Rich Internet Applications – the true deliverable of the cloud

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I am still struck by how tenuously so many in the IT industry cling to their belief in the ubiquitous unchanging nature of the client – server model, and how any new ‘disruptive’ technology is somehow not going to disrupt this model. I set out to write this as something of a personal crusade, but […]

I am still struck by how tenuously so many in the IT industry cling to their belief in the ubiquitous unchanging nature of the client – server model, and how any new ‘disruptive’ technology is somehow not going to disrupt this model. I set out to write this as something of a personal crusade, but as you will see at the end by accident the timing was good, and it seemed that others including the great Ray Ozzie and Steve Jobs, came to my rescue by making their own views public.
The trigger for me was the pre-release of the Microsoft Internet Explorer 9, IE 9, browser at the end of September representing the first in a series of browser releases that move the capabilities of the browser into a more suitable vehicle for delivering cloud services. Google Chrome 7 is on the starting blocks, and Mozilla FireFox 4 is at beta release 6, as well as more specialsed browsers such as Opera, which is popular for mobile devices, also moving towards significant changes. These new releases are not just about boosting speed – though Google claims that Chrome 7 is up to sixty times faster – they are about supporting a new generation of Rich Internet Applications, RIAs, that go beyond the display of content from the web that has dominated the design of the current generation of browsers.

RIAs are in use today as improvements in graphics around content have been developing for some time, and lie behind the success of Adobe and the introduction of HTML 5. However, the goal is now to seamlessly blend content with process in a continuous uninterrupted flow that will enable browsers to smoothly scroll through and handle complex long running interactions with content that will also be interspersed with application style transactions. The current progress through a series of web pages interspaced with relatively long waits should become a thing of the past.
At the heart of these changes is the need for browsers to have new capabilities to carry out their role as the delivery mechanism for the more complex ‘services’, or orchestrations of ‘services’ that the shift to genuine cloud computing will provide. This requires the browser to move beyond being a simple display device for content and making few demands on the PC, or device, on which it is running, to actually requiring both the operating system and the hardware being designed to support it. In the case of Microsoft IE9 this means a Windows 7 Operating System and the presence of a Graphics Processor Unit as part of the hardware, and in the competition with Chrome it again is orders of magnitude faster. Unlike earlier browsers which can only make use of 5 to 10% of the device processing power, these new super browsers can make use of all most all of the available power, hence the release of Google Chrome 7 comes at the same time as the launch of a full scale Chrome Operating System.
To date the simplicity of browsers has allowed new capabilities to be built and delivered as web-based services and therefore to delay desktop refresh cycles. Now ironically it is likely that a switch to full scale use of Rich Internet Apps running as services invoked and delivered from clouds requiring new next generation browsers will become the reason for many enterprises to bring forward their delayed desktop refreshment. However, this may not take the form of refreshment of like for like desktop PCs, this may be the moment when more liberal policies offering the opportunity to users to provision their own devices, or to chose to start a corporate move to switching to tablet PCs, or smartphones, becomes a practical reality.
The real business reason underpinning these changes is not the browser, nor is it clouds in themselves, but it’s the new valuable business capabilities that can be built and deployed using a combination of the two. However first it is important to grasp how different this new environment is against the current IT environment. Think of browser/cloud as the new equivalent to client/server in terms of the approach with ‘services’ replacing applications, and Orchestrated Processes replacing ERP style procedures to get a grasp of the breadth of the change. Correctly browser/cloud should be defined as a ‘loose, coupled and stateless’ environment which is demand-driven and non deterministic in its use of resources. By contrast client/server is ‘tight coupled and stateless’ and its use of resources can be allocated by calculating certain factors.
Understanding these differences reveals exactly why experts in cloud systems which are, of course, based on this new set of technologies, are quick to point that an existing client/server application delivered by software as a service, SaaS, is not part of a cloud, or that an existing datacentre whose operational efficiency to deliver its current client/server applications is improved by virtualization is not part of a cloud either!
All of which returns to building and deploying ‘services’ based on Rich Internet Applications as the game changer enabled by the browser/cloud model. So what do these look like? The Microsoft IE9 beta can be used with a pilot Amazon website called BookShelf that demonstrates the abilities. The same site can be viewed by an existing browser and the comparison is striking. Using an existing browser reveals a picture of books positioned on wooden shelves as a good piece of graphical content, viewed with IE9 it becomes an interactive mix of content, real time data analysis, and process.
Rolling your hand, or browsing, along the bookcase allows a seamless scrolling across an apparently endless set of book shelves with each book displayed as a high definition graphic cover, there are no pauses for page refreshes. The area covered by the book case is defined by topic, and that in turn can be driven by using your past preferences to decide what books Amazon will place on ‘your’ bookcase. As your hand passes over each book information and reviews are displayed and these in turn relate to what others have said about the book, and even more crucially this links to whether people who bought this book have purchased and liked other books that you have bought. This is real-time data with contextual linking embedded into continuous graphic reality, and even augmented reality when 3D projections can be provided. At the same time decisions can be made to invoke transactional processes such as the entire process of buying and electronic delivery of the book, or to post reviews, etc. All of this without leaving a set of pages or waiting for screen changes.
The effect comes from the continuous ability to combine granular ‘services’ into the processes that are flowing across the browser, and this in turn is supported by the real-time allocation of computational resources from the servers that make up the cloud. At the same time the browser has to provide new services to interpret the user moves to the ‘services’ and provide rapid real-time seamless refreshments. An excellent example of this can be seen in how specialist vendor Plantir already provides a mobile app that can interpret what an object in the camera view is, and then paste onto it all the relevant information known about that object. These are two examples of the revelation that browser/cloud ‘services’ is bringing to business capabilities and what is meant when the term ‘combining people, intelligence, and processes’ is used in connection with clouds.
However it also means that browsers, together with the devices, and operating systems on which they run are also part of the changes that clouds bring, and that the ability to make full use of new business capabilities is now within reach. Unusually this has been a post in which I have not referenced other supporting blogs and content but then several things happened at once to provide some comparisons of views. The first was Ray Ozzie publishing his vision of a post PC client-server centric world build around cloud technologies called ‘the dawn of a new day’. The second was Apple introducing the MacBook Air a genuine shift in this direction as it shifts to being a constantly connected online services-based device, and the third and last was to attend AdobeMax to see just how far the capabilities, and indeed the deployments have already shifted in this direction. Now I feel less exposed in my opinions!
The impact of this and other technologies is discussed in the Capgemini CTO Blog.

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