Enriched Experience

Rich-client interfaces will bring more power to Web-based applications
The vast migration years ago from green-screen dumb terminals to smart Macintosh and Windows desktops put the power of computing in people's hands. But even in this era of smart desktops, the Web-browser experience harkens backs to less-intelligent times.

Browser windows mostly display HTML, and Web applications typically are made up of a clunky series of static HTML pages. That means a user trying to buy a product online often must click through a series of pages to complete the purchase.

But the networked client needn't be dumb. After a few years of behind-the-scenes ferment, some companies are starting to place user-interface components inside the browser window, making use of XML, dynamic HTML, and JavaScript. The "rich" client interface--named for its ability to manipulate a rich, graphical format--brings more Windows-like power to Web-based applications.

"We believe you will soon see an explosion of rich clients," says Dave Mendels, executive VP of Macromedia Inc., which supplies the Flex set of components for building rich clients.

A rich client runs small applications on the desktop to work with data locally or draw on outside resources. It can communicate with a server, telling it to accept uploaded data or to send real-time data that users need. It also can reconfigure the part of the browser in which the user is working, downloading additional elements to expand the application where the user is showing interest.

The hospitality and travel industry is an early user of rich clients. At the Watergate Hotel in Washington, guests can check a calendar for available dates, reserve a room, and complete a credit-card transaction all on one page.

Rich clients also can benefit business-to-business operations. Best Western International Inc. last year chose Java-based rich-client technology from Nexaweb Technologies Inc. to help its independent hotel owners manage their properties. With the old system, when hoteliers accessed the property-management app to update room rates and availability, they often had to wait as much as a minute to move from one HTML page to the next. The transfer takes about five seconds with the Nexaweb user interface, says Harold Dibler, managing director of application development.

Return to The Future Of Software homepageWhen used within a company, rich clients can integrate multiple applications for employees, offering a composite view from different sources. Those views can be tailored to individual users or groups. Network portals, which are somewhat restrictive, currently perform those tasks. Using a smart client, an employee would receive data and services from a network server, then work with them locally while tapping into the desktop's processing power. "Rich clients should replace portals," ZapThink analyst Ron Schmelzer says.

Venture-capital-backed companies that produce rich-client components include, DreamFactory Software, and Nexaweb. Some vendors have acquired companies specializing in rich clients; others, like EMC Corp. and Inc., already are integrating the technology into their products. Meanwhile, Microsoft says it's building rich-client attributes into the Longhorn operating system.

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