AIR coming of age

Posted on June 13, 2008

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Now is a hugely exciting time to be involved in the web. I believe we’ll look back at the early 2000’s with a sense of awe at the rate and extent of technological change. Personally, I believe it’s faster and more engaging than it ever has been before. The 1990’s were exciting in a different kind of way – in a crazy, rollercoaster, unsustainable, first toe-dipping way. It was good for jobs, too – I remember a period of a few months where I literally – and I exaggerate not – got 2/3 offers a week; and I wasn’t really that much cop, either. That doesn’t happen any more. Or maybe Google lost my number 🙂

The good ‘ole days were fraught with tension and frustration, too. There was so, so much we couldn’t do – so many hacked together approaches, so many nastinesses in browser renderings, so much uncertainty about frames, browser-dependent tags and dialup speeds. Even saying that makes me chuckle now – hey, we used to worry about whether a page was 10Kb or 20Kb – imagine…

Today, things are markedly different. The challenges are – at least to someone like me – actually much more satisfying. They’re not generally about whether system A can talk to system B, they’re about the more human challenges: will person X understand what I mean when I say Z; will they use what I’m building, and how? How can I hit this niche? What’s the best marketing strategy? Can I ever, ever make money doing X?

More and more, we’re also asking “where will we use it?”.

Everyware – the notion that the internet is all around us – is, as you will probably know, a notion that I believe forms an absolutely central part to where this all goes from here. And core to Everyware are real questions about convergence and re-purposing (remember those phrases..?).

A while back, I took a quick look at the blurring line between desktop and web apps. Back then I commented that two major player were entering the “Rich Internet App” (RIA) space – Microsoft with Silverlight/WPF and Adobe with what had been Adobe Apollo and which became Adobe AIR.

Microsoft is – obviously – never a player to be underestimated. They’ve got the desktop sown up, an unfathonable quantity of cash, and some serious technologists who know their shit. On the other hand you’ve got Adobe, previously somewhat irritating to “serious” web developers who didn’t want to learn Flex or Flash, and considered them “something for them weird designer types”.

Microsoft have done some nice stuff with Silverlight and WPF. But…it seems terribly, horribly cumbersome – it’s all a bit .Net, a bit codey, a bit deep and impenetrable. Frankly, a bit ‘fn dull. Over on the other side, Adobe chose a lightweight “if you can do it in xhtml, know a bit of AJAX and can cope with expanding your javascript a smidgin” approach.

You know what? Adobe are winning, hands-down, with absolutely no doubt whatsoever: AIR is getting huge numbers of column inches from the major blog writers compared to Silverlight. The AIR applications being built are deep, beautiful and useful, even for the Enterprise. They install easily, they’re rich and quick and well designed. They make the transition from desktop to web seamless.

And as usual, it’s the easy, lightweight, familiar approach which is beating the heavy, technical and possibly “more feature rich” one. Once again, people like me – semi-serious web types – can play with technologies we understand; we can see results almost immediately; we can view source and copy what other people have done. And we are writing desktop apps which you can – pretty much as-is – also deploy to the web. From a reality perspective, this is an exciting way to think of applications: true develop once, deploy to many channels.

This is holy grail land. If you haven’t played with AIR, go do it now…

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