2008/12/01

The worst RIA-site ever

I've never been a big fan of the 'Rich Internet Application' movement, with it most obvious defender: Flash. There are two contenders that fight for the RIA dominance: Microsoft Silverlight and Suns' Java FX. Flash is currently the only platform that's ready for real use: Silverlight and Java FX are still in beta.

Java FX has a huge potential as being a real Open Source (GPL) RIA platform compared to its more or less closed source competitors. I know, Flash has
some parts of it made 'open', but Flash basically remains a commercial platform, requiring commercial Adobe developer tools for the 'real' work (including the now classic video à la youtube). It remains to see if Sun will be able to maintain the full GPL license for Java FX, since video and sound are usually licensed from third party providers using patented technologies (e.g. On2).

Although RIA apps have a tremendous 'whaw' factor (e.g. parleys.com) , I'm quickly bored by all the transitions, fading in/out and other visual magic. It's also very hard developing good RIA applications that are both functionally relevant and appealing to the eye. Developers must combine design skills, good taste and programming talents. Otherwise you end up with disastrous websites like this amusement park. It takes about 15-20s of looking at a shiny progress bar, hearing silly music and looking at stupid animations to finally find the opening hours. Definitely in the top-10 of 'worst-RIA-sites-ever'.

RIA apps fail to embrace the strengths of the classic web:
  • bookmarkability & addressability: In typical RIAs, only the main page has an address; forget to send a to-the-point URL to a friend... Bookmarking individual parts of a RIA app requires the oh-so-stupid 'link this' button. This is opposite to the current "REST" trend where everything is a URL, a resource.
  • user driven action: RIA apps tend to limit the users' behavior, forcing them to follow a fixed pattern, where classic webshops let the user decide where to click. Have a look at the on-line promotion folder of a classic brick and mortar shop. It takes about 2-3 seconds to change to the next page; at least one or 2 minutes of clicking if you're searching a specific item.
  • speed: it looks like every RIA app needs its shiny progressbar, tricking the user to wait much longer than he'd be willing to wait for a classic web-page
  • search engine friendliness: by default RIA apps can not be indexed by google, unless tricking google by offering a 'ghost' site to the search robots. This is how parleys.com solves their search ranking problem. Someone said 'hacking'?
  • OS-agnostic: only Java FX promises to target Windows, MacOS and Linux. Of course, Flash support under Linux has made huge progress, with e.g. the Flash 64bit version released under Linux first. But all RIA platforms try to address the 'fat client' offline problem: running apps while disconnected from internet, even outside the browser (e.g. Adobe AIR or Java Update 10). Unfortunatly, those 'fat client' standalone versions of RIA apps offer a consequent look on all OSes. This might be a plus, but the current trend is to adapt your UI to the OS. Firefox 3 for example has a different look and feel under Gnome than under Vista.
  • hackability: I'm addicted to noscript, adblock and firebug, but those tools are useless in a RIA context. Even a simple 'save as', as Firefox provides, is not straightforward. Perhaps the development of gnash might bring some new hacker-tools to the scene.
  • open standards: html4, css, ... why are they missing from the RIA picture? Yes, ActionScript is like EcmaScript, which is like JavaScript. Anyway, in real apps, ActionScript only runs in Flash.
So do I hate RIA? I generally tend to dislike websites that are mostly made in Flash, unless Flash really adds value. For parleys.com with its highly integrated sound/video and slides Flash adds value, although I preferred the initial version that used standard html and 'Ajax'.

I do think that Flash and Java FX have their value when used to
enrich standard web pages. You'd be amazed to see what is possible in plain html/javascript/css. Look at the spectacular Apple ITunes store for example. In general everything that's not supported in html4 requires flash: audio/video or drawing. By putting those pieces in a classical webapp you get a tremendous combination. For example, Google Analytics or Google Finance are html pages, but the nice graphs are Flash. The integration is seamless, an end-user can see no difference between the html and the flash parts.

We'll see what the RIA-future brings: all Flash (flex/air), Java FX, or a "back to the web" reaction?

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