What’s RIA anyway ?

RIA or Rich Internet Applications have been a buzzword for a while now, but it’s hard to find two persons who agree on what it means. It appears the word was coined by Macromedia, now Adobe, when defining the requirements for the new version of their successful browser plug-in (Flash).

Let’s break it down:

  • Application: a RIA is an Application, which doesn’t mean much except that it’s not system software. In short, it helps the user do something useful.
  • Internet: a RIA uses the Internet. Actually, not necessarily the internet, but more generally speaking a network. What this really means is that the application’s responsibilities are distributed between the user interface and one ore more servers. Exactly what is distributed, how and when is all the difference between various kinds of RIAs. What we are talking about here is presentation, validation, business logic, persistence, etc.
  • Rich: a RIA is Rich. This is probably in contrast with web 1.0 page-based applications where the interaction was limited to filling in a form and pressing submit. A RIA is Rich UI-wise, which means it has widgets that are similar to those found in desktop applications: formatted text fields, combo boxes, drop down-menus, tables with sorting and column re-ordering, to name a few.

To sum it up, a RIA is an application, with a near-desktop user interface, that requires a network to one (or more) servers for some (or all) of its functionality. This definition is voluntarily very vague, because many combinations of technology and architecture qualify as RIA.

Based on this definition however, we can refute some ideas that commonly surround RIA:

  • RIA applications require  a browser plugin: WRONG! It is true that some vendors (Adobe, Microsoft) have chosen to bypass the challenges of browser incompatibilities and poorness of native widgets by providing a plugin (Flash, Silverlight) that gives a uniform look on all (supported) platforms. But the current level of JavaScript implementation in major browsers makes it possible to implement a full-blown RIA in native JavaScript without the use of any plugin. This is even more true now that GWT is there, because GWT will take care of platform differences and let you concentrate on the programming itself. This will be even more true in the future with HTML5.
  • RIA applications are necessarily JavaScript-based: WRONG! see above…
  • A RIA application is an application that runs in a browser: WRONG! If most RIA applications run in a browser, be it in a plugin or as JavaScript, a Swing-based application launched through JNLP (WebStart) also qualifies as a RIA. And even applications that normally run in a browser can be packaged in such a way that they appear not to (see Prism for example)
  • A RIA application only works online: WRONG! This might be true for most RIAs, but it is not a requirement. A RIA application can have an online mode where it communicates with a server, and an offline mode where you work locally, and your work is later synchronized with the server as soon as it becomes available. Google Gears is one of the ways this can be accomplished. And Google Docs is one of the examples of an online/offline RIA.
  • A RIA application cannot be integrated into the OS like a native application: WRONG! Tools exist to make any web application (not even necessarily RIA) look like a native application to the user. For example, Prism from Mozilla will let you create an icon for any web page and launch it in its own window, without any browser decoration. Google Chrome will let you do the same right from the browser itself. Adobe Air goes further and provides all the missing “glue” between RIAs (Flex and JavaScript) and the OS, including creating a native shortcut, but also letting the application interact with the OS in ways usually reserved for native apps like drag&drop, access to local storage, etc.
  • RIA applications are difficult to develop and debug: WRONG! plugin-based RIAs rely on vendor IDEs that let you develop just like you would develop a desktop app. For JavaScript-based RIAs, GWT lets you develop and debug your application in pure Java, and takes care of translating it to JavaScript for deployment.

All this points to a direction: the line between RIAs and classic desktop application is getting thinner every day. Technologies used for one can now be used for the other, thanks to frameworks such as Adobe Air or GWT. And as a consequence, the user eventually will not be able to tell one from the other. And probably he won’t even care.

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