Rich User Experiences

09Apr10

As early as Pei Wei’s Viola browser in 1992, the web was being used to deliver “applets” and other kinds of active content within the web browser. Java’s introduction in 1995 was framed around the delivery of such applets. JavaScript and then DHTML were introduced as lightweight ways to provide client side programmability and richer user experiences. Several years ago, Macromedia coined the term “Rich Internet Applications” (which has also been picked up by open source Flash competitor Laszlo Systems) to highlight the capabilities of Flash to deliver not just multimedia content but also GUI-style application experiences.

However, the potential of the web to deliver full scale applications didn’t hit the mainstream till Google introduced Gmail, quickly followed by Google Maps, web based applications with rich user interfaces and PC-equivalent interactivity. The collection of technologies used by Google was christened AJAX, in a seminal essay by Jesse James Garrett of web design firm Adaptive Path. He wrote:

“Ajax isn’t a technology. It’s really several technologies, each flourishing in its own right, coming together in powerful new ways. Ajax incorporates:

* standards-based presentation using XHTML and CSS;
* dynamic display and interaction using the Document Object Model;
* data interchange and manipulation using XML and XSLT;
* asynchronous data retrieval using XMLHttpRequest;
* and JavaScript binding everything together.”
AJAX is also a key component of Web 2.0 applications such as Flickr, now part of Yahoo!, 37signals’ applications basecamp and backpack, as well as other Google applications such as Gmail and Orkut. We’re entering an unprecedented period of user interface innovation, as web developers are finally able to build web applications as rich as local PC-based applications.

Interestingly, many of the capabilities now being explored have been around for many years. In the late ’90s, both Microsoft and Netscape had a vision of the kind of capabilities that are now finally being realized, but their battle over the standards to be used made cross-browser applications difficult. It was only when Microsoft definitively won the browser wars, and there was a single de-facto browser standard to write to, that this kind of application became possible. And while Firefox has reintroduced competition to the browser market, at least so far we haven’t seen the destructive competition over web standards that held back progress in the ’90s.

We expect to see many new web applications over the next few years, both truly novel applications, and rich web reimplementations of PC applications. Every platform change to date has also created opportunities for a leadership change in the dominant applications of the previous platform.

Gmail has already provided some interesting innovations in email, combining the strengths of the web (accessible from anywhere, deep database competencies, searchability) with user interfaces that approach PC interfaces in usability. Meanwhile, other mail clients on the PC platform are nibbling away at the problem from the other end, adding IM and presence capabilities. How far are we from an integrated communications client combining the best of email, IM, and the cell phone, using VoIP to add voice capabilities to the rich capabilities of web applications? The race is on.

It’s easy to see how Web 2.0 will also remake the address book. A Web 2.0-style address book would treat the local address book on the PC or phone merely as a cache of the contacts you’ve explicitly asked the system to remember. Meanwhile, a web-based synchronization agent, Gmail-style, would remember every message sent or received, every email address and every phone number used, and build social networking heuristics to decide which ones to offer up as alternatives when an answer wasn’t found in the local cache. Lacking an answer there, the system would query the broader social network.

A Web 2.0 word processor would support wiki-style collaborative editing, not just standalone documents. But it would also support the rich formatting we’ve come to expect in PC-based word processors. Writely is a good example of such an application, although it hasn’t yet gained wide traction.

Nor will the Web 2.0 revolution be limited to PC applications. Salesforce.com demonstrates how the web can be used to deliver software as a service, in enterprise scale applications such as CRM.

The competitive opportunity for new entrants is to fully embrace the potential of Web 2.0. Companies that succeed will create applications that learn from their users, using an architecture of participation to build a commanding advantage not just in the software interface, but in the richness of the shared data.

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