Adobe took another shot in the emerging competition for rich Internet applications on Monday by releasing the first version of Adobe Integrated Runtime or Air and the third iteration of the Flex development framework, which is used to create Flash and Air applications.
Rich Internet apps, or RIAs, could be loosely defined as software with engaging user interfaces that typically bridge the connectivity of the Web with a graphical richness and custom user interface that used to be reserved for client software.
"With Air, we're making that leap between the Web and the desktop," Kevin Lynch, Adobe's chief technology officer, told InformationWeek. "This is about enabling Web apps to work the way people expect them to work."
Air, a cross-operating system platform that was code-named Apollo, attempts to bridge the gap between the Web and the desktop by allowing developers to create Internet-connected applications that aren't restricted by the form and functionality of Web browsers.
For example, eBay has created an application called eBay Desktop that runs on Air. Designed for heavy eBay users, eBay Desktop is a small, downloadable application launched just like a typical app today, with the click of an icon.
Since it doesn't run in a browser, it doesn't have to rely on the back and forward buttons of the browser for navigation and has a much more customized, user friendly graphical interface than the eBay Web site. It also goes beyond the browser version's capability because it keeps recent auction items in cache and doesn't require a browser refresh to notify users they have been outbid.
Adobe and its partners announced a number of other Air applications on Monday as well, including a New York Times application for reading news, a puzzle application from Nickelodeon, and AOL's Top 100 Music Videos. There are business apps here too, including stock market analysis with Nasdaq Instant Market Replay and business intelligence dashboards with Business Objects' BI Desktop.
Adobe's also using Air itself as a platform for its forthcoming Adobe Media Player, which will compete with Microsoft's Windows Media Player, and BuzzWord, a Web-based word processor Adobe bought last year. Air also powers Adobe's fastest adopted internal application, a graphically rich corporate directory.
Air is about an 11 MB download for the Windows version; there's also a Mac version and one for Linux is due out later this year. Air applications are typically very small downloads in the range of a few hundred KBs. Adobe hopes to distribute it on its Web site, with Adobe Acrobat Reader and wherever Air applications are downloaded. That same distribution method eventually got Flash installed on almost every Internet-connected computer.
Meanwhile, Adobe's also announcing Flex 3.0 as a free, open-source development framework and a technology called BlazeDS that gives developers a stronger way to link Adobe-based applications with databases.
Though the genre of rich Internet applications arguably emerged over the past several years as Adobe's Flash browser plug-in -- often used for animated and interactive features on Web sites -- became ubiquitous, the past year has seen a number of new products from Adobe, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Mozilla, and Japanese-owned Curl.
The competitive battle is likely to come down to Microsoft and Adobe, with the others playing bit or niche roles. Curl, for example, is aiming mostly for corporate use with its RIA technology.
Microsoft's banking much of its rich Internet app future on a browser plug-in named Silverlight that today competes with Flash. In the first iteration, which was released last year, it's little more than a media player. However, Silverlight 2.0, a test version of which could be released as soon as Microsoft's Mix conference in early March, brings a slimmed-down version of its popular .Net development framework to the Web and the Web to millions of .Net developers. Silverlight 2.0 is expected out later this year.
Adobe's Lynch questioned Silverlight's ability to become as ubiquitous as Flash has. He also claimed that Microsoft's strategy with Silverlight is largely backwards-looking. "While Microsoft is shooting at where we've been with Flash Player, we're also shooting where things are going," he said. "Microsoft doesn't have a cross-operating system runtime that runs on the desktop."
Nevertheless, Adobe's "staying very paranoid" about Flash development itself, Lynch said. Flash Player added HD video support last year after the announcement that Silverlight would do the same, and Adobe's fast at work on Flash Player 10, which Lynch said would add some new text and imaging improvements.
Brad Becker, group product manager Microsoft's developer division, questioned in an e-mail whether Adobe has the same commitment to the depth and breadth of coverage that Microsoft does. "We are building a true development platform, not just a player or a browser," he wrote. In addition to Silverlight, Becker said Microsoft's RIA strategy included desktop capabilities of the Windows' graphical subsystem called Windows Presentation Foundation, the Xbox 360 gaming system, and Media Center living room PC as well as mobile devices.
Becker also implied that Air represents a security risk since it lets "Web applications loose outside the browser security sandbox." Adobe has previously vouched for Air's security; new applications can't be installed without user approval, for example.
It's still largely the Wild West for Rich Internet apps. Adobe Air and Microsoft's Silverlight, to say nothing of Sun's JavaFX or Mozilla's Prism, have a long road ahead if any expect to become hallmarks of the software world. But with their ability to blend the best of Web and on-premise computing, it's quite possible they will.