Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) and the progress of the web

The introduction of high-speed, high-bandwidth internet access in recent years has pushed the capabilities of the web enormously. Rich Internet Applications (RIA’s) represent the next step in web development.

A RIA takes some of the functionality of a desktop application and deploys it on the web. RIAs don’t just extend the capabilities of desktop applications, they can offer far more in terms of accessing and repurposing data as well as project collaboration due to their tight integration with the internet.

How does an RIA work on the web?

RIA’s are commonly developed for Adobe Flash Player using the ActionScript 3/MXML language, but RIAs can also be created using Javascript/AJAX, or a combination of both these technologies. The advantage of an RIA is that the ‘core application’ is stored online, so no installation is required by the user; this is great for people on the move, where applications usually associated with a desktop environment can be accessed and used through any web browser. Adobe have recently demonstrated an impressive application of the Flash Player Platform by delivering Buzzword, an online word processing application. With Buzzword, your documents are stored online and accessed via an Adobe account, which manages your documents. As of June 2nd 2008, Buzzword is integrated in the new acrobat.com (beta) website. This is in addition to the Photoshop Express beta launched at the beginning of 2008 (try the online Photoshop Express beta out here)

The Adobe Flash and Flex core programing language; ActionScript 3, offers so much in terms of functionality that it has begun to rival traditional programming languages. The Flash Player platform has a very strong presence in the RIA market due to its large user-base; in a survey by Adobe (March 2008), 98.8% of all internet users have Flash Player installed, making it the most widely deployed browser plugin. Noticing the increasing demands from web users for engaging content and the potential that Actionscript 3 opens up for RIA development freestone’s web development team have dedicated a long time familiarising themselves with the new language; quite a leap from Actionscript 2, but well worth persevering for the results we’ve seen so far.

Graphically, a Rich Internet Application has no bounds. The interface does not have to follow a strict format, transitions and effects are easy to apply and Vector Graphics mean file-size is never too much of an issue.

In the past, internet applications have always been lacking in terms of scale and functionality in comparison to traditional desktop applications. While programs on your desktop are very unlikely to disappear entirely, the scale of RIA’s could feasibly take the place of many. RIA’s have the advantages of space-saving on the end user’s machine, accessibility, no installation and faster processing on the server.

March 2008 saw the release of Adobe AIR, an application development engine which can bring RIA’s to the desktop. AIR allows web developers, with no previous experience in desktop programming, to build rich applications that communicate with a web service. This allows your Rich Internet Applications to be deployed on your user’s desktops with next to no redevelopment. Not only can existing RIA’s be published as AIR applications now, but future developments can keep AIR in mind, tying the web and a user’s desktop seamlessly.

Live Examples

Adobe Photoshop Express.

Photoshop Express takes some of the core functionality of Photoshop CS3 and deploys it in the web-browser. A user can perform basic photo-manipulation tasks as well as applying filters and effects. Photoshop CS3 is a 500MB install, whereas Express runs in Flash player on all leading browsers.
Try Photoshop Express.

eBay Desktop.
eBay Desktop allows users to keep track of their auctions and reminders without opening a browser. The interface is easy to navigate and extends the site very well without the browser menus and chrome. This AIR application was developed very much in conjunction with Adobe while they were developing AIR.
Try eBay Desktop

Discovery Channel – Earth Live
Earth Live uses real data about the Earth from the last 24 hours and displays information on a 3D globe. Different layers can be faded in or out and your settings can be saved.
Try Earth Live

Hobnox Audio Mixer
Hobnox Audio Mixer allows you to mix bass and rhythm in real time using an impressive array of real equipment. Great fun to play with and a good showcase of Flash and Java’s functionality.
Try Hobnox Audio Mixer