In the March 1997 Wired article, “PUSH!,” Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf predicted that Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) would turn the Internet library into an amusement park. Instead of reading content, we would experience the Web using push media. Things didn’t evolve the way they thought.

RIA has been rather slow to catch on. In its early years, RIA required heavy-duty development and dedicated expertise. How many database developers took on Java, one of the first RIA platforms? Not many. IT consultants and even some Web developers contracted developers with that expertise rather than learn it themselves.

Perhaps identify was part of the problem. At first, it was hard to get a good grip on RIA, although most platforms had common elements: local storage, offline mode, and good use of operating system resources all rolled up in a “look Ma, no browser” package that looked like any other desktop application. Then Flash came out, and the Web was awash with RIA for the sake of RIA. That just confused me, because I could use Flash, but none of my clients were interested.

It’s taken more than a decade, but the RIA craze is finally trendy in a good way, and it might be time for IT consultants to add RIA to their credentials. The big question is: Will enough of your clients benefit to warrant the learning curve? Ten years ago, the answer was probably no, but RIA has evolved. A background in hard-core development is no longer a requirement (but it doesn’t hurt). In fact, RIA is a good tool if you never learned a “real” programming language.

With RIA, you can build and maintain Web applications without concern for browser, desktop, or even operating system compatibility. Furthermore, most of the most popular platforms are free and open source. (They all have expensive siblings with high-powered components, but the free stuff is a good place to start.)

The key is to know when RIA is appropriate and when it isn’t. Using the Internet, you can provide a “desktop application” that’s deployable anywhere, but do your clients really need that kind of accessibility? If the answer to any of the following questions is yes, maybe you should look into RIA:

  • Do your clients need an enterprise-level application?
  • Do your clients need video capabilities for their Web site or a custom application?
  • Do your clients need accessibility to custom applications via mobile devices?

Marketing is another area where RIA excels, but as an IT consultant, you probably won’t consider that possibility without a slight nudge. Consider partnering your RIA skills with a marketable professional.

RIA is still traditionally a Web development skill, but in my opinion, it’s a trend worth following. Reassess your clients’ needs and then research the more popular platforms: Adobe AIR, Flash, Flex, Microsoft Silverlight, AJAX, and Sun’s JavaFX. As users and clients require mature accessibility, RIA might be your answer to client satisfaction and retention.

Since fellow TechRepublic blogger Justin James recently polled the developer audience about RIAs, I thought it might be interesting to poll IT consultants.

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