eWEEK Looks at the State of RIA Platforms Adobe AIR, Curl, Microsoft Silverlight, Mozilla Prism and Sun JavaFX

Click here to see screenshots of JavaFXIt was a little less than a year ago that rich Internet application technology finally matured enough to become a usable tool, although it was still very much in the early stages of development. At the time, eWEEK Labs took a look at the RIA sector and reviewed four RIA platforms, coming to the conclusion that the technology had reached the point where it could be called RIA 1.0. Now, I'm taking another look at RIAs, evaluating the maturation of the platforms reviewed last year and testing out a new--and old--player. The RIA platforms I looked at last year were Adobe Systems' AIR, Microsoft's Silverlight, Mozilla's Prism, and Curl. The new/old player I'm reviewing in this package is Sun Microsystems' JavaFX 1.0.

Click here to see screenshots of JavaFX
JavaFX
It was a little less than a year ago that rich Internet application technology finally matured enough to become a usable tool, although it was still very much in the early stages of development.

At the time, eWEEK Labs took a look at the RIA sector and reviewed four RIA platforms, coming to the conclusion that the technology had reached the point where it could be called RIA 1.0.

Now, I'm taking another look at RIAs, evaluating the maturation of the platforms reviewed last year and testing out a new--and old--player.

The RIA platforms I looked at last year were Adobe Systems' AIR, Microsoft's Silverlight, Mozilla's Prism, and Curl. The new/old player I'm reviewing in this package is Sun Microsystems' JavaFX 1.0.

I call JavaFX both new and old because one can make the argument that Java, along with Macromedia's Shockwave (from which Flash descends), was one of the original RIA platforms. However, JavaFX is a brand new product that tries to bring the ease of development and strong graphics typical of RIAs to the robust development platform that is Java. (To find out how well it succeeds, see my review of JavaFX 1.0.)

But what about the overall state of RIAs? Are we now close to RIA 2.0?

The answer is a resounding "no." Right now it's more like RIA 1.2 (or maybe even RIA 1.1). There has been some progress in the last year, but--as has been typical for RIAs throughout their history--the progress has been very slow.

There have been more Web sites, SAAS (software as a service) vendors and general software makers offering RIA applications, but these still tend to be the exception rather than the rule. RIAs also have made few inroads into the one area they must go to gain true success--namely, mobile systems.

Some of the slow adoption of RIAs can be attributed to inertia and a general misunderstanding of the technology. Many organizations would rather continue to offer their applications as general Web apps, figuring that AJAX, for example, gives them many of the same GUI capabilities that an RIA platform would, and knowing that they can deliver the apps to anyone using a modern browser, rather than relying on runtimes that may not be on people's systems.

The main penetration of RIAs has been in video and graphics areas. Popular video sites such as Hulu.com make good use of the latest versions of Flash, and Silverlight got a big boost when Netflix chose the platform for its online movie viewer technology.

However, RIA platform providers need to expand beyond this video and graphics zone if they want RIAs to reach their potential. Developers need to believe that if they build RIA applications, people will be able to easily run them on any platform and that the developer won't be limited in the apps' deployment. SAAS and other software vendors need to know that a product delivered as an RIA will provide real, unique value to customers and not just be a neat new feature.

In addition, customers and users will want these RIA runtimes to be lightweight and valuable additions to their systems, and not something that's going to just add bloat and lock content with overbearing DRM (digital rights management) schemes.

Until the RIA vendors can answer these questions in a positive way, RIAs will continue to only make slow progress and will stay mainly confined to the graphics market, which would mean that RIA 2.0 may be a few years off.

That said, what is the current state of the RIA platforms that I looked at last year?

Adobe Air

When I reviewed Adobe AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) 1.0, I called it the most capable and feature-rich of the RIA platforms, and this is still true. Along with Flash and Flex, Adobe AIR is the most mature RIA platform out there, with good development tools available and a large developer base experienced in building Flash applications.

However, I also said Adobe AIR was not all that it could be, and this is also still true. Since I reviewed 1.0, Version 1.5 was released. The big news in this version was the addition of full support for delivering AIR applications to Linux. This is important, especially for its potential in Linux-based appliances, where AIR could become an important rich application environment.

However, the progress for AIR applications is still slow, and when most people think of Adobe and RIA, they still think of Flash.

Curl

The version of Curl reviewed last year was Curl 6.0, and that is still the shipping version of the product. When I reviewed Curl 6.0 last year, it was the most finished of the RIAs I tested and the one best suited for general business applications.

Curl has released a beta of its Version 7 product, and this edition of the platform promises to add a lot of next-generation RIA capabilities, including offline support and the ability to run desktop RIAs in a secure sandbox.

Microsoft Silverlight

While Silverlight 2.0 is still the official release of the Microsoft RIA platform, the company has been busy releasing small updates to the platform in the form of toolkits.

These toolkits are collections of controls and components that make it easier for developers to build Silverlight applications without having to constantly build new code from scratch.

Silverlight has also made some impressive strides in extending the reach of its runtime. High-profile events streamed only in Silverlight have boosted the numbers of users, and the Netflix deal has put it on not only many Windows systems, but also on Intel-based Macs.

However, Silverlight is still pretty modest in scope, especially when compared with Adobe Flex and AIR. Right now, Silverlight is primarily an alternative to Flash.

Mozilla Prism

Mozilla Prism was easily one of the most intriguing platforms I looked at last year. Its easy ability for anyone to take a Web-based application and convert it into essentially a closed desktop browser offered a lot of potential.

However, almost nothing has changed with Prism since we last looked at it. There has been very little in the way of updates or new information, and Prism is still listed as a Mozilla Labs project.

Prism's capabilities most likely will be folded into a future release of Firefox, or--since it is open source--someone else may pick it up to extend it. For now, though, it remains an unfinished labs project, though one that has been used by many vendors to deliver their Web-based applications as desktop RIAs.