Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Where are the RIA "killer apps"?

I've found, over the years, that in almost every successful field of technology there's a "killer app," a category-leader so strong as to be universally understood as the archetype of success in a given domain. Conversely, when a technology lacks a killer app, it tends to be very telling. It says something about the future of that technology.

Take Java, for example. When Java first arrived, there were high hopes for its success based on the "write once, run anywhere" mantra. Applets started showing up all over the Web. But on the desktop, no killer apps. And even in the applet world, no killer apps, just a bunch of little games and academic demos. (Java's "killer app," the thing that would ensure its place in history, didn't really arrive until 1999: something called J2EE.)

So when a new technology-space like RIA comes along, with contenders having fancy names like AIR, Silverlight, or JavaFX, I sit back and wait for a "killer app" to emerge, signalling the appearance of a likely winner (or at least a contender with a future ahead of it) in the multi-way battle.

JavaFX was late to the party, so I continue to give it the benefit of the doubt, but it looks stillborn to me at this point (and I think the Oracle acquisition of Sun may delay progress with JavaFX until far past the point where it can regain ground against Adobe Flex/AIR). One thing we can all agree on is that there is no killer JavaFX app. In fact I can't even name a JavaFX app. Not a single one. "But it's too early," someone will say. To the contrary, my friend: It may be too late.

Silverlight has the full mass and motive power of the Microsoft juggernaut behind it, and for that reason we can't dismiss it (yet). But again, where are the killer apps? Shouldn't we have seen one by now? Shouldn't it be possible to walk up behind someone at any gathering of programmers, tap a total stranger on the shoulder, and get an immediate answer to the question: "Can you name a really cool Silverlight app?"

Yes, it's early.

And then there's Adobe with its shiny new AIR technology, built atop half-open, half-closed Flash and Flex infastructure, an alluring platform with the not inconsiderable advantage of being built, largely, on ActionScript (hormone-enriched JavaScript). It's fun, it's pretty, it's new. But where are the killer apps?

Actually, there's a class of killer apps built around AIR now. (Maybe you've noticed?) It's called the Twitter Client. TweetDeck, Twhirl, AlertThingy, Toro, the list goes on and on. (Many of these are not just Twitter clients, of course. Some are perhaps better called social clients, since they interact with other services besides Twitter.)

Does this mean Adobe has won the RIA wars? No, of course not. But it sure has a nice head start.

What we need to see now is whether additional killer-app categories start to emerge around AIR. If AIR progresses beyond the point of supporting fun little SoCo apps, things could get very interesting (for users of cell phones, palm devices, PCs, netbooks, laptops, readers, and who-knows-what-else) in a hurry.

If not -- if AIR remains the province of waist-slimming Twitter clients and zero-calorie RSS feed readers -- then we may have yet another evolutionary dead end along the lines of (dare I say it?) Java Man.

Time will tell.


  1. Balsamiq Mockups doesn't have the installed base of a TweetDeck, but it's a decent sized small business.

    Also, isn't the Netflix streaming app a Silverlight app?

    You're right though - AIR seems to have momentum, but we're still not there yet.

  2. I'd say they are on the way. I think AIR is a natural fit for RESTful services though. That means we need more 'platforms' (as opposed to sites/applications) such as Twitter to emerge.

    Also, I used AIR to create a CMIS client. Again, I took advantage of the ATOM services. It is much easier in AIR than in any other language to build this type of application.

  3. What about AJAX? People are creating some pretty impressive apps using JS and AJAX - gmail, 280slides etc

  4. In the end AJAS/JS is just a hack to get more out of a browser. It has nowhere near the 'richness' of any of the RIA platforms. Also, AJAX might compete with Flex but not AIR as a desktop platform (drag and drop, file system access, database access, etc).

  5. Isn't a 'killer app' a convergence of more factors than an enabling technology?

    (sound of man dusting down his 10 year old copy of "Unleashing the Killer App")


  6. Anonymous11:08 AM

    We can fervently hope that all of these closed and un-web-like technologies lose to the HTML5/CSS open-technology juggernaut.

  7. Youtube is a killer RIA app. The profileration of video on the web is a killer RIA app. It is RIA technology that has powered the shift on the web from text to multimedia. And this shift is now happening on all other mediums such as mobile devices, TV etc.

  8. Shane. I beg to disagree. AJAX/JS can achieve much of the richness on offer from flash, silverlight and javaFX. And, perhaps surprisingly, AJAX/JS apps work brilliantly with Adobe AIR. Adobe Air uses the Webkit rendering engine (same as used in Safari).

    Plus, Google and Apple are really pushing what is possible in the browser by ramping up the speed of JS in their browsers.

    Full functional desktop-style apps can already been achieved using AJAX/JS. I for one have developed iphoto and itunes style apps that use nothing but JS and Ajax, and have most of the richness of the real apps.

    AJAX/JS is the way to go!

  9. Anonymous3:03 PM

    Check SpatialKey :

    If this is not a killer app , what is a killer ap then? :)

  10. Christian4:27 PM

    I was thinking about the same question, and I think the answer isn't a platform on your list: the iPhone (and perhaps Blackberry).

    I have lots of little very rich internet connected apps that I use all the time: Tweetie, Facebook, Amazon, eBay, MLB.

    On the desktop Silverlight will lag until 3.0 starts getting good use: that's the version with the "run on desktop" feature.

  11. Anonymous6:53 PM

    "Can you name a really cool Silverlight app?"


  12. Anonymous8:21 AM

    Silverlight Application

  13. Anonymous11:44 AM

    "Java's "killer app," the thing that would ensure its place in history, didn't really arrive until 1999: something called J2EE."

    ..and I'm sure that we can totally compare J2EE with AJAX in that sense. With new HTML, JS and CSS standards, current AJAX killer apps (GMail, Google Maps/Earth etc.) will become real RIA killer apps. I mean - video chat in browser! How much cooler can it get!?

  14. Actually there is an app that could be named "killer" I guess. In Poland you can do your annual tax returns online via Adobe AIR software:

  15. Anonymous5:24 PM

    Unless an app HAS to be on the client, such as a downloader like Vuze or a intensive program like Blender, then no way am I even bothering to consider it-especially middle-man social client apps. What is the point? More stuff I have to install on every device I own? No thanks. A web login will work just fine.

  16. Anonymous10:47 PM

    There is a fundamental problem with RIAs; the open web is a much better platform to build applications on. Every day browsers get better and the things you can do with HTML, JavaScript and CSS are for 90% of the applications a good solution. The other 10% of the applications a developer has a choice where RIA might make sense but 5% of those applications are probably better off being a desktop applications.

    This leaves 5% of the applications which would benefit from an RIA, these apps are typically internal data entry or dashboard applications which don't get a lot of press.

    Over the last 6 years I have worked in the RIA space and it really comes down to a simple question. "Would you want Google to rewrite the Google Analytics or Gmail in Flex/JavaFX/Silverlight?"

    For me the answer is NO!. The best applications today are open web with Ajax / Flash enhancements to improve users experience.

    Google Analytics uses Flash and Ajax in this exact way; Flash for the charts and the time span widgets but the rest of the application is HTML. Ajax is used for doing sorting and paging of data.

    This is why there will never be a killer RIA application.

  17. Google Analytics in a full-blown Flex application would be really cool - and had a better user experience. Something that is really important with Flex. None of the other technologies allows to create desktop-like mimic with such an ease.

    I can't follow why J2EE was a killer app. This is just an enabling technology. And before using Spring it was even a worse one. Killer apps are the portals and other online apps you find in the Internet using such technology base.

    You asked for killer apps. Here are my ones for Flex (whereas all could be transformed into AIR in days ;-)):

  18. Anonymous8:32 AM

    and what about Is it rich enough?

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  20. On the desktop Silverlight will lag until 3.0 starts getting good use: that's the version with the .
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