Rich Internet Applications

As an interface/product designer, one trend I’ve been watching pretty closely is that of Rich Internet Applications (RIA’s). Mind you, this genre of software is hardly a trend yet, but I think its one of the most exciting areas to watch closely as an interaction designer.

The web, and HTML specifically, have long been poor platforms for delivering rich, interactive applications to end-users. Today, a lot of progress has been made through the effective use of Javascript and other client-side technologies, but we’re still a long ways off from delivering the richness of desktop software through the Internet.
As computers and the Internet became more powerful, and in turn, more pervasive, management of information has become nearly as important as creating it. In many ways, the information is the application. Amazon and Ebay are compelling not because of their functionality, but because of the information they harbor. The “application” used to access this information is kludgy and often makes for a poor user experience. Yet we tolerate it because of the vast amounts of information available to us.
Google is executing a strategy whereby, slowly but surely, they are blurring the line between this vast wealth of information and your desktop. Today, Google still lives inside your browser’s box (though they’ve made some attempts to break out). For Google to truly realize its strategy, they’re going to need to break out of the browser and deliver a far richer experience.
In my opinion, a marriage between the rich interactivity of desktop applications and the rich information of the web is inevitable. The same way we use HTML as a markup language to define content today, we’ll use markup languages to define these transient applications tomorrow.
We’re already seeing evidence of this. Mozilla breached the browser box with XUL. Macromedia is looking to leverage its near-ubiquitous Flash platform with Flash applications. One of the cornerstone’s of Microsoft’s future operating system (Longhorn) is XAML. The writing is on the wall: the browser’s days as an application delivery mechanism are numbered.
As an interaction designer, this is very exciting stuff. My work rarely involves static/marketing sites but rather richer, more complex applications that I’m forced to “fit” into the web world. The browser’s page paradigm is inherently flawed from an interface design perspective. A fluid user experience is nearly impossible.
While we’ve made the best of the circumstances handed to us, interaction design, in my opinion, has become too web-centric. Numerous books have been written about “web usability.” Yes, a number of customs have arisen which serve our users well because they’ve become accustomed to them (e.g. blue underlined text are links), but I think its important for us – as designers – to continue to challenge the notion that the web is an adequate delivery mechanism for applications. I don’t believe it is and I think there’s going to be room for enormous design innovation once the tools are in our hands.

1 Comment Rich Internet Applications

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