No Pause to Refresh

Rich Internet applications improve the user's experience over the Net and skip the deployment and maintenance hassles of client/server apps.

The Internet has represented a huge leap forward for many organizations, allowing them to expand the reach of their applications to remote workers, customers and suppliers. Unfortunately, limitations in browsers have meant a step backward for the user experience compared with client/server applications.

But a burgeoning group of users is solving this dilemma with new tools designed to preserve the rich content and interactive features of the desktop in "rich Internet" applications that can be accessed via a thin client. Rich Internet applications are designed to provide enhancements to usability without the deployment and maintenance headaches of client/server applications.

The new tools essentially eliminate the need to refresh a Web page every time a user enters or receives new data. They allow businesses to more easily move existing client/server applications to the Web or build new Web applications. Companies are using the tools for e-commerce and call center applications that require complex interactions with users. They also use them for applications that need to run on various devices.

Traditional HTML-based applications are built as static, page-based applications that require an HTTP request to a server every time data needs to be refreshed. However, applications on the Web often require heavy interaction with users. For example, a customer service application could require a call center representative to enter information from a customer while also accessing a technician's service schedule. These types of applications can't work efficiently with the latency that comes with constant page refreshes.

Rich Internet applications include a rendering engine in the client that can cache data and communicate back and forth with the server while still displaying the Web page for the user. The engine can process user requests to provide a more responsive user interface and fewer round trips to the server than HTML-based applications do. While HTML is a simple straightforward language for building static applications, adding any type of interaction within the user interface often requires a lot of scripting from developers. Rich Internet application developer tools are designed to plug into popular integrated development environments (IDE) while providing the windows and tabs needed to add interactive features without a lot of coding.

No Pause to Refresh
Image Credit: Belle Mellor

Keeping the Record Straight

When SunGard Data Systems Inc. wanted to move its client/server mutual fund shareholder application to the Web, the company opted to use rich Internet technology to migrate the system.

The company's Investar-One shareholder record-keeping system for mutual fund clients has 400 to 500 screens, and using traditional HTML programming to build the graphical user interface (GUI) for the Web would have taken too long and wouldn't have delivered adequate content, says Mark Judah, chief technology officer at SunGard's Investar-One business unit in Wayne, Pa.

"There's a lot of activity that takes place with financial market interfaces, and users need a lot of information on the screen that ... can be quickly interpreted," Judah says. "Traditional browser-based technology is very much HTML-based. Where you have a simple Web page that is thin, however, you're not able to obtain as rich a user experience as might be required. In just porting over our traditional fat-client GUI to a browser-based presentation, we would have had to redesign most screens."

Instead, SunGard in early 2005 began using technology from Boston-based Nexaweb Technologies Inc. to migrate Investar to the Web, a project that the company plans to roll out into production in the second half of next year. Nexaweb's technology includes developer tools that can be plugged into most Java IDEs to build Web application user interfaces with XML instead of HTML. Developers can choose to have the code execute in the client or on the server. The XML engine in Nexaweb 4.0 can process most user interface operations locally, allowing data to be incrementally updated on the client without refreshing pages.

"We will be able to take our GUI application in its entirety and port it without having to do a lot of redesign," says Judah. "We won't have any installation on the desktop, and by avoiding ongoing maintenance on the desktop, we will continue to reap cost-savings rewards."

By 2010, at least 60% of new application development projects will include rich Internet application technology, according to IT research firm Gartner Inc. In addition, at least 25% of companies using rich Internet applications in their development shops will rely primarily on the technology for developing Web applications, Gartner notes.

Optimal Payments Inc., a Montreal-based electronic payments processor, used the Flex presentation server and programming model from Macromedia Inc. in San Francisco last year to move a custom-built customer support application to the Web. The application is used by 50 customer support representatives to log and route trouble tickets.

With Flex, Optimal Payments was able to move the application in three months with only a single developer, says Dimitrios Gianninas, rich Internet application developer at the company.

"It just cost the salary of one developer to get it done," he says. "With the other application, we had to buy it, pay for maintenance and fly in people to customize it. The costs were enormous compared to what we accomplished with Flex." Optimal Payments is developing two applications with Flex—one for adding new merchants and another to allow its finance department to perform residual sales calculations—and it plans to move all new development from JavaServer Pages to Flex, Gianninas says.

Rebuilding E-mail

EarthLink Inc., an Atlanta-based Internet service provider, is using open-source tools from Laszlo Systems Inc. to rebuild its HTML-based Web e-mail application into a rich Internet application, says John Foltz, EarthLink's product manager for e-mail and for the rich Internet application.

"Web mail in general—including ours—is built with HTML, which means it looks and behaves like a series of Web pages. It makes it awkward to use and slow," he says. "Rich Internet technology will allow users to send or receive mail in the background while they're doing something else. Once the application loads up in your browser window ... there are no more page refreshes."

EarthLink plans this month to wrap up development of the beta product of its rich Internet application, which already has 3.5 million users.

Vendors, meanwhile, are readying rich Internet tools with an eye toward the developer. San Mateo, Calif.-based Laszlo, which markets an open-source platform for developing rich Internet applications, in July announced plans to team with IBM to propose an IDE project to the Eclipse Foundation Inc. that would allow developers to use the open-source Eclipse tools to build rich Internet applications. Laszlo debuted its open-source OpenLaszlo tools this month, and they have been downloaded more than 60,000 times, according to company officials.

Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at Burton Group in Midvale, Utah, says Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) and other rich Internet programming techniques represent a tacit acknowledgement that programming HTML pages was "cruel and unusual punishment" for developers.

"It used to require some very advanced development to build Web applications," he says. "Mainstream developers can take advantage of these new capabilities without being annoyed with things like the fact that Internet Explorer does things one way but Firefox does it another way. It is about raising the level of abstraction, so developers don't have to understand the plumbing."

Macromedia last week announced plans to restructure its licensing model for its Flex programming tools and eliminate the requirement that enterprises must buy its presentation server in order to get the development software, says Jeff Whatcott, vice president of product management.

The company also announced new technology that will support data streaming, so a user could, for example, get immediate notification when a stock trade clears or another transaction is processed.

In addition, the technology is designed to allow users to do contextual collaboration, he says. For example, a user looking at a business intelligence dashboard could chat online with the analyst who prepared the data for the dashboard, and the two users could work together to change data, Whatcott says.

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What Makes Them Rich

Key characteristics of rich Internet applications:

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Must be accessed by the user without a separate installation process

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Must support local application processing on the client

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Must support an event-driven user interface that extends beyond the traditional page request/response model of HTML

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Must support connectivity and synchronization with server-side processing

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Must be usable in bandwidth-constrained network environments like dial-up

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Should provide a “high-fidelity” user interface that matches the look and feel of a desktop GUI

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Should operate efficiently within multiple browsers and on multiple operating systems

Source: Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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