Web applications are all about the connection

No Web, no app. Even if you want to look at content that you saw the last time you were online, you’re out of luck if you’re not connected to the Internet.
Web apps also tend to be a bit short on power compared to installed programs, and they can’t interact with your desktop or file system (which can be both bad AND good, I hasten to add).

Enter rich Internet applications (RIAs) – the name coined by Macromedia (now part of Adobe) for those applications that are neither fish nor fowl – they can run on your desktop, thanks to a downloaded client engine, but they’re Web apps all the same. Adobe’s freshly released Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), and associated development tool, Flex, provide the wherewithal for their genesis.

Applications built for AIR can run on the desktop, without benefit of Web browser or Internet connection, and can interact with the computer’s file system, yet they are seamlessly attached to their parent sites when you are online. They’re used in places like eBay Desktop, where bidders can interact with the online component and even drag their eBay watchlist right to their desktop and pull it into a spreadsheet, in an AOL Top 100 Videos widget, and on children’s site Nick.com, where it delivers an interactive puzzle that encourages users to explore the entire site.

Adobe is not the only one playing with AIR – it has a vigorous developer community. Poly9 Group Inc., for example, is an open source research and development lab located in Quebec City which has developed a 3D globe that’s used in such diverse applications as a map that tracks Santa for NORAD, Spinvision, which plots YouTube videos on a moving globe, and Skype’s Nomad campaign. The company has both an AIR version of its app and a JavaScript version for developers who aren’t familiar with Adobe technologies, and is busily plotting a smartphone version as soon as AIR is released for mobile.

But AIR isn’t the only RIA-like development platform – there’s Mozilla’s Prism, which creates single session browsers (SSBs) that run one site like an application on the desktop, without any of the browser accoutrements like toolbars (although you still must be online), and Google Gears, a browser plug-in that caches activity so if the connection is lost, a Web application can continue running. It’s currently in use in Google Reader, Google Docs, Zoho and Picasa Web Albums.

They’re a far cry from the static HTML pages of yore. These products merge desktop and Web, at times virtually seamlessly: a dream for developers and users, and a potential nightmare for security specialists. They raise the bar for Web site design, and likely will also increase demand for ISVs and partners who learn their mysteries and can create and support them.

It’s enough to set one’s head spinning like Poly9’s globe.

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree

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