I just finished a blog post by James Ward (by far the best Evangelist Adobe have today) and it was a bloody good post, so much so, it helped me formulate this post (inspiration can come from many things I guess).
“I was a young man with uninformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything; and to my astonishment the ideas took like wildfire. People made a religion of them.” - Charles Darwin
I start with this quote, as at times we all get overtaken by absolutes and assume that is the law of the land and be done with it. To challenge a belief, is never popular and to ask a community to adjust their perception can be considered misconduct or easily labeled as bullying behavior / crazy. Religions are formed based on loosely defined ideas and when an agenda is the fueling such ideas, absolute obedience is required. To then defy such obedience, those that do so can be swarmed by what I call the "policy" police, obedience must be protected at all costs.
As a result, emotions boil and nothing get's resolved, except someone sure as the earth is round, get's a beating.
Allow me to explain further.
When you think of RIA what is it your mind casts an image to first? I think each person will have a unique response, but I would hazard a guess it could/may involve a focus on brand power. If you do conjure this image, you are now sadly seeing the wrong approach to RIA and you can be forgiven as branding can be easily crossbred to produce application like solutions.
If you don't, ignore this post and continue on building RIA, then come back and show me or others
RIA isn't about attention/eyeballs, it's supposed to be focused on empowering end users of a defined type, to carry out mundane task through an enriching user experience. User Experience is the key, in that a true RIA solution has the power to abstract complexity through aggregation or 360 degree view(s) of content without altering context.
One would further argue this is the same principals of what a Desktop Experience should have, and I would easily agree. In fact, I hope the next evolution of the Desktop driven software does! - yet - the difference between a Desktop and RIA client, is simply that it has the ability to be positioned within the middle tier. It has the capability of being utilized on any client or device surface with minimal effort required by such end user(s).
It simply put, empowers.
It looks like a desktop, therefore it's RIA right?
If you were to take a simple example, of a typical HTML bullet list of names (eg: HR Review System). Each name represents a person or entity within a organization. The end user clicks on such name, and as a result the context of view alters and the screen repaints with what typically would be a more in depth view of such person (personal details in tabs, photos, review metadata etc). If you were to then throw in some animations, form controls, transition sequences or a desktop styled menu bar - one could then argue "behold! this is RIA, see.. it looks like a desktop".
Yet what has happened in reality? Sure the UX has gotten a better story behind it and it may be more inviting, but what really has happened to the context of view and how did this alter a persons experience from what is typically found within a Desktop solution of similar type (ahah! X-Platform you say.. hold that thought).
This is where RIA is essentially ready to take over from such a web site driven experience. It has the power to alter perception, to adjust the context further by allowing the end user to aggregate slices of such data to carry out more complex tasks yet doesn't require as much effort.
If you were to swap out the bullet list of hyper linked names, and replace them with Document Icons within a GridView Container. Each Icon has a male/female icon in the top right corner. Below such icon is maybe some other metadata (ie star rating on such users performance, profession type indicator, etc).
The UX story doesn't just change, but the overall complexity becomes more abstract as now the end user has the possibility of thinking of this bullet list as becoming a living breathing document. A document that I want to drag to another zone within the User Interface. A document that I want to cut and paste elsewhere. A document that I want to print, edit or merge, A document that I want to see pages of data to view and explore with the context of a single person in mind. A desktop experience, housed within a middle tier.
The experience changes, the interactivity of the experience changes and yet the data behind the rich client has the capability of staying static, un touched or passive (whichever you choose to best describe this). One has the ability to treat it like a document, but with hidden twists and turns along the way. As you scroll down a page of data around a person, you see form controls embedded within. You may even see video, audio or what have you around that person also embedded within - much like some Harry Potter magical news paper. RIA isn't about forms or emulating a desktop UI, it goes far beyond this.
That is Rich Interactive Application (RIA) shifting the paradigm. It had nothing to do with the Internet, suffice to say it's housed within an agent which is connected to the Internet - or - Intranet.
Whom says you can't copy and paste between Facebook and Flickr, the only thing stopping you is you're ability to aggregate the view(s) and focus on mature approach to RIA's instead of wanting Flickr and Facebook to become the actual RIA's.
RIA needs maturity to succeed.
What we are seeing publicly online more of these days, is microsite styled branded solutions being classified as RIA, something which at every turn sets the idea of RIA back further. The confusion between attention economies and application have given birth to such cross bred solutions, and as a result immaturity reigns supremacy. The loudest voices win all arguments and so the mob takes over control. The fallout / collateral damage? technology, partners and ecosystems underpinning RIA in it's early infancy can starve themselves of more realistic enterprise grade potential. Simply because of how easily perception becomes reality, how advertising and buzzwords overshadow core ideas and principals of design.
I look at a company like Microsoft. I think of many things about Microsoft, but one thing that I find most if not all will agree upon, maturity. It's a company that works very hard at maintaining maturity (patience mostly) in it's solutions and being successful is easy, staying successful - now that is the real hard trick. Is it perfect? no, but whom/what really is perfect? Today's IT Perfection is simply an evolutionary process, growing more intelligent as time passes and trying not to repeat past mistakes from not only their own history, but others.
RIA for Microsoft is important, it's the in part one of the key pillars to our future. Our over arching vision in my mind is similar to the what the original architects, engineers and designers of the Millau viaduct faced.
Millau Viaduct is a story, of defiance. Bridges are common around the world, and there are many ways to tackle them, but the ones that stand out are the ones that are defiant in their ability to do more than just allow people to go from one end to another.
Here is a bridge, that spans enormous heights and has an impressive length that would scare any politician in terms of funding (as it's construction will end up going beyond their term of employment). It crosses over terrain that roads themselves have a hard time navigating, but none the less its also made with enormous amounts of passion and it's actual design was built to inspire, to be photographed and in many ways intimidate the imagination but not scare (as well, you got to cross that damn bridge in the end).
I've studied the story of this bridge as it fascinated me, and in the end it required mature thinking, mature engineering and mature ecosystem to support it's vision. You can't build something this size without a strong partners, understanding of your target audience and more importantly the best engineers money can buy.
Microsoft brings years of experience in the software industry to RIA. It's bringing an entire product eco system, matched with partners whom have invested billions in the products it ship's year after year. It won't inherit someone else's legacy, it will look to make it's own mark, and help shape RIA into something much like what it believes marvels like Millau viaduct achieved. It won't be the only company to do so, but I would lay bets that it has the capability to raise the benchmark high.
Our vision of RIA is still being built, what you see before you today is simply "Pillar 1", the next hurdle, is Pillar 2 and so on. Understand the destination, and you will have a firm grasp on the journey ahead.
What do you want to be? an engineer? architect? project manager or critic?
Competition is a good thing right?
Hold the bridge analogy in your mind.
I started this post with a quote form Charles Darwin. It reminded me of this whole compete situation I seem to dance with some all to often. Folks, it's simple, a religion has been formed and disciples have been born and any whom oppose will be swarmed in those whom will try an enlighten.
In fact, this entire post could be argued as a religious doctrine according to Microsoft Staffer such as myself. That's ok, I hope not but I'm indifferent to what folks do with this, suffice to say two things - I don't pretend to be the oracle of that which is RIA and I hope all it does is provoke original thinking (negative or positive, but please pause long enough to consider what RIA is).
I find the RIA conversation within the Adobe blogsphere anchored down with a notion that one man's idea is tomorrows vision. It has no ending, and it really never had a beginning it was simply an idea for the future in which Macromedia products should head towards (it was bold, and the marketing brochure had me sold). It was marketed as best it could, the technology made some strong effort in the "Rich Internet Application aka Rich Client" space, but in the end it realistically didn't take as quickly as this one man hoped it would when it was authored.
Like all software companies, mistakes were made and I could point out lots but in the end, the vision changed, just the doctrine didn't get updated. A new change of the guard was established and two cultures whom once fought over which had the first piece in UX technology, united and painted what I call an upgrade to the "Macromedia RIA Roadmap" - only, it looked different to this one mans vision.
At this point, I'd like to make mention of something that stuck with me when I first heard movement of Silverlight/WPF from Microsoft (pre joining Microsoft). A Macromedia staffer told me once "...See, they know RIA is the future and so they are now validating it by competing in our market(s)".
Validating? or simply tired of waiting for the first pillar of the bridge to be built?
Competition is a good thing, and it will be something that both brands will continue to knawel away at until something big happens. That big thing could be anything and everything and I don't think it will be the one whom finishes the bridge first. I think it's going to come down to many things, but the neither has the perfect solidified answer.
RIA though, needs to evolve from where it was yesterday/today into where it should be tomorrow. Inheriting a Product Roadmap from one brand and expect all other brands to follow suite, isn't the way forward. Rich Interactive Applications is simply Microsoft's vision of "Pillar 2". "Pillar 3" may take on a different name and the ultimate choice for one and all is simply figuring out which bridge is worth investing in it's construction.
You can make dual investments or you can make just one. Competition is a good thing, but it can also limit your potential should you invest on blind faith. (now you can let go of the bridge analogy).
RIA discussions take many forms and depending on whom your buying from and why, you will argue what you will. Yet, I'm left with a final summary of it all today.
In a cage is a chimp and a 800lbs gorilla, the chimp is good at making jokes, dancing and performing amazing tricks. It captures the crowd's attention with such display and most applaud it's behavior, even the Gorilla (whilst others deplore it's caged state). Yet, it comes to feeding time, one of them goes hungry the other doesn't.
The trick for you the upcoming bridge/RIA/developer/designer/disciple is to figure out whom the gorilla is, whom the chimp is and lastly but the most important of all - when is feeding time likely to begin?.
There is no right or wrong answer and it's up to you to make what you will of it all. Everyone around you tells you what RIA is and isn't but in the end, you still don't know, because you're preoccupied with figuring out whom is the Gorilla and whom is the Chimp.