The liveliest session at RedMonk’s annual unconference at Sun Microsystems CommunityOne event on Monday was the rich Internet application discussion. Given RIA was the last chat of the day, that was pretty good going. A point that Stephen also makes here with some photographic evidence. Its always interesting to see the way our industry makes progress, without any agreement on definitions. From a personal perspective the RIA session felt like a vindication of the unconference format. It wasn’t a panel, with the “experts” telling everyone else what to think, it was a discussion where we were all peers. I took some positions to keep the conversation lively (I prefer Poor Internet Applications). Unfortunately I lost the notes I took while moderating so I can’t provide a formal writeup [fail!] but here are some impressions. The whole session was taped though, so I will provide links later.
Funnily enough, it was a strong injection of cynicism that really transformed the conversation from belly button fluff gazing to something valuable. We’d been toying with the question of RIA definitions when Dain Sundstrom of the Apache Software Foundation stepped in:
“I didn’t say that RIA is a load of b/s. I said this discussion is b/s”
Dain’s point was that we were talking about esoteric technically focused issues, when the truth is that what really defines a rich Internet application is good design. At this point I have to make an embarrassing confession – I left the notes from the session at the venue when we left, so I am writing this up from memory. Although it wasn’t his quote, Dain’s point, and the point of the discussion as a whole as that:
“People conflate RIA with good design”
It was pretty funny to see Adobe evangelists face an audience not comprised of fanboys. Without naming names I know that at least one of the Adobe guys left the session feeling that: “we got our butts kicked”. Don’t beat yourself up guy… Its great to test Adobe’s ideas in an open environment. Barack Obama will hopefully blow John McCain away – but without being fire-tested by Hilary Clinton, forget about it.
Adobe has an intriguing working definition of a RIA – “an approach that mimics real life.” RIA should learn and improve based on our experiences (that’s a core Web 2.0 pattern, as Duane pointed out) . On the flipside go to a bank and try and do something and you’ll find the existing process is sub-optimal. Or as I put it:
“Real Life Sucks”.
I really can’t understate how much I appreciate the guys that came to our show last year and then came along in 2008 again and made such a solid contribution. RedMonk super-platinum-with-diamond-sparkles card holder Savio Rodrigues said our second annual unconference rocked summed up the RIA session thusly:
The RIA discussion benefited from the “industry experts” from Adobe and Sun (i.e. JavaFX) in attendance. Surprisingly enough, we couldn’t agree on a definition for RIA. Adobe’s James Ward suggested that “RIA is anything that lets you interact with computing in a way that you would with the real world”. Someone asked if the Wii was a RIA using James’ definition and James agreed that it was. Others felt that RIA was just another name on things the industry invented 15-30 years ago. Everyone agreed that not all applications should be RIAs. And that a pretty app that is useless is still a useless app.
I think that was the really important point – our industry has a goldfish memory, especially when it comes to learning and driving best practices. Pure eye candy can be a bad thing. Usability is far more important than glitz. Too often we forget the basic principles of good design. Some like me never learned them in the first place.
A good HTML design will always beat a poor Flash one.
One important distinction we tried to tease out was where RIA had value in the enterprise. Jeremiah Stone from SAP argued that specialised roles, and training, could and should help with better UI design, but admitted that SAP screens have a poor reputation for ease of use. I used by favourite example of rich Internet apps in the enterprise- T-Mobile US uses Flex to front end its SAP HR apps, and uses vanilla or “chrome” rather than a custom design, to help with maintainability, and allow for more rapid development.
Lauren Cooney recently left IBM to join Microsoft and brought one of her new colleagues along. Sadly we couldn’t here about Silverlight from Michael because he had to leave early. But it was cool, if not a little trangressive, to have Microsoft people at CommunityOne. Next year I will try and get more along.
I am going to post this blog now, even though it feels a bit unpolished. I want to spend some with my family… after being away most of the last two weeks.
Thanks for the image use Ted Leung!