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