Rich Internet Applications, RIAs, are the talk of Geek Town lately. New development tools from Microsoft and Adobe (Silverlight and Apollo respectively) promise to be the tools eager developers will use to build this new generation of software applications. Are geeks geeking out over an acronym again? Or is there something revolutionary coming down the road from Geek Town?
The citizens of Geek Town have been tossing the term RIA around for years but it has only recently become popular. IMO the term is still being defined. The Wikipedia page describing the term is a collection of loosely coupled facts (some simply wrong) that’s difficult to string together – I think it’s obvious the citizens of Wikipedia are struggling to define it well. My definition of a RIA is fairly general. A RIA is a software application that looks and behaves like a traditional client-side software application but it’s available from any computer with an Internet connection and the data it’s accessing is primarily (off-line mode will be a feature of many RIAs) stored in the cloud. That’s how I define a RIA now but I’m sure my definition, like Wikipedia’s, will evolve over time as well. The technology used to create the RIA isn’t important. Accessibility is the primary driver in my definition.
I think there’s good reason to be excited about RIAs and the changes that are sure to come with them. A RIA combines everything we love about the latest generation of web apps. with functionality we’ve come to expect from traditional client-side software that doesn’t live inside a web browser. Accessibility is what I love most about the web apps. I use everyday – I can access the same information in Google Calendar or Google Reader from any machine with and Internet connection. The current generation of web apps. is great but we’re coming close to reaching the limits of what we can do in the browser. I still use a number of traditional client-side software apps but over the last year the scales have tipped in favor of web apps. Traditional client-side software simply feels bulky, isolated, and behind the times from a design and look-and-feel perspective. Inexpensive hardware is also a driver behind the move to web apps. Installing tradiditioanal client-side software in the traditional way just doesn’t make sense from a convenience or cost perspective for people with access to multiple computers.
For web apps. to evolve to the next level the technology has to change – web apps. need more access – more access to the technology that has, until now, given traditional client-side software a performance advantage over web. apps. For web apps. to evolve to the next level they have to move past the boundaries, living in the web browser, creates. The days of dealing with the awkwardness of the << Back and Next >> buttons that don’t really apply in a Web 2.0 world are coming to an end. This isn’t the end for web apps. as we know them or traditional client-side software – this is the beginning of a development period that will bring the two camps together to build better software for users. RIAs will play a major role in re-shaping how we think about software over the next ten years.
Ebay’s RIA – San Dimas Demo