Through Rich Internet Applications (‘RIA’) we finally have something different?a truly ‘hybrid’ technology which offers a novel approach to today’s IT business demands, says David Akka, MD of Magic Software Enterprises UK, Nordics and EMEA.

To understand how RIAs are really one step ahead, we need first look back. When thinking about how application platforms have evolved over the last forty years, the image that comes to my mind is that of a spiral staircase, with technical capabilities growing, while the essential structure?or topography?of IT shifts back and forth along well-worn and proven paths. So from the mainframes of the 1960s, operated with punch cards, to the microprocessor which brought about the PC revolution, to today’s Internet revolution, the spiral continues to turn.

The first major turn on the spiral staircase took place in the early 90s with desktop processing. This created a significant stir in the market as software suddenly became extremely smart. Users suddenly had access to previously unimaginable amounts of computing power.

The growth in the functionality of desktop Clients was matched, however, by a growth in their complexity, resulting in the desktop being named the so-called ‘fat’ or ‘thick’ client. The high cost of installing, maintaining and protecting multiple desktops in large organisation eventually became a powerful incentive to find a more efficient way of creating and maintaining software for widespread business use.

The answer came with the internet in the late 90s. This offered a way of increasing flexibility while reducing costs. The Internet brings Web applications to the world via centralised portals. To use the spiral staircase analogy, the internet took us back full circle to the mainframe topology where all major computing activity occurs centrally at a server, supported by ‘thin’ clients.

While the cost of operation for the ‘thin’ client remains relatively low, the downside is that it’s limited in its operational scope. Suitably named, the ‘browser’ is designed for finding and displaying pages over the Internet to be read by the user. However, it’s not optimised to meet the demands and expectations of high frequency business application users. The unreasonable cost of the ‘fat’ client and the underperformance of the ‘thin’ client are now leading the industry into a new mode of deployment.

Rich Internet Applications seek to overcome the limitations of both the ‘fat’ and ‘thin’ clients by combining the best of both worlds into a so-called ‘fit client’?essentially combining the richness of the desktop’s ‘fat’ client with the low operating cost of the Internet’s ‘thin’ client.

RIAs are fully interactive, desktop-style business applications that are installed at a single location and are accessible via any monitor via the internet. Depending on the platform, they can take advantage of the local computing power of a company’s hardware, but without requiring the complex installation and maintenance typical of the ‘fat client’.

Gartner Research is predicting that 60% of all software development projects will involve Rich Internet Applications within the coming three years. However, a technology that has the capacity to combine the best of desktop and internet is bought at a price; system complexity. While the desktop, or client-server model, relies upon a permanent connection between server and client, and the internet model relies upon a decoupled connection between server and client, RIA attempts to find a middle ground.

That middle ground involves holding a part of the RIAs computing power on the client side for simple activities while calling upon the server when more complex instruction is required. While undoubtedly smarter, the RIA client requires sophisticated state and session management. And this means more cost to the developer, potentially anyway. Rising to this challenge is a new breed of end-to-end RIA application platforms designed specially to overcome the cost barriers to RIA development and deployment.

Since the main cost in developing RIA is the complex code writing for the different client and server ends of the application, an ideal RIA platform allows developers to bypass the strenuous code-writing stage and focus instead on the business requirements of their application. With no more intensive code to write there’s less chance of project failure and more opportunity to create an application that meets business requirements on-time and on-budget.

With an end-to-end platform, navigating the RIA challenge was never easier and the rewards never made more sense: businesses using RIA can now offer their software users an experience surpassing the richest client-server applications, with the incredible fact that the cost is the same as any application available over the Internet. In today’s business environment where companies need to scramble to maintain every ounce of competitive edge, adopting RIA and the new breed of platforms to cost-effectively develop and deploy them is a vital requirement for staying ahead.