The Future of Rich Internet Application (RIA) Technolog

This is going to sound like I’m selling something, but I promise, I have no financial affiliation with Sliderocket. The service has just made my life so mush easier that i feel like I owe it to them to give them a plug…


I met Mitch Grasso last year at an Adobe event in San Francisco. I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of his brainchild, SlideRocket. Now, just 2 years after Mitch and Mike founded Sliderocket, the tool is so useful, I don’t know how we have done without it.


For those of you who are not familiar with the online service. Sliderocket allows you to create Keynote quality presentations using just your browser. The integrated content management system keeps all of your assets organized – you can upload imagery, video (in flv format), and even your flash content. The tool has all the things you would expect from a professional preso tool: themes, master slides, an intuitive & sexy interface, charts & graphs and much more…


But these features are not what make Sliderocket stand above (and I mean WAY above) the rest. Instead of having to use Webex (or some other screen sharing tool) to show your presentation over the web, Sliderocket utilizes a shared, real time content delivery model. Basically, when the “host” of a presentation starts, they send a link to their audience. The audience then gets the deck through the flash player – just as crisp and clear as when you made it. When the host changes a slide, the host application just sends a little message to the Sliderocket servers when then broadcasts to the audience’s deck, forcing their presentation to follow along. Movies, transitions, graphics al keep their original integrity, just as you intended look and behave. You can also provide a link to your hosted preso that let people control it autonomously. 


They offer an “offline” player as well – so you can present your slides without needing an internet connection. I personally would rather use Keynote for “boardroom” type of presentations. Mostly because I know Keynote really well and I don’t need to upload my content to a server (in other words, its faster). But for shared presentations over the web – Sliderocket really lives up to their promise to “redefine what presentations can do for you”


Pricing starts at “free” and gets as expensive as $20/month(wich includes the hosted/shared solutions) –  if you compare that cost to Webex, its a steal!


A note to Adobe Ventures – why have you not picked this company up? In my humble opinion, it is at least as useful as Buzzword, is complimentary to your offerings, and is a great showcase of what your platform can do…

I had the opportunity to sit and chat with Ray Valdez (gartner analyst) this week. He presented an interesting perspective on adoption of RIA technologies by large enterprises.

We started the discussion by asking Ray how he saw us, and how we should communicate our differentiation to the market – we often find ourselves competing with Avenue A one week, and SAP the next – our clients just know where to “put us” : are we an interactive agency or an integration firm (we’re kinda neither and kinda both)… Ray agreed that we are presented with a challenge, especially with large corporate entities.

The challenge is that we are in this weird RIA place right now – some companies are jumping in with both feet with a platform whereas some are taking a “wait and see” approach. Which Platform? Ray believes Adobe currently has about 50% of the RIA market – he said “I’m being asked to help companies decide between Flex and something else – its always 2, and Flex is always one of them”. He also said the vast majority of enterprises are going to be much slower to adopt. He pulled out a napkin and drew a chart that looked something like this:



Ray Valdez - The RIA Chasm


He described Adobe as being in  a very interesting “Sweet Spot” – where users are demanding rich applications at the same time there is only one true player in the space right now. He said either these enterprises are waiting to see how well Adobe’s platform does, or they are waiting to see what their current platform provider (sun, microsoft, ibm) comes up with.

I believe Adobe’s leadership in the enterprise will rest on enterprise’s ability to execute. In other words, if a company sees one or two “wins” (either internally in pilot projects, or from their competition), Adobe will “win” – The challenge is that RIA, and Flex in particular, require development and design teams to think differently than they have been with traditional web deployments. EffectiveUI’s biggest successes have been those where we’ve been asked to “own the deliverable” – and help companies inch into the space. The projects that struggle a bit are those where an internal development team wants to apply their own legacy HTML/Java/C++ methodologies and thinking to an RIA.

Adobe recently announced Flash search-ability, and it is starting to stir up renewed excitement for the Adobe platform. Neil McAllister at InfoWorld raises a couple of good question on the relevance of Flash content being searchable (view the entire article here):

“if today’s RIAs no longer resemble what we would call the Web, then is shoehorning those applications into the Web’s infrastructure really the right way to go? If application developers feel limited by the constraints of standards-compliant browser technologies, should they really be targeting their applications for the browser?”

I spent some time today chatting with Rebecca, our Chief Marketing Officer, about how she views “Search”. Rebecca did a ton of marketing consulting for large organizations before she joined the EffectiveUI team, and she had some terrific insight to share with me on the subject:

“Marketers are challenged today with how to drive traffic and leads towards their website; search engine optimization has become an attractive (if not the MOST attractive way) of driving qualified leads to your online presence. I always hated (as a marketing consultant) having to recommend to my clients that they had to make a choice between find-ability (search optimized html) and usability/engagement (Flash)”

Rebecca also lead the charge in creating the User Interface Resource Center. One of the core requirements of the UIRC was that its contents be search engine optimized. A recent article posted to the UIRC was an interview with Ethan Eismann, Senior Experience Design Lead for Adobe. After the interview, Ethan poked a little fun at us, asking why the site did not have a few “more engaging” elements (obviously commenting on the lack of any Flash content) – Rebecca’s answer : “If we used Flash, people would not be able to find this article!”. True… until now.

This renewed excitement for search in Flash content begs a much larger question to be asked:

Is Search Always Relevant?

The reality is, as “Web 2.0” starts to live up to its true potential, Search becomes less relevant. There is a major shift happening on the web right now, one that could threaten Search’s dominance. So, what’s the threat?


Search is all about content, and content (contrary to the cliche) is NOT king …..anymore. Describing the internet as a sum of all its content is diminishing its true power. The internet can (and is) so much more. The internet is the new Software Platform – where people not only go to get informed and entertained (view content), but also to pay their bills, collaborate with co-workers, upload and edit photographs, connect with family, manage projects, track sales, and a million other useful things… For all of these services, Search is irrelevant — Let me clarify : Search will not help your customers pay their bill or edit their photograph – it will only help your customers FIND these services. Ultimately, companies that spend the time to provide true online usefulness will be the ones who dominate on the web. (and by the by, Sales Force, 37 Signals, eBay are already dominating because they found a way to extract great utility for their customers).

One of my favorite stories about the responsibility of marketers is one that I heard third hand (not even sure if its true). The story begins with Lee Clow, the Chief Creative Office for TBWA\Worldwide. Lee is a true visionary, and a legend in advertising. Once, a customer of TBWA (a major auto manufacturer) complained to him that their dealership visits were way up, but their sales remained flat. He responded with a simple, blunt and confident truth: “It’s our job to get people in the door, its your job to build a great product”. Search is NOT the answer to all of your online marketing woes – start with creating a better user experience, offering your audience something of real value, and respecting your customer’s time –in other words, build a great product.


Finally, trying to optimize your site for Search can have a negative impact on its usefulness. Optimizing for search is creating your site for another computer to understand and consume. In almost every circumstance, this means you are making compromises to usability in order to make the site more searchable – you are making your product less meaningful in order to drive more traffic through it  (Lee Clow would be ashamed)

I’m speaking at AJAX world this morning on RIAs. I’m asking the audience to challenge me here on my blog once the keynote is done… 

Question: Who the hell goes to a keynote @ 7:30 in the morning??

This time each year, technophiles are asked to part the curtains and peek into the coming year. While last year brought unprecedented growth in RIA adoption— especially by Fortune 500 companies—RIA adoption in 2008 brings a new onslaught of risks, rewards, challenges, and opportunities for companies of all sizes.

Let’s start with something positive. Last year, the overall demand for RIAs outpaced the qualified supply chain. This trend will continue. This year, companies facing both job growth and decline will need to continue to leverage innovative, usable RIAs to hone their competitive edge to outpace their competition and improve core business practices with fast, reliable, productivity-enhancing internal and external tools. However, building and deploying effective RIAs is not something companies can jump into with blind assumptions.

"adobe flex" Job Trends graph

Without the right leadership at the helm and the right team in the trenches, the world of RIAs is fraught with risk that can cost dearly. The flip side of the coin is that good RIAs can provide your customers with user experiences that leave your competition in the dust. If you keep the following risks and rewards front of mind, you can turn the 2008 RIA challenge into successful opportunities.


Risk: Developer inexperience
Reward: RIAs that work result in user adoption
Since many underlying RIA technologies are still emerging, finding developers with the appropriate level of experience can be tough. Thinking that you can find good Java or .Net developers immediately turn them into expert Flex or Silverlight developers is not good thinking. Inherent to these powerful new frameworks are challenges that require mastery of the technologies. Rich client applications differ greatly from server, HTML, or desktop applications and require very certain development expertise. Beware the typical developer optimistic mindset that believes problem-solving skills are platform independent.


Risk: Designer inexperience
Reward: Well-designed RIAs make people want to use them
The gap between sexy and usable is huge and dangerous. A great print or web designer is not necessarily a great application designer, especially not right out of the gate. It takes a considerable shift of discipline and time on the front for designers to transition from page based metaphors to RIA necessities such as features, tasks, hierarchical navigation schemes, and transitional animations. Oddly, understanding how to leverage new technologies like AIR and Silverlight means that designers may have to unlearn some of what they have relied on in the past as successful solutions. 

Forrester Research stat: 70 to 80 percent of all IT projects fail. The number one reason why they fail is a lack of user acceptance, not technical issues (caveat: user acceptance may be poor simply because an application just doesn’t work). An effective RIA designer who respects user input and usability measurement studies will dramatically mitigate the failure rate of an IT project. Look for RIA designers with experience and/or education in human factors.


Risk: Poor hires
Reward: Powerful designer/developer collaboration
Managers may see the words "Flex experience" on a resume and assume that, in-and-of-itself, Flex experience makes the candidate qualified. Differentiating between experience and quality is very hard for an IT manager to assess since they may have not yet seen what a good RIA developer really looks like. The same premise holds true for design talent. Hiring the wrong developer or designer obviously will likely point to costly disaster on any project.

Consider outsourcing to proven experts. Or build teams consisting of blended internal and external talent and give them prudent product management guidance. 


Risk: Lack of process and culture
Reward: Integrated workflow and new behaviors
Let’s say that you lucked out and put together a great team. Now you have to get them to collaborate. Establishing the right culture to enable the team to work together is critical to the success of creating engaging applications. It takes a delicate combination of humility, passion, confidence, knowledge, process, and realism to execute against business and user requirements.

Also, carefully consider reporting structures. Should the designer sit in Marketing? IT? Companies trying to build effective teams may be challenged by traditional organizational and hierarchical silos and boundaries to get the right people in the right room with the right priorities and agendas.


Risk: Messaging from platform providers
Reward: Great news across the board
Both Adobe and Microsoft have emerging RIA platforms (AIR/Flex/Flash and Silverlight respectively). While the hype for Silverlight is hitting stride, currently the Adobe Flash/Flex/AIR platform is the way to go for most robust online applications. Microsoft’s roadmap is very exciting, and I believe that we will see some great moves forward on their platform in the next 12 months. However, the Silverlight runtime just does not offer enough functionality or the ubiquitous reach that the Flash Player does.

The opportunity, no matter the platform, is abundant. Microsoft entering the RIA game is great news for everyone, even Adobe. They have helped to validate that RIAs are the future of how companies will engage, inform, retain, and entertain, their customers.


Risk: RIA providers on overload
Reward: Consistent home runs
Many providers in the RIA space are growing more rapidly than they can realistically support— flirting with implosion and growth rates of 1,000 percent and higher. Without dedicated, qualified team members in place, RIA providers have no business taking on work just to take on work. If you come across an RIA provider who has people available immediately, beware. At EffectiveUI, we would rather turn away work than fatigue or dilute our human resources.


Risk: Inadequate budgets
Reward: Proving the value of an RIA
The return on investing into a great RIA—even a simple one— can be astounding. Applying the same budget approach as you would, for example, a micro site or an HTML calculator is not the model to follow. Find guidance and build your case. Deploying an application that is truly going to engage users and deliver a measurable ROI requires appropriate budgeting of dollars and time.


Risk: Inappropriate intention
Reward: Focused discipline for the job
Hiring your advertising agency to build a critical business application is like asking your interior designer to engineer a new building. While both disciplines are important and somewhat related, they absolutely require pinpointed expertise and focus. Make sure that the person or company you engage to build your RIA understands and respects the difference.


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