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Commentary: RIAs are the Beta Ground for Browsers

When you get right down to it, RIAs are the beta ground for browsers. So why have we been getting so hung up on them?

Some time ago RealNetworks managed to produce a media player that worked on multiple platforms. This was a big step forward for publishers: for the first time they could reach Mac and PC users with just one streaming workflow.

Despite Microsoft playing tough on the desktop footprint (leading to the antitrust cases brought against the company by both Sun Microsystems and RealNetworks), neither Microsoft nor RealNetworks was really keeping the eye on the simplicity of publishing that Adobe had given web developers by integrating video capability into their Flash platform. By targeting developers and extending their tool set to include video, Adobe at the same time abstracted the Flash developers from any care about target platform (aping the strategy of Sun's Java and Microsofts .NET) and created the Flash player as a lightweight browser plug in which always responded in the same way to its code regardless of platform and browser.

While Flash may not have been the first, it certainly ended up as the most widespread plug-in that could offer a "one-size-fits-all" approach to video publishing.

Soon after, Microsoft, being not-dumb on many levels, realised that this approach could give their .NET developer base (arguably the largest developer base of any type) ability to code in a subset of .NET languages and publish to all platforms and browsers. So it created its own plug-in and called it Silverlight.

With Sun also creating a cut-down Java plug in (JavaFX), this family of advanced plug-ins was tagged as Rich Internet Applications (RIA)-and over the past two or three years the Flash vs. Silverlight discussion has been common on industry forums.

Given that most publishers default to Flash unless they want some of the more exclusive and advanced features on the still-less-widely-adopted Silverlight, this has been an interesting debate. Essentially, most consumers will plug in both Silverlight and Flash quite happily-with enterprise networks being the exception. While there is undoubtedly a wider install of Flash, video media delivered to Silverlight can usually be delivered to Windows Media Player; despite the anti-trust case, this can be found on all Windows PCs. Flash media, while it can be delivered by "other players," doesn't have that fallback option. But that's splitting hairs; both Windows Media and Flash media are both very ubiquitous ways to reach audiences.

Unless you have been lost in code for several months, you will know that the hype this year is all about how HTML5 will take away the need to nest video within a Flash or Silverlight object and encourage browser developers to include a standards-based video decoder natively in the browser. Of course, those standards have yet to be agreed upon.

This says to me that over time much of the extra functionality that Silverlight and Flash have brought to the past few generations of browsers will be already available to developers, even without the need to call on any plug-ins.

So where would this leave the RIAs? If one jumps ahead to the logical conclusion, RIA plug ins will fall by the wayside as the features they have been offering are already present on the user's machine.

While the prevalence of Internet Explorer will be a fallback position for Microsoft should Silverlight be rendered redundant, Adobe doesn't have such a browser business to fall back on.

I think it highly unlikely that there will be any sudden change, though it does seem that the RIAs have been, in effect, a bit of a "beta lab" to try out the demand for features that are lacking in the browsers.

Logically they may continue for a long time, always giving the Flash and Silverlight developers to create something that goes above and beyond the average browser experience.

That said, is it logical for both companies to continue to act as if their "beta labs" are a reliable solution for publishers that are developing long-term publishing workflows?

Fortunately, the cost of implementing many delivery options is often small compared to media ingest and production costs. Still, publishers have to be selective. They must be considering HTML5 as a way to step away from vendor lock-in and browser/player/plug-in wars and just get on with publishing.

And perhaps we should be calling "Rich Internet Applications" the "Beta Internet Applications" instead!

Want to find out more about who's adopting HTML5, and how? Check out Jan Ozer's research report, Supporting the iPad and HTML5: Timing, Motivations, Costs, and Scope.

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