Get rich quick

What is the "rich internet?" Like dot-coms and the information superhighway, you may not actually make truckloads of cash out of it, but it'll make people's web experiences a whole lot more interesting says Stephen Canning.

What is the “rich internet?” Like dot-coms and the information superhighway, you may not actually make truckloads of cash out of it, but it'll make people's web experiences a whole lot more interesting.

More than four billion static pages populate the web. For the most part, these consist of a collection of HTML pages, the odd image and a structure for navigating everything. Most are not interesting for very long to anyone other than the person who created them, and another problem with them is that they must be designed individually and updated individually.

Companies have to offer a lot more if they are to attract paying customers to their online offerings and telcos are to encourage surfers on to broadband plans.

Microsoft has used the expression "rich internet" to refer to being able to browse multimedia on the internet. Web tools maker Macromedia has also seized on it to launch its new MX range of tools. Macromedia dominates the web tools market with a 28.9% share, followed by Microsoft with 15.7% in 2001, according to a report by analyst firm IDC, so perhaps we should pay attention.

For Macromedia, the rich internet will “… deliver more effective user experiences through the browser; and extend the capabilities of the web to deliver richer, more interactive and more responsive user interfaces that can be deployed not just to personal computers, but across many devices.”

What technology will deliver this next big thing? In fact, most of it is probably already in place.

The powerhouse for web content at the moment is web applications. Most of the large websites you are likely to visit will be driven by web applications, which update automatically. Most web applications are database-driven, or “dynamic” web pages, that enable a user to dynamically request and retrieve data via a web page; and they provide a mechanism to store session information. This is usually done by a database on the server. Services such as session state management, transaction monitoring, connection pooling, dynamic template processing, email and alerts are common elements in web applications.

One of the big growth areas in web applications is content management systems (CMS), which allow developers, and users within organisations, to take control of the content being served via their website.

Serving the rich

Central to serving the content is the server technology. Server-side scripts are the interface between the database, the server file system, the network and the browser. The technologies are many and complex but can be categorised into a few main flavours.

Microsoft developed ASP (active server pages) from its Visual Basic language to run on Windows NT servers. This has been taken further into ASP.Net, which is the backbone of its .Net framework, the company’s two-year-old web services effort. ASP will really only run successfully on NT and Windows 2000 servers. In spite of this, ASP is one of the most widely implemented protocols; the fact that it is free is probably significant in this. While .Net offers a lot and could be a viable alternative to Java, it remains to be seen whether it moves beyond Windows.

The open source movement has produced PHP and PERL as scripting languages. One perceived advantage of developing in open source is no cost. As well as mySQL (an open source database), PHP can be made to interface with Sybase, Oracle, Informix, Solid, Postgres and, if you’re really persistent, Microsoft SQL Server. Although developed for Linux, PHP can even be made to work successfully on Windows server platforms.

Sun, meanwhile, developed Java server pages (JSP) to integrate directly with Java, and uses servelets -- compact Java objects which it creates and stores on the server to speed server interactions. Being written in Java, it is very cross-platform compatible, but it has not been as widely implemented as the others mentioned here. However, Java dominates the enterprise market, and J2EE has become a de facto standard.

Unlike most web development languages, except JSP, Macromedia's ColdFusion was developed with web applications specifically in mind – so it was never burdened by the baggage of previous incarnations. It is an elegant language, reputed to produce fewer lines of code for most operations when compared to the others. CFML code is more familiar to web programmers in that it uses nested tags, similar to HTML. ColdFusion is widely compatible with databases and platforms; more so now since ColdFusion MX has been completely rewritten from scratch in Java, and so conforms to the J2EE standard.

How to get rich

So the technology already exists to develop a dynamic, responsive and interactive web. The two remaining ingredients for a rich internet are rich content (multimedia), which currently uses any number of plug-ins to your browser, and the thing that Macromedia says will “… extend the capabilities of the web to deliver richer, more interactive and more responsive user interfaces …”. Could it be talking about Flash?

Macromedia refers to Flash as a rich client (everyone in business needs one of those). The truth is you are probably already using other rich clients as well as Flash (some of the more common ones being Java applications, Acrobat, Windows Media Player, Shockwave, Real Player and QuickTime). What sets Flash apart is that it is “thin” (small and easy to download and install) and well on the way to ubiquitous (see chart). We are used to seeing Flash animations running inside the browser – heaven forbid: those bandwidth-hogging skip-intro web pages – but Flash is moving toward being a more self-contained client application. It doesn’t need to run in HTML to interact with the internet. In fact it doesn’t even have to run on a PC at all, as it can now run on PDAs and phones.

Flash is also looking more and more like a multimedia application – like Shockwave – now adding video with very good compression to its player formats. Though it still doesn’t really do 3D. It is now a very good web application development tool, as witnessed by the www.broadmoor.com reservation form, which includes calendar, suite details and booking and payment details, all well-presented and easy to use in a single window.

But wait, there’s more: it is also a communications device. It can set up chat rooms, teleconferencing, whiteboards and video phone links, all within a web page if you like, designed how you like, no ads. This could involve rather a lot of server programming to set up, but Macromedia has made it easy by releasing yet another server product, Flash Communication Server. This means merely adding a “component” in the Flash authoring environment -- a process taking a couple of minutes -- and you’re up and running.

And as for those skip-intro web pages? They have given Flash a bad name, says John Treloar, Macromedia’s Australia and New Zealand head.

“Flash 4 created a monster. This was when everyone got into Flash and consequently, as well as more of the good design, we got more of the bad and the ugly. I have seen some great high-bandwidth work. It has its place, but …” When it comes to interface design Flash allows maximum creativity, but as a vector-based graphic tool for the web, it is capable of creating really “thin” applications when used effectively.

There are many ways to make that happen. Auckland Flash developer Vinnie Stubbs, of Vivace Web Design, has some suggestions. “Tweening on the timeline is easy, but it can end up adding kilobytes to your Shockwave Flash file. Do as much animation as you can in code. Then by using a processor-polling component you can even change the animation speed depending on the client’s processor speed.”

Stubbs puts his finger on an underlying problem with Flash as an animation tool: its frame rate is processor-dependent. With slower processors, or if the file is taking too long to process, animation will move more slowly than your target frame rate. That’s another reason to remember that designing for output is all-important.

The developing world

Is the Flash authoring environment set to be a key development tool for the rich internet, then? This could very much depend on the adoption of the player. Flash 6 (MX) is definitely looking good for content and application building, since it can now communicate directly with the server, particularly if you are running ColdFusion MX. But for this to happen, you need to be running version 6 of the client. Developers are constantly encountering client-versioning problems with browsers, for example, and nobody likes creating different versions of a site for different client versions, so they cut their content to suit the version with an acceptable level of ubiquity.

Rhys Williams, a ColdFusion web application developer for nzinternet.co.nz, is in no hurry to embrace Flash MX: “We build websites that work on 99% of computers out there. If we build a Flash site it is like locking people out. You must design for the lowest common denominator.”

However, according to Macromedia’s Treloar, whether or not you decide to implement Flash MX could depend on your target user. Different demographics will have different Flash adoption rates. Also, just the promise of good content on a site could be enough to encourage a user to click "yes" on the security certificate and wait a couple of minutes for the install. It seems that the rapid uptake of the version 6 player could be evidence of this.

Grant Straker, of Auckland’s Straker Interactive, is keen to start using Flash MX as soon as possible. He anticipates using it in a drag-and-drop interface for file management in the company’s Shado content management system.

Shado is possibly the world’s first CMS web application to be written entirely using ColdFusion MX. Straker started rebuilding its already-successful CFML application three months ago using a pre-release version of CFMX and was one of the first to market on release.

“It was not easy, but we had a lot of good help from the people at Macromedia, with their very professional one-on-one tech resource,” says Straker. “It has been well worth it, though; having direct access to the Java code base is very useful. Now we can do so much more than we’ve ever been able to do before.”

(For those unaware of the Shado reference, the Andersons – producers of the Thunderbirds – must have decided the world wasn’t yet ready for the Botox look and started using living actors in the 70s. Their first such series was UFO, featuring an organisation called SHADO and headed by a Captain Straker. The reference has apparently gone down well among UK lovers of all things cult and retro, where Straker Interactive has an office and solid market base.)

Good design can make you rich

Better design overall would certainly make a richer internet. It could be said that once the internet had gained visual appeal and relative ease of use with the introduction of the Mosaic HTML browser (the forerunner of today’s versions), its meteoric rise as a mass medium started. That would suggest that the rise and rise of the world wide web has been driven principally by design.

Not surprisingly, then, the tension between the two primary forces in design – form and function – has become exemplified in the web design arena. The extremes of the continuum are inhabited at one end by “developers” or “coders” with garish, building block, template sites; and at the other, “artists” or “designers” with turgid, impractical interfaces. Probably because web design involves so much left-brain/right-brain specialisation, there is precious little in between.

Whatever has driven the rift, the dichotomy needs to be resolved. Programming or aesthetics – it is all design.

Macromedia looks to be doing all it can to bridge the gap, although its tools are still met with suspicion from both sides. The MX strategy has involved a great deal of remodelling of the core architecture and functionality in Macromedia’s products, and it is going to take some time for the web design community to embrace the benefits on offer. And, as with any design tool, often the greatest benefits will come in ways the developer had never imagined.

Canning is an Auckland web designer.

*The chart: Penetration of Macromedia Flash by version and month (NPD Online, Worldwide Survey). At this rate, above 90% penetration might be achieved in less than eight months.

June 2002 Flash 2Flash 3Flash 4Flash 5Flash 6
US 97.8%97.4%95.9%90.2%30.2%
Canada 98.6%98.4%97.5%92.4%35.3%
Europe 97.5%97.5%96.2%93.7%37.0%
Asia 95.8%95.1%93.9%90.0%36.6%

March 2002 Flash 2Flash 3Flash 4Flash 5Flash 6
US 98.3%97.8%96.4%90.3%3.2%
Canada 98.4%98.2%97.8%91.2%5.5%
Europe98.6%98.2%97.5%94.8%7.7%
Asia97.1%95.5%94.7%90.7%8.1%

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