I find Flash detracts from a site, rather than improves it. Compare GoWebtop.com (formerly Laszlomail) to Gmail or Y!mail and you'll see that Flash adds little and takes a lot away from the experience of sending/reading e-mail. Except for YouTube, I try to avoid Flash sites.

That said, I am looking forward to trying out OpenLaszlo once it offers a fully capable AJAX output along with the often problematic Flash.


From: Ross Reedstrom (Jan 02 2008, at 21:51)

About the only flash based sites that I put up with on a regular basis are educational game sites for my kids: in particular, starfall.com for phonics based reading. My 3 year old has basically taught himself to read with that site (and lots of book reading w/ Mom and Dad, of course)


From: Aurélien Pelletier (Jan 03 2008, at 05:06)

I don't think the right question is RIA vs Ajax but more the browser vs the desktop.

Or RDA (Rich Desktop Application: Adobe Air, Microsoft WPF, javaFX, Mozilla Xul) vs RIA (Rich Internet application: Ajax, Flash/Flex, Silverlight).

Do we extend the capabilities of the browser like what google and mozilla are trying to do or do we replace it with something new like Adobe AIR and Microsoft .Net/WPF?


From: David Temkin (Jan 03 2008, at 11:06)


Interesting views. Your claim that developers are the advocates of RIAs and rich experiences in general runs contrary to my experience as the CTO of a company that offers an RIA development platform (OpenLaszlo) and RIA applications (Laszlo Webtop; gowebtop.com).

What I've seen is that that old-school Web developers are actually not very interested in user experience, and typically argue for retaining the tools, processes, and approach that they're now using. It's the end-users users, business owners, and product managers who respond well to RIAs.

It's my impression that most developers today, especially in senior roles, are server-focused, and more interested in standards and tools over what the user interacts with.

Flash in particular has a terrible brand with developers. It's been fascinating to watch the same developer respond to a given user experience delivered into Flash and the same user experience delivered as Ajax/DHTML. The Flash UI typically gets the reaction that your post and the commenters adhere to: "it's unnecessary eye candy and is more complicated to use than text and links". The exact same UI in Ajax gets a completely different reaction: "Wow, look at how rich that is -- it's like a real application! You can even drag and drop. And it's all standards-based!".

(Litmus test: how do you like Google Maps? Why is it OK that Google Maps breaks the back button, isn't indexable, isn't accessible, doesn't "gracefully degrade", requires an explicit UI element to get a link, offers desktop-like interaction? And how would you feel about it if it were a Flash application?)

Since OpenLaszlo can now create the same user experience, pixel-for-pixel, in either Flash or DHTML, we've had a lot of data points along this line. It's interesting that the commenter above takes the same line -- Laszlo Webtop stinks compared to Google and Yahoo mail, but now that OpenLaszlo does Ajax output, he's interested.

In the meantime, we have received a flood of email saying how much superior Laszlo Webtop is compared to the Google and Yahoo competition, with only a handful of users arguing the contrary. The ratio is probably 50 to 1.

But show it to a typical web developer and all they see is "Flash".

To understand just how much richness is valued by actual users, when taken outside of the ideological battleground of Web standards and "99% evil" Flash, take a look at what Apple has done over the last year. Developers love Macs. The iPhone represents a state-of-the-art RIA experience, although it's not running in a browser. Animation, continuity, seamless integration of network features, no page-based refreshes, contextual information -- that's what a consumer application experince can be.

Eventually success stories like Apple's will push today's standards-obsessed developers to embrace technologies that meet today's raised user expectations.

David Temkin

Founder & CTO, Laszlo Systems


From: Dennis (Jan 03 2008, at 11:35)

Check out Moonlight, the opensource implementation of Silverlight...


From: Nat (Jan 04 2008, at 12:54)

> (although it’s damn interesting that it runs on OS X)

Except it only runs on Intel macs. It'll be a few years yet before anyone can write off the PPC installed base and still credibly claim to support OS X.


From: Toby (Jan 05 2008, at 10:37)

It is not at all interesting that Silverlight "runs on OS X". It's just canny politics: MS wants Silverlight adopted widely because it's a lock-in play. One of the more obvious "bullet points" raised against an MS technology is - will it work on other platforms... It's only there to neutralise that objection. They know that OS X is more widely used among developers and hip "opinion leaders" than the great unwashed Windows using masses. As soon as it reaches any kind of critical mass "out there", support for anything but Windows will wither on the vine (and as other posters point out, it's not really there anyway). When will people learn?


From: Robin (Jan 07 2008, at 03:30)

Nat's right - it's only recently that Intel Macs passed the 50% mark (of those that are actively used on the net). Can't write of PPC yet, so I'd hardly call OS X supported by Silverlight.


From: Anthony Franco (Jan 19 2008, at 16:09)

Don't know if I agree with the idea that developers are driving the creation of RIAs, and that users don't really want rich experiences on the web. I wrote a post this month about answering objections to RIAs:


Also which technology is best suited for rich applications ? Flex and AJAX can compliment one another:


Finally ... Comparing AIR, Silverlight and Java FX is not a valid comparison. Silverlight (when it launches 2.0 later this year) should be compared to the Flash runtime ... AIR is something really unique, and for cross platform desktop deployments, not for "in browser" applications


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