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Why Rich Internet Applications are better than AJAX

I recently spent some time in a grindhouse development department learning Flex as well as supporting some basic AJAX features. I’ve also been working with Silverlight for over a year as a part of my Textfyre work. In the past, I’ve worked on projects that used some DHTML. I’m familiar with RESTful web services, jQuery, HttpWebRequest, and all of the other aspects of building highly interactive web apps. I’ve never done any real Java work, but I have played around with the technology enough to know that you can do decent things with Java (although the visuals have always left something to be desired).

Throughout these efforts I’ve always kept an eye what businesses might consider the most cost-effective solution for scaling their applications, whether the application is for internal use, external use, or a hybrid. Google took the lead in developing applications with AJAX when they introduced the nicer features of gmail.com and Google Maps. This was the birth of Web 2.0 and I would say we’re still in the middle of that era. A lot of companies have adapted to AJAX using jQuery and other toolkits. In many cases, using jQuery to liven up a website is very successful.

Then there are websites that are much more than just a website. We call these web applications and they tend to try to do many or all of the things that a desktop or “fat client” would do. These applications will load large amounts of related data, like customers, orders, transactions, and more.

A few years ago, our PC’s weren’t capable of handling this kind of scenario. It wasn’t the browser, but the lack of memory, disk space, and bandwidth. Today, most people have access to high speed Internet access. Most people have newer computers with more memory and more disk space. Certainly many businesses have either adopted these kinds of computers or will within the next year or two (in their move from XP to Windows 7).

So today we have the platform and the ability to make highly interactive and data intensive web applications. But the first question anyone should ask is, what are the requirements? I’ve seen a lot of applications ported from perfectly sound desktop applications (with deployment headaches, but still, they worked) to web applications. Deployment issues aside, there was no other requirement for the application to be built in web technologies. In many cases, the users lost many features and flexibility when their apps were webified. The process of moving a complex desktop application to the web paradigm is very expensive. We now have people called “information architects” that take very sound desktop user experiences and port them to web technologies. Why do we need these people. Because building smart web applications is vastly more complicated than building smart desktop applications.

There certainly are benefits to having an application webified. In a desktop application you might have a very strict set of menus and options or a single path to each feature. In a web application, you can develop multiple paths to features with varying usage scenarios. Some of this is possible in a desktop application too, but a web app offers these types of options through links and is much more seamless.

Benefits aside, web applications are very complex applications to build and moreso, to maintain. To allieviate the maintenance costs of building web applications, tools have been developed that make creating and debugging most applications very easy. Inline debuggers allow us to literally step through every line of code, see the stack trace, review element values, and resolve issues without throwing darts blindfolded. Debugging used to be a much higher level skillset. It’s still an art and skill, but with the tools today, it’s much more widely available to the average programmer. With an exception. AJAX.

AJAX is great, as I said before, for making websites behave nicely. But when you take the technology of AJAX and marry it to a complex web application, you’re exponentially adding complexity and cost to your application development and maintenance budget. The tools for debugging AJAX are not simple. In many cases a developer will resort to using Fiddler (a tool that watches HTML transactions) and arcane alert(‘here I am!’); statements haphazardly placed within the application’s javascript. This is a nightmare scenario for any developer. The more AJAX you implement in a web application, the more complex the interactions get and debugging capabilities rapidly deteriorate. And this is if your codebase is developed well and is highly readable. If the code was slapped together in a rush, forget it. You may never completely understand what the code is trying to do and it could be safer to do an organ transplant instead of minimally invasive surgery.

With any problem, someone inevitably sees it and develops a solution. Oddly enough, Sun developed a solution before the problem existed with Java technology. The problem is that Java made more of a name for itself in the server world and standard web application development. The client side features of Java were left to cute games and scientific demonstrations. You can blame a little of this on Sun for so desperately trying to make Java pure across platforms when they should have recognized the value of implementing a VM->Native compiler for each platform (Sun, Mac, Windows, Unix, etc). Instead, Microsoft saw the potential and created .NET, not necessarily to be cross-platform, but to enable managed code, garbage collection, for client-side and server-side development.

Eventually Sun realized the potential for Rich Internet Applications and has been actively marketing related solutions. But so has Adobe with Flex and Microsoft with Silverlight. These three platforms enable cross-platform application development that does not rely on web technolgies like html, css, and AJAX. These technologies offer front to back development environments with very robust and clear layout engines (arguing that CSS is hardly clear although it is robust), strong debugging tools, and deep integration with web services.

This is where application development is headed and it’s primarily because CIO’s have started to quantify the cost of developing web applications. We made enormous strides in resolving deployment problems (10 years ago we had to package software to be installed automatically on thousands of PC’s upon login and if there was a problem or virus, well, it was very painful), but at the cost of lost features and very expensive maintenance.

We now have the ability to deploy applications that more secure ane vastly more stable than before. Managed code, which is used in all three platforms, is the key to the stability issue. Security has become a primary focus within Microsoft and no one would argue that their systems and applications have improved dramatically since the early XP days of major viruses appearing daily.

We can now develop middleware that is adaptable and maintainable at a low cost. We now have the ability to develop disconnected presentation layers that can manage large datasets, but is also easily developed and maintained. It looks pretty too, if you have good designers.

If you look at new development requirements coming out of the major job sites like Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com, Dice.com, you’ll see that Silverlight and Flex have taken off. I’m not sure why Java hasn’t, but I assume some companies will adopt the Java desktop model too.

Throw away your CSS and AJAX libraries. You’ll save time, money, and your users and your infrastructure staff will love you. So will your shareholders.

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