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Doing RIAs Right

Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) built using technologies like Adobe Flex and AIR and Microsoft Silverlight and WPF offer developers some significant advantages over traditional approaches, including rapid development and ease of cross-plaform operability. Dave Wolf, VP of Cynergy, a company specializing in the design of RIAs, spoke with us about the current state and future directions of the technology.

DDJ: You recently won Microsoft's Phizzpop Design Challenge. Tell us about the application that won that for you.

DW: The Microsoft Phizzpop Challenge was to create an application to help the general public become more involved as a 21st century citizen in politics and government. Cynergy designed and built "ben," which was both a nod to Ben Franklin, but also an allusion to the idea of 'be informed' and 'be involved,' which are the two sides of ben. ben allowed citizens to pull personalized and focused news and information out of the vast rivers and streams of news. Users could visualize where the stories came from, where they fell on the left-to-right political spectrum, comment on the news items and visualize how the comments related including text and video. Users could also find local political meetings and join in -- person or virtually through their home PCs and Webcams. The application allowed the same news and information to be accessed on the user's phone. We even added the same idea to Facebook. Imagine being able to make a phone call right from a Facebook application? In the national finals of the Microsoft Phizzpop Challenge, Cynergy did just that, by giving Barak Obama's office a call.

Building the right application for the right users, on the right devices, anywhere on or off the network is our focus. The solution is a suite of tools including "ben online," which is a Silverlight application, "little ben," a built-in WPF and "tiny ben," which runs on mobile devices like the iPhone, Facebook and other social networking platforms. ben is a great example of where Rich Internet Applications are going.

DDJ: The concept of the Rich Internet Application was a brand new buzzword just a few short years ago. How has the RIA approach matured, and what advantages does it bring?

DW: The entire RIA concept has matured over the last 12 to18 months. Today, we see that RIAs are becoming the way that people are designing and building software. What is the most surprising is that it is not just the bleeding edge startups and social networking sites that are using these technologies; Fortune 50 organizations and massive software companies are seriously investing into their user experiences and using RIAs to do just that. There are plenty of significant advantages; first and most obvious, is that user experiences can be built with today's absolutely stunning RIA technologies that are rich, sticky engaging experiences that attract and retain users. Users do not care if applications are built in Ruby or Java, or what database their information is saved in. Users want to experience software, they want to enjoy using it, and they want to get value out of it. RIAs let us include many of the same interactions users thought they left back on the desktop. Drag-and-drop, rich controls, incredible performance all add up to real productivity. When desktop productivity with an amazing experience and the advantages of the Web are combined, it is obvious why this space has exploded into the future of how software is being built.

DDJ: You use Adobe Flex and AIR, and Microsoft Silverlight and WPF. How do you decide which technology is best for a particular project?

DW: Cynergy is one of the few companies that operate both an Adobe and Microsoft practice. Having both practices means we can sit down with our customers and really help them pick out what's right for them. Working with Adobe and Microsoft allows Cynergy to ask customer questions such as, "what are you building, 'who is going to use it, 'what problems are we trying to solve, 'what devices do we need to keep in mind?" The differences are subtle between them now, but they could make a huge difference in the final applications. It is incredibly rare to be able to be technology agnostic and focus on designing and building amazing software.

DDJ: What are the current limitations of RIA technology, and how do you see those being addressed in the future?

DW: The biggest issues today are around the need to bring together designers and developers to truly work together. This is part process and approach and part software and tools. Building these kinds of rich engaging and interactive experiences means bringing together all designers and developers who have never worked together. It also means working on building software where the user experience is the first class citizen and not an afterthought. Adobe and Microsoft are both tooling around the designer to developer workflow. Microsoft's Blend is a great example of design tooling that "gets" the workflow of having designers and developers working together. Adobe has also come up with some innovative designs with their new Thermo tooling. The future is going to see great innovation that will literally redefine the software development process because of Microsoft and Adobe.

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