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Deciphering the term "rich Internet application"

Web 2.0 has become a cliched term when it comes to describing Web sites. A new term has popped up to cover online applications: RIA or Rich Internet Application. Does it mean the same thing as Web 2.0?

Web 2.0 has become a cliched term when it comes to describing Web sites. A new term has popped up to cover online applications: RIA, or rich Internet application. Does it mean the same thing as Web 2.0?

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Web 2.o has become one of those terms that's been used to death. It's become a cliched term for just about any Web site that does more than merely display content. A company changes the look and feel of a site, maybe tosses in a little AJAX, and voila' — Instant Web 2.0 Web site. We're interactive and cool!

It's not originally what it was supposed to mean, but it's basically what it turned out to be. It became one of those terms that was used to mean many things and now means nothing. Among the meanings was a Web site that featured Internet applications — again created mostly using AJAX or some other more modern Web development language.

That's where the term RIA, 0r rich Internet application, comes in.

How's RIA different from Web 2.o?

The term Web 2.0 was supposed to cover a lot of things. It included not only the way the site was built, but the things that went into it as well. Beyond the basic look and feel, Web 2.0 meant that there was supposed to be more user interaction and participation.

Along the way, it also meant using newer, more powerful programming languages for Web development. These languages and tools allowed Web developers to create more powerful Web-based applications.

The term RIA focuses on this part of Web 2.0. It also goes beyond it because a rich Internet application can be built from more tools than a traditional Web 2.0 interface or program. Web 2.0 refers to AJAX and some Flash-based applications. RIA has many more options.

RIA basics

The idea of RIA is to create applications that are more OS agnostic. Rather than contain code for a specific operating system, applications are created to run inside a Web browser. They're hosted on a standard Web server and run on a client's Web browser no matter what operating system they're using. Ideally, the Web browser itself is irrelevant as well, but often that's not the case.

Programmers have sought this Holy Grail of "Write Once, Run Anywhere" since the dawn of the Computer Era. C was supposed to accomplish it. Then Java. And now we have rich Internet applications.

Unlike the other attempts, RIAs can be built using any number of different platforms.  Some of the most common ones include:

XML is also a key component of rich Internet applications. It allows applications to talk to each other and pass data more easily.

Many of these development environments require a Web browser plug-in or client-side application to work. This limits their portability for some minor OSs, but by and large they do a better job of portability than Java or C applications do.

There are many examples of rich Internet applications out there now. Two of the most high-profile ones are Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live. For more examples of RIA in action, check out Adobe's list of sites using RIA.

RIA resources

The term is still evolving, and vendors use it to their advantage when selling their wares. Here are some resources on RIA on TechRepublic and ZDNet:

Other sites on the Web that discuss RIA include:

The bottom line for IT leaders

RIA offers a new opportunity for those organizations that want to escape Microsoft's death grip. In bypassing the operating system, RIA developers gain a wider audience for their applications and give end users more choice in clients. RIA also gives users a more "rich" experience when visiting Web sites, which can increase user activity and interaction on a site.  If you're developing applications in-house, it might be worth a look.

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