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BEA Alchemy to cope with 'occasionally connected' app development

One of the biggest challenges facing developers of applications that run on mobile devices is the intermittent access users have to wireless networks. The situation has been dubbed "occasionally connected" computing and, improvements and promises of the industry notwithstanding, it's not likely to change any time soon.

BEA Systems is working on an interesting approach to helping developers cope with this sometimes-on-sometimes-off environment. The San Jose, Calif.-based application infrastructure software company is developing a "universal client platform" that it says will enable developers to write Web applications with traditional Web tools. Code-named "Alchemy," the new technology is being based on asynchronous messaging, which will enable the server to process information in the background without affecting the user's experience -- in other words, the user will be able to keep working with the same programs, whether he/she is online or offline.

"The potential of mobility went unrealized initially because the industry had two false starts, which is not at all uncommon," said Adam Bosworth, chief architect and senior VP of advanced development at BEA. "Often, when new technology comes along, there's a certain amount of casting about before people get it right."

The first cast came in the form of thin-client, browser-based mobile applications, Bosworth explained, but the early user experience of Web browsing on a mobile device was "just terrible." Customers wanted it, but there was just too much pain.

So the mobile software pendulum swung back from thin-client apps that were dependent on great-to-perfect network connectivity to rich client applications that packed custom code into each mobile device. This approach became something of a nightmare for developers, who found themselves writing custom user interfaces for a huge range of rapidly evolving devices. And deployment, migration and support became highly problematic.

"Basically, we gave the customers a choice," Bosworth said. "You can have great total cost of ownership and an unusable user experience, or an unreasonable user experience and unusable cost of ownership. Accordingly, the customers so far have largely voted, none of the above -- unless it's such a mission-critical thing that they think it's worse not to."

BEA hopes to provide a third choice with Alchemy, which is still in the prototype phase. The company said the technology will be based on open standards and eventually donated to the open-source community. It will also extend common development technology and not be tied to a particular development framework or underlying platform, Bosworth added.

BEA views Alchemy as a fundamental component of its Liquid Computing initiative, a set of products and services for "aligning enterprise interactions with real-time business goals to help companies become service-driven enterprises, ultimately achieving enterprise compatibility, active adaptability and breakthrough productivity." Liquid Computing is based on a Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) foundation, and BEA expects its Alchemy initiative to produce the industry's first universal client platform optimized for SOAs and "the realities of occasionally connected mobile users."

The "occasional" may be with us a long time. "I'd be surprised if in the next 10 years I would be able to rely -- I mean really count on -- on a wireless connection always to be there," said Rikki Kirzner, research director, application development and deployment at IDC. "Where I live in California, you can't drive down I-280 for 20 miles and not keep a cell-phone connection. Consequently, it becomes more urgent to make sure that the applications on my devices understand how to work with a connection and without one."

BEA is partnering with a number of other companies on the development of Alchemy, including Nokia and Intel. The company has not set a release date for the technology, but it is expected with the next year or two.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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