Monday, February 25, 2008

The RIA Battle Heats Up

I just got back from Adobe Engage, the launch event for Adobe AIR 1.0. Engage was a one day event which was hosted by Adobe's new CTO, Kevin Lynch. I've been seeing more of the Adobe guys over the past few months both at various conferences and in other settings. I've really been pleasantly surprised at how Adobe seems to be using Macromedia to change the more conservative culture of Adobe, as opposed to trying to enforce Adobe culture onto the acquired company. Promoting Kevin Lynch from Macromedia into the CTO role as well as promoting a variety of Macromedia folks within the organization seems to really be working for them. Sure change doesn't happen overnight but they seem to be doing quite well.

What I liked about this event was that it was a true mash-up of solid customer case studies, insight on how Adobe sees this space, and a good opportunity to catch up with a lot of interesting people including finally meeting some people like Michael Cote who I've been in touch with over the years but have never had a chance to meet in person.

Overall the AIR folks have really done a good job. I think their vision of allowing the use of Web technologies for building desktop applications will definitely resonate with a large audience. Also, while Flex itself is an Adobe controlled technology, AIR will also support Ajax-based toolkits meaning that users will have the freedom to mix and match Flex and Ajax in their desktop RIAs. Before you correct me, in Adobe's mind "desktop" and "RIAs" are not mutually exclusive :)

While Adobe still intends to keep control of the Flex & AIR technologies they have made a huge amount of progress in figuring out that an open-source strategy is not mutually exclusive to running a viable commercial business. Yesterday, Adobe launched a new Web site dedicated to their open source activities. The Web site doesn't only highlight Adobe open-source projects like BlazeDS And Flex SDK but also real contributions they are making to third party projects like Tamarin to Mozilla and enhancements they made to WebKit which they are planning on contributing back.

I think the timing of this day was not incidental. It comes 10 days before Microsoft's mix08 event where among other things Microsoft is expected to announce Silverlight 2.0, the biggest competitor to Flex (Sun's JavaFX seems to be pretty much dead on arrival). The AIR announcement is likely a nuisance for Microsoft. Due to its cross-platform nature (the company really supports Linux) it offers a compelling story to its users while significantly reducing the value of the underlying operating system as it works identically on them all. Today the support for OSes includes Windows, MAC OS X and Linux. The success of AIR can therefore generally be seen as a bad thing for Windows.

On the flip side, never count Microsoft out of the game. While they still have very limited adoption they do have some things going for them including the flexible programming model which supports multiple languages and what appears to be a very efficient runtime as opposed to Flex which bets on JavaScript. And of course, Microsoft has always been pretty good with developers.

All in all seeing the two companies battle it out is going to be interesting especially in today's day and age where Microsoft has to be more careful about the tactics they employ. While that is happening, Ajax which is still by far the #1 technology for building RIAs will also continue to make progress and while I don't think it'll deliver all the capabilities of Flex and Silverlight those vendors are unlikely to penetrate the market without a good Ajax co-existence strategy (which AIR seems to tout).

Last but not least, many ask me where PHP fits into the picture. Now that the browser will have storage (SQLite, Gears) and a strong programming model will the business logic move into the client? The answer to that question was repeated a few dozen times today. Almost everyone was talking about how these desktop RIAs interacted with the "cloud". The cloud represented business processes, information assets, social graphs and business logic. Well guess what, PHP is the cloud and the cloud is going nowhere. On the contrary, as the world's desktop applications migrate to RIAs either on the Web or on the desktop, PHP will only become more critical to the Web. In fact a recent survey the did showed that PHP was the most dominant server-side technology among their RIA community.

Next week I'll be on a couple of panels at mix08. I'm looking forward to discovering what Microsoft has in stock for us.

In the meanwhile, if you have any thoughts regarding these technologies and how you'd like Zend to think about them please feel free to drop me a note either on this blog or to my email andi at zend.