As Stephenson dutifully chronicles in the excellent Baroque Cycle, no less a personage than Sir Isaac Newton was captivated by the process of alchemy. As defined by Wikipedia, alchemy is a practice that combined “elements of chemistry, physics, astrology, art, semiotics, metallurgy, medicine, and mysticism.” Among its better known ambitions was to turn dross or base metal into gold. While modern science has – a couple of hundred years later – succeeded in that particular transmutation via a nuclear reaction, to the best of anyone’s knowledge none of the pre-scientific method alchemists ever succeeded in their endeavours – most likely because they lacked the necessary tools.
Give the context of the term’s history, I find the selection of Alchemy as the project name for Adam Bosworth’s BEA project an intriguing one. As James reminds us, Jon Udell’s covered this ground before, saying:
Adam Bosworth probably regrets having shown me the Alchemy prototype in the summer of 2004. I’m like a dog with that bone, constantly gnawing. Alchemy was about pushing data intelligence into the browser. Its core components were a lightweight XML datastore and…wait for it…a simple synchronization engine.
In other words, by combining seemingly disparate elements, Bosworth was seeking to turn a base application – the browser – into gold by giving injecting it with elements of intelligence and persistence.
With Bosworth now at Google rather than BEA, I’m unaware of the status of that work, except to say that to the best of my knowledge it hasn’t seen the light of day (seems like an excellent potential donation, BEA). The problem, however, has only grown more acute. See, for example, my post here, Scott’s here, Stewart here, and the man himself, Adam, here. But even without such testimonials, the problem should be obvious to just about anyone who’s used a browser: once you lose a network connection, the browser almost immediately becomes the least useful piece of software on your machine. But does it have to be that way? Maybe not.
Earlier this week, as Simon was kind enough to alert me via IM, Sun not only announced support for the Derby codebase from Apache (nee Cloudscape at IBM/Informix) but demonstrated their version – called Java DB – functioning as the offline persistence mechanism for a browser based application. Go read Simon and Tim for the Sun perspective, and Ted for the view from a non-Sun guy. While I do think that Sun supporting multiple relational DBs – different as they may be – opens the door for FUD and potentially confuse customers, I’m going to be ecstatic if someone solves the browser persistence problem for me.
Now is the solution to the problem of offline browser access as simple as grafting a persistence mechanism onto the existing browser? Hardly. If that were the case, Bosworth or some of the talented Mozilla folks would have solved this problem eons ago. The difficulties in determining what content to cache, when to cache it, how to refresh it, and how to expire it are not trivial. They’re solvable – and I believe will be addressed – but not overnight, regardless of how plentiful the back end options might be.
One particular concern I don’t share, however, is that expressed by one of the commenters on James’ piece, Alex Goncalves, who says:
AJAX, local persistance with Derby, seems to me like we’re making the browser fatter and fatter. I mean, why not use WebStart? with rich client apps that have permissions to use local resources? Shouldn’t we just leave the browser what its good at, i.e thin-client? instead of transforming it into an abstract OS environment?
I don’t agree with this for three reasons:
- First, the line between thin and thick clients will be blurred regardless of what happens within the browser simply by virtue of the introduction of the technologies formerly known as Avalon.
- Second, I don’t see any reason why the offline persistence mechanism can’t be loosely coupled to the browser, thus preserving at least the option of a pure, lightweight browser that lacks non-network capabilities.
- Last, I think that the direction of Software-as-a-Service, browser based applications will inevitably result in the introduction of offline features and functions. Just think what Salesforce.com or Zimbra could do with a browser that handled network degradation gracefully.
Sooner or later someone’s going to turn the metaphorical dross of an offline browser into seamless offline gold. I don’t know who, I don’t know when, and I don’t know (precisely) how. The one thing that I do know, however, is that it’s probably not going to take as long as it did for the real thing. The modern day Alchemy-ists, after all, aren’t lacking the proper tools.