Somewhere beneath the marketing veneer, all software vendors tell the truth. You really can do just about anything with practically any product ... if you try hard enough. The question always boils down to performance: how fast does a particular solution accomplish its job effectively?
Back in the late 1990s, before the dot-com bubble burst, a company called FutureSplash unveiled a revolutionary Web design product. Their flagship site was for the cartoon juggernaut, The Simpsons. What made this technology so compelling was that, unlike with JPEG and GIF images, a surfer could zoom in on any part of the design, and voila! A crystal-clear close-up of that image section would appear. You could repeatedly zoom, and still no resolution was lost.

FutureSplash was different because instead of relying on a grainy pixel-by-pixel paradigm, this new technology used vectors - mathematical formulas that would tell the computer how to draw a particular graphic.

This is basically the difference between Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, and it's why most designers create logos in the latter. Vectors produce clean logos that can be increased or decreased in size without affecting image quality. Another handy aspect is that the necessary code is significantly less than with pixel-driven images. This is why, for example, a logo created in Illustrator will often be a very small file size, whereas a high-resolution logo created in Photoshop can be prohibitively bulky.

San Francisco Internet powerhouse Macromedia gobbled up FutureSplash, then renamed it Flash. Years later, Macromedia was subsumed by Adobe, but not before Flash had become the de facto standard for online rich media. Over the years, Macromedia dedicated significant resources to developing Flash, and later Shockwave, into full-blown Web design platforms. Part of the package included the creation and evolution of a scripting language that could perform a wide array of tasks, just like JavaScript.

The Beginning of Rich Media

The scripting language in Flash and Shockwave was used by gaming applications to create realistic flight models for cars, ships and all manner of projectiles. It was also used for some heavy-duty number-crunching. The first Web site to tie into Fannie Mae's desktop underwriting system featured a mortgage payment calculator whose formula was written in this language. You could change any number, and watch all the others change without making a call back to the server.

This was very cool stuff way back when, because computers were relatively slow in the year 2000, and not many folks had broadband connections. The calculator worked without making a call back to the server because Flash allows you to embed the entire formula within the Flash file itself, unlike other solutions that let the server do the heavy lifting. Thus, by empowering surfers to play around with the numbers in a user-friendly fashion, this site had created one of the very first rich Internet applications.

Working with RIAs

As we all know in the world of information management, size does matter, especially when the medium in question is the Internet. Business analysts, DBAs and designers get antsy when they find themselves waiting for a page to load. They find themselves downright perturbed if they must wait for minutes instead of seconds. This can pose a significant productivity challenge.

In the business world, this is bad news. Applications used for business must work effectively, or morale goes out the window. Any time a business user is forced to wait too long for an application to do its job, bad things happen. Moods grow sour. Eyes turn toward the clock. In other words, business doesn't get done. And morale is one of those X factors that help determine the long-term success or failure of an enterprise, large or small.

Today, there are all kinds of RIAs available to the consumer and business markets, and there are many ways to create these apps. The rise of AJAX (asynchronous Java and XML) has ushered in a new era of online applications. As with the earlier Flash model, speed is the key. With AJAX, unlike a traditional Web page refresh, only the necessary bits and pieces can be requested from the server. This blend makes for a smoother application that doesn't disrupt an employee's workflow.

So, the big question: how can you make RIAs that work for your team? As always, the proof is in the pudding, and the recipe can only be derived from a thoughtful, strategic gathering of requirements that involves the end users for whom the applications are designed. But don't go to your team with a blank page and ask: "What do you want?" Instead, think about their jobs, what they might need, and put together a pro forma requirements document to get their juices flowing.

And don't overlook the preponderance of free functionality that continues to exude from Web sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like. These offerings have obvious limitations but also many benefits, especially around collaboration. Plus, many businesspeople are already using such tools. To paraphrase prescient BI consultant Rajeev Rawat, the functionality provided by such sites "is good enough for a bad economy." And the nice thing about free is that it fits any budget.

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