Emerging technology: Rich GUI clients

To view the future of rich client interfaces, a look back is in order. Software development underwent a major shift in the 1990s, when client/server computing gave way to Web-centric computing, and the HTML browser became the ubiquitous client. HTML as a GUI worked up to a point. In some special instances, such as the cockpit displays of Wall Street traders, they never caught on much at all.

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Slow screen updates, kludged navigation and tedious round-trips to servers did not sit well with the monetary risk takers.

This failing has created space for a new technology to emerge. Right now, the alternatives are varied, but they each take it as a premise that the HTML client is not good enough. They tend to cache more info on the client and find novel ways to render screens. Companies pursuing this problem include Altio, Curl, Droplet, Macromedia, Spotfire and others.

Macromedia, which has a long track record as a maker of multimedia and Web site authoring tools, is the largest of these companies. But it is taking a leap as it positions its Flash software -- usually associated with advertising and animated Web "splash" pages -- as an interface builder for rich corporate software applications. While it has the most pervasive software industry presence among new GUI advocates, it needs to create a shift in perception before it can make headway.

When Macromedia bought ColdFusion server producer Allaire Corp., it also obtained the services of Jeremy Allaire, now company CTO. He ably pitches the merits of Macromedia's Dreamweaver MX, Studio MX and a variety of servers for corporate requirements.

"The basic value proposition is to deliver a better user experience than was possible in the past by using the Flash runtime," said Allaire. "We are also trying to spread a kind of new development model to support that. We are seeing interesting things on the consumer side and also internal systems, including project management, plus banking applications and commerce applications that are starting to take advantage of it."

The software has been used to create interactive online showrooms for the likes of Bose Corp., as well as for online hotel booking systems (at the famed Watergate Hotel, no less), online trading interfaces at eTrade, and a forward-looking market planning calendar at Charles Schwab.

After big advances in servers, some folks are more than ready for better client interfaces, suggested Alon Salant, principal at enterprise application specialist Carbon Five, a San Francisco development house that worked with Charles Schwab to create a system to centralize marketing information and allow end users to slice and dice market info.

This was a so-called Greenfield application with its own dedicated database. Notably, it combined both .NET elements (an authentication service gateway) and Java server elements.

"We used Macromedia to accomplish two things. One was as part of the reporting component for interactive visualizations. When you log in, the first view you get is done in Flash and it provides a timeline view of ongoing projects. You can click on projects and they cascade out." Flash was also used to enable users to slice and dice marketing data views.

"An HTML interface was not going to meet their needs," said Salant.

"What you are going to see from Macromedia and other people is additional tools on top of application servers that provide a tight integration between the client and server platforms, he said.

GUI coda: Salant clearly expects better GUIs to spread. Are they better than present solutions yet? The answers may be too varied and subjective to trust. Moreover, some new imaginative thinking is required of development teams to implement more novel interface solutions. This may take time. The status quo, which requires end users to continue to labor with slow alternatives, may win for some time. High-end knowledge works, especially in mass market and pharmaceutical data mining, will be the first to demand better performance. This has been the case since the first days of Executive Information Systems; a whole business intelligence industry grew up around their needs, but the spreadsheet remains the only ubiquitous power user tool. To date, smaller specialist vendors are carrying the richer GUI torch. Macromedia is the exception here, but it has its work cut out in corporate computing.

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