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The RIA Horse Race – Adobe Engage 2008

Today Adobe released both the 1.0 version of AIR (formally “Apollo”) and Flex 3.0. More than technical merits, most people I talk with are interested in the RIA horse-race, naturally. Even more specifically, they want to know the vendor sports of Adobe vs. Microsoft. The Flash Family vs. Silverlight and the .Net All-stars. Clearly, there are many other companies and products running around, but the interest is largely on Adobe and Microsoft, with an occasional sprinkling of JavaFX and (of late) a dash of Mozilla Prism.

As a side-note, it was at about this time last year that I was at Adobe Engage 2007 and they started making much public noise about “Apollo” as they called AIR back then. Now, I’m at Engage again, so we’ll have to compare and contrast. Hopefully there’ll be some news or hints about AIR 2.0 or any other new projects.

But, back to the racing news.

Two Approaches to the Same Goal

Adobe and Microsoft are coming at the RIA product line challenge from two opposite directions, and they’re efforts and hiccips so far match this pretty well. Adobe’s base is largely built of “designers” and people who are more creative than programmer minded. Microsoft, of course, is coming from the developer angle and base.

There’s this idea of a designer/developer out there that we’ve been chasing forever: a person who can not only write clean code, but make the result look good and be usable. Both Microsoft and Adobe and all the other RIA toolers are racing towards being the tool supplier for this designer/developer persona.

Adobe comes out looking strong because they’ve had a head start on making things look good, namely, on design. Indeed, the Adobe toolchain is the de facto standard for design in this regard.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has the ability to pull from the entire .Net and Redmond brain trust when it comes to programming – we’re hoping to see Silverlight 2.0 deliver on a large part of this theory that Microsoft can dominate the developer side of things.

The Wayward Java Souls

One interesting thing Adobe did even before all these RIA vendor sports frothed up was a lot foot-work to capture the attention of the Java world. This involved not only evangalising Adobe RIAs to Java folks, but getting Adobe to finally do some significant open sourcing.

Java developers rarely use anything new that’s not open source or feels open source: it just feels too much like being a Microsoft programmer. Less snarky, it feels like you’re giving up part of the control over your tool-chain that you’d rather keep. Keep for what? It doesn’t really matter. Tools people merely asking is an indication that you’re probably not open enough.

It goes without saying that most of the Children of LAMP style programmers are even more extreme on that front. And while Adobe isn’t fully open source on the RIA toolchain, they’re close enough to invite into your house for a cup of coffee.

I’m continually surprised by the number of Java developers and shops I encounter who are already using and liking Flex. A 1.0 version of AIR could find a lot of easy up-take among that crowd. More importantly, I have dim view of Java people taking a liking to Microsoft. Perhaps Sun’s yet to be 1.0′s JavaFX, but it may be too late for some development cycles.

Silverlight’s Next Moves

Key for Silverlight success is matching the Flash player’s ubiquity but also getting all of the .Net programmers out there to start developing for the RIA web rather than for the desktop. Deals like getting the Olympics to use Silverlight are the beginning of this, but Microsoft will need a slew more of such arrangements. Adobe has had years and years to spread the Flash player – you gotta be able to see sbmail.exe! – and Microsoft is starting at day one.

Ubiquity and maturity puts the Adobe horse out front at the moment. But, the inflection point where developers go over en mass and don’t look back seems long on the horizon. That is, Silverlight and other RIA platforms probably have about a year or so window to get out there and win over hearts and minds before decisions are locked down. Most important are the dark-horses like Mozilla Prism, or one of the RIA b-side vendors going whole hog open source and just shocking everyone with that move. And then there’s JavaFX, which – and I have no inside info – you’d expect to be 1.0′ed at JavaOne. (If it’s not, that window is gonna get tough to fit Java through.)

So often in technology, we like to pick winners as early as possible. And then things like Ajax come around and totally re-define what the contest was all about. So far, the RIA world is heavily vendor defined (if you consider it the evolution of Ajax without excluding Ajax). The larger “community” hasn’t really laid much down except continued use of Ajax. Perhaps folks will just stick to Ajax, adopt vendor-based RIAs, or come up with something entirely new. We’ll see next year at Engage 2009.

Disclaimer: Adobe, Microsoft, and Sun are clients.

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Categories: Conferences, Open Source, Programming, The New Thing.

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Continuing the Discussion

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