Tim Bray’s contrarian views on Rich Internet Applications

There’s a though-provoking interview with Sun’s Tim Bray over on the InfoQ site. One of his points is that Rich Internet Applications aren’t worth the hype. He says that web applications are generally better than desktop applications, because they enforce simplicity and support a back button, and that users prefer them. He adds:

Over the years since then I have regularly and steadily heard them saying: "We need something that is more immersive, more responsive, more interactive". Every time without exception that somebody said that to me, they have either been a developer or a vendor who wants to sell the technology that is immersive or responsive, or something like that. I have not once in all those years heard an ordinary user say "Oh I wish we go back to before the days of the web when every application was different and idiosyncratic … ".

In further gloomy news for advocates of Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight or Sun’s own JavaFX he adds:

I suspect that the gap in the ecosystem that lies between what you could achieve with Ajax and what you need something like Flash or JavaFX or Silverlight to achieve is not that big enough to be terribly interesting.

I think there is a lot of truth in what he says, and I still regularly see Flash applications or Flash-enabled sites where I wish the developers or designers had not bothered. Nevertheless, I don’t go along with it completely. I’m typing this post in Live Writer, a desktop application, when I could be using the WordPress online editor. The reason is that I much prefer it. It is faster, smoother, and easier to use.

Another example is Twitter clients. I use Twhirl though I may switch to Tweetdeck; both are Flash (AIR) applications running as it happens outside the browser. I’d hate to go back to interacting with Twitter only through web pages.

I agree there there is some convergence going on between what we loosely call Ajax, and the RIA plug-ins; Yahoo Pipes apparently uses the HTML 5 Canvas element, for example, using this Google Code script for IE support. I’m glad there is a choice of RIA platforms, but I don’t see either Flash or Silverlight going away in the forseeable future.

It’s worth recalling that the RIA concept began with the notion that a rich user interface can be more productive and user-friendly than an HTML equivalent. I’ve written a fair amount about the legendary iHotelier Broadmoor Hotel booking application which kind-of kicked it off – and I’ve interviewed the guy who developed it – and it was undoubtedly motivated by the desire to improve usability. As far as I can tell it achieved its goals, which were easy to measure in that online bookings increased.

Multimedia, rich visual controls, Deep Zoom, offline support, pixel-level control of the UI; there’s a lot of stuff in what we currently call RIA that is worthwhile when used appropriately.

Another twist on this is that RIA is enabling a more complete move to web applications, by reducing the number of applications that do not work either in the browser, or as offline-enabled Flash or Silverlight.

Still, Bray is right to imply that RIAs also increase the number of ways developers can get the UI wrong; and that in many cases HTML with a dash of Ajax is a better choice.

I think the RIA space is more significant than Bray suggests; but his comments are nonetheless a useful corrective.

6 thoughts on “Tim Bray’s contrarian views on Rich Internet Applications”

  1. “Still, Bray is right to imply that RIAs also increase the number of ways developers can get the UI wrong; and that in many cases HTML with a dash of Ajax is a better choice.”

    Agreed on that point — gratuitous animation doesn’t always serve the needs of person-to-person communication.

    Still, when he cited Wikipedia as a popular resource, he missed that there’s more than twice as much traffic to YouTube. And “everybody understands Mickey Mouse; few understand Herman Hesse”… text is just one of our valuable communication tools.


  2. These Neanderthals will always exist. Do you remember any of this?

    I don’t need C++, I can do the same things in C.

    The Mac & Windows have people wasting time aranging icons, DOS is faster and more useful.

    It goes on and on. Sure you can do almost everything in HTML/JS/CSS that you can do in Flash/SL/Java, but that misses the point. Although you can do it, it’s much cleaner in a system DESIGNED to give you the features and ease of development built in natively.

    It will win, and the knuckle draggers will eventually come along… kicking and screaming.

  3. @Fallon

    it’s in the eye of the beholder isn’t it ?

    it seems obvious to you that C++ improves over C, but Linus Torvald thinks differently (http://thread.gmane.org/gmane.comp.version-control.git/57643/focus=57918)

    Similarly, a lot of programmers (who can type) think they are more productive in a command line environment.

    and when you say “Sure you can do almost everything in HTML/JS/CSS that you can do in Flash/SL/Java … It will win, and the knuckle draggers will eventually come along… kicking and screaming.”

    Well… we’ll see. Javascript is getting faster. Who knows what will happen when/if Microsoft supports Canvas ?

    you can do in Java what you can do in Javascript, I wonder if you are the last person on earth who still write Java applets ?
    Flash is

  4. @rich

    I do have an opinion, but I dropped it at the door when I made that response.

    FACT: DOS lost, with all due respect to those that loved it(me included).

    FACT: C lost to C++ in the mainstream, whiners can still make a living crying about it, but it’s just a fact.

    FACT: The Mac lost to the PC, proving the old adage that you can recognize the Pilgrims by the arrows in their back.

    RIA will supplant the HTML cabal, not eliminate it for the mainstream.

    Every technology that gets displaced isn’t always superior in every way, but just enough in the right ways to provide a competitive advantage.

    However, that’s just the way I see it, I could be wrong, but I haven’t been yet(which is , of course, no guarantee, LOL).

  5. Right tool for the job! I don’t want photoshop coded as web pages with back /forward buttons, or my video editing software, or my email. Oh, and all those business users still using old mainframe apps are doing so for a reason: massive productivity for data entry. Forget about converting them to web, they will hate you!
    RIA’s are useful in some circumstances, as are html based sites. Think about the desired usability and user experience, and pick the right tool!

  6. It’s definitely a case of the right tool for the job. Currently I am in the process of converting an AJAX-based application to a Silverlight-based one. This application deals with reasonably large collections of objects (10,000+ objects).

    The improvements obtained by the Silverlight application are huge. The application is much slicker than it used to be. This is mainly because the application is really suited to be a desktop application, rather than a web app, but must be distributed by the browser. SL just makes this a delight.

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