Paint manufacturer Behr Process Corp. saw an opportunity to use technology to make paint shopping online and in stores a whole lot easier for consumers. The company also wanted to offer highly interactive capabilities such as very quickly making slight changes of color or finding coordinating shades that stretched the limits of what many Web-development tools could do.
Behr is using a new generation of tools from Laszlo Systems Inc. that offers that kind of interaction on the company's Web site and in kiosks at 1,600 Home Depot stores where Behr is sold. Now customers looking at a shade called Chilled Lemonade can compare it to Pale Daffodil and Satin Soufflé without flipping through a lot of static Web pages. "Getting information in front of a customer in a form the customer wants is critical," Behr marketing VP Mary Rice says.
Expect in the coming year a lot of attention on companies improving the performance of their Web sites using much more advanced Web-development tools. "Usability remains a key concern for executives responsible for Web applications," Jupiter Research analyst David Schatsky says.
Programming languages such as Java and dynamic HTML are getting more sophisticated in helping developers move Web applications to a higher level of performance. But they still have a way to go. While they're able to function in tightly controlled IT environments, they still have difficulty supporting the jumble of operating-system and browser versions outside the corporate firewall.
A new generation of development tools is emerging for building dynamic, highly interactive Web applications with rich-client interfaces incorporating data, graphics, audio, and video. Macromedia Inc., with its Flash development toolset, is the biggest force, Schatsky says, particularly for building applications that work outside a corporate firewall. And startup companies such as Curl, DreamFactory Software, and Laszlo have entered the rich-client interface arena.
Analysts at research firm IDC predict this segment will make up a big part of the $3.1 billion portal market by 2006, as the future of Web applications will likely be rich-client interfaces using Web services to connect to powerful Java and .Net applications running on back-end servers.
Companies are just starting to tap the potential. In the presidential campaign, Democrat Howard Dean's team uses Laszlo's software to build the campaign-events calendar on its Web site. Ben & Jerry's uses Macromedia tools to assemble the portion of its Web site showing how ice cream goes from cow to cone. Not exactly eye-popping stuff. But as developers experiment with the next generation of tools, expect Web sites to start serving up far more surprises.