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The RIA Triumvirate at SXSW 2009

Thankfully – for them – each member of the RIA Triumvirate were in attendance. There’ve been budget cut-backs, hiring freezes, and other Financial Abyss freak-out tactics from each of them, but SXSW is a conference not be missed by the three with that all important three-letter strategy: RIA.

Adobe was there in force, as always including RIA Weekly co-host Ryan Stewart. Microsoft had a corner lounge with Surface and Silverlight. Sun had a comfy lounge with JavaFX and sent key JavaFX folks, even frequent RIA Weekly guest (here and here) Josh Marinacci. Last year, Silverlight was the RIA sponsor, on the backs of all the SXSW staff shirts, this year it was JavaFX. (Keep your eyes peeled here for special video editions of RIA Weekly with Ryan and Josh.)

SXSW mixes a fantastically good time hanging out with friends from near and far with a unique chance to talk with what people in the tech industry like to call “the market.” Below, I’ll give you a summary of my RIA field notes from SXSW. There’s nothing scientific about these notes, they’re (wo)man on the street quality. They come from a geographic (North American wise) and industry diverse set of people, many of who I know (or know [now] through others). Nonetheless, in the section of my trade that deals with trends and the future, anecdotes are all we have.


Adobe, as a “creative” tools and RIA vendor rules SXSW. Not only physically – running the “Adobe Day-stage,” but in mind-share. You have to remember that SXSW is a conference catering to three types of geeks: computer, film, and music. In each of those categories, Adobe has mature, respected tools to offer. Most of the Adobe’s presence was in the Creative Suite area – there weren’t as many Flash Platform people running around as last year.

That said, from the conversations I had with folks, Adobe is still cemented as the creative tool of choice for the round-corner cool kids. That said, the interest in RIAs vs. Ajax and iPhone applications was not as clear-cut. People I spoke with were not freaking out over Flex, per say. You get the feeling, though, that is Flash existing on the iPhone, it’d be another story.

Adobe is clearly the king of the hill here. The problem in tech (with 3-5 exceptions that prove the rule) is that that means nothing. Adobe’s danger is allowing hubris to take over. They will rule the Creative Suite area for far into the future, but the RIA space is up for grabs, even though Adobe is the most mature offering. You have to remember Java here. The Java VM and language created untold billions in revenue for IBM, Oracle, SAP, and countless other companies. It was, at one point, the only game in town. Sun benefited from it for a long time, and they still derive revenue from it. But, it’s not going to save Sun on it’s own.

The point is no Java and Sun. The point is to show that a company at the center of a run-away technology can let the revenue escape from their fire-wall. Why do you think Adobe is so reluctant to open source the Flash Player? Their arguments are painfully similar to the arguments we’d hear from Sun before OpenJDK. At the end of the day, the crux of those arguments was around control. In software, control drives revenue, and in all parts of their market, loosing control is Adobe’s challenge.

Let’s color this a bit, though. I’m one of those rascally people that thinks open sourcing the Flash Player would actually benefit Adobe. I talk with countless enterprise-y developers (read: those who pay for software) who trip up on the Flash Player being closed. There’s a whole generation of developers who treat “open source” like the phrase “democracy”: it’s so grand that it means everything and nothing, but it’s a sticker you want on your laptop. Who wants to say “I develop on a closed source platform”?


Here, we’re at the beginning of a long road. When I asked people – purposefully very vague and broadly to see what they’d say – “what do you think of Microsoft?” they reaction I got was a long, confused look, and then a bitter-sweet answer. After that initial odd silence, I would prod the person further by asking about Silverlight, Expression, Blend, etc. The answer I got was painfully cliché: people simply didn’t like Microsoft’s aesthetic, putting it in my own gentle phrasing. Of important note is that no one mentioned open source, “evil,” or the sort of anti-Microsoft sentiment you’d expect from the open source crowd. Part of this, as one person admitted, is that price isn’t a problem is you’re willing to pirate the software. Their core concern was that Microsoft would not help them create the look they wanted.

Pushing them more, most people would admit that they felt bad for Microsoft in the realm of round-corner cool kids. They believed that Microsoft was full of super-smart & capable people, but that something was missing. In the same way that our own James Governor will never let Adobe live down the Adobe Updater (rightly so, until they fix it), the SXSW crowd would point to Word as a sort of philosophic treatise of Microsoft’s thoughts of user design and understanding of beauty. Each person I talked to would invoke Office as hairy goiter around Microsoft’s neck that kept them away. This is obviously massively too harsh, but I am here to report on perceptions, not truths.

The SXSW crowd had a sort of latent OKness to see Microsoft succeed and be, frankly, “cool.” It wasn’t like a bunch of jocks towel snapping nerds – grounded outside of high school metaphor: two groups that will never meet and exchange good for cash in the marketplace. Most round-corner kids – as is the case with myself, dear readers – are driven to make up for all those red gashes from the locker-room.

What is Microsoft’s path – if they care to – fix this? Here’s an anecdote that starts scribbling past the “dragons be here” parts of the road-map. Once they dogged on Word, I’d jokingly ask each interlocutor, “so, I take you don’t like The Ribbon?” to which I’d get more blank stares. I’d explain the new UI in Office, and they’d answer, “oh, I use a Mac.” The hearts and minds of the round-corner cool-kids rest with Apple. If Microsoft cares for those organs, the strategic onus goes to the Microsoft Mac team, plain and simple. Azure may be a path, but VisualStudio driven inroads won’t work in the short term.

“Hi, my name is JavaFX.”

The reaction to JavaFX was even still different. The question wasn’t one of style, it was one of ontology. “What is JavaFX?” people would ask. That said, once told, there was interest, esp. at the JavaFX booth where there were comfy couches and big screens with razzle-dazzle. As Josh Marinacci says in the RIA Weekly video interview we did, one person started thinking out-loud about how they’d use JavaFX to drive a “customize your snow-board” app.

Sun has the longest row to hoe here. My sense is that they could be the Wal-mart of RIA if they rigged up their OTA enough and got JavaFX rolled out not so much on new platforms, but existing ones. Don’t think being compared to Wal-mart is an insult; that kind of thinking is dumber than an Arkansas hillbilly. Hey, Cletus, ask your pal EDGAR about Wal-mart.

Sun’s pink-dot strategy is sound, but it needs some Walton Family ruthlessness to it. Sun has to go to the metaphoric Levi’s and drive them to near bankruptcy in the name of Sun’s customers. We need Vlaskic pickle jars larger, and cheaper, than any consumer would ever need and with margins so razor thin that pickle-lords have to wrap steel around their wrists.

Sounds charming, don’t it? Hell yes it does, if you’re the one buying tube socks for $2 a dozen.

The path to RIA is through Ajax

On the RIA front in general, I talked with many people about what they thought about desktop RIAs, like AIR or Appcelerator Titanium. Here, the talk got interesting.

What the SXSW folks I talked with were mildly interested in was the ability to use web development technologies on the desktop. Not many were wild about Flex, Silverlight, or JavaFX per say. Bt, they spoke positively – though provisionally so – about using those runtimes for desktop Ajax applications.

I keep hedging the adjectives describing their interest here because no one out and out said, “I want to do Ajax on the desktop!” But, often, when talking about RIA’s, they’d stumble on the idea and there’d be a narrow-eyes flash of interest in their eyes. When I tugged them down the rabbit hole, they’d get start shaking their head in bemused agreement.

I’ve spoken with people about desktop Ajax many times of late – most recently with Appcelerator CEO Jeff Haynie on RIA Weekly – and the whole notion seems like a critically missing part of each RIA vendor’s marketing strategy. Marketing, because they could all do it (some faster than others, like Adobe who ships it in AIR and has the Coldfusion army), but none of them highlight desktop Ajax s much as their own, proprietary, RIA languages. Again: they have it, they just don’t lead with it.

It seems to me that they key here is becoming the patron or, at least, number one advocate of WebKit. Round-corner kids love WebKit, hate IE, and put up with Firefox.

Apple is the current shepherd of WebKit, perception wise, but I get the feeling that one of the RIA Triumvirate – or Appcelerator, or even Curl – could swoop in like a pearly toothed GI and start stacking up the good will one Hershey bar at a time.

Disclosure: Adobe, Microsoft, Sun, and Appcelerator are clients. I get a press badge (read: free) to SXSW and all sorts of kindness from that outfit and their people.

Categories: Development Tools, RIA.

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2 Responses

  1. "The Java VM and language created untold billions in revenue for IBM, Oracle, SAP, and countless other companies. It was, at one point, the only game in town."

    Shockwave arrived same timeframe as Java-in-browser, and had more consumer popularity, much more developer creativity. (Java did have more calculation performance at the time.)

    "Why do you think Adobe is so reluctant to open source the Flash Player?"

    Term "open source" varies with the speaker… could mean publishing code, could mean sharing governance, could mean other things. But Adobe pays millions to equip the world's desktops with modern video codecs, and we do not have permission to give that away to other developers. Rephrased, runtimes with modern video support use pricey third-party content, and so is hard to be hackable at the hobbyist level. That absolute goal cannot be attained. But many parts of the Player and its protocols have been openly published, and it certainly uses "open" protocols if they work well enough.

    "There’s a whole generation of developers who treat “open source” like the phrase “democracy”: it’s so grand that it means everything and nothing, but it’s a sticker you want on your laptop."

    Agreed, thanks. 🙂

    (Does James know of ?)

    tx, jd/adobe

Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] He’s still reluctant to move from web applications, but he’s starting to creek open the door a bit on the possibility. Still, he likes that Spaz is all HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, but on the desktop. (See more commentary on this in a recent post of mine about RIA’s at SXSW). […]