Google gears – offline web applications

Google has today announced Google gears. It allows web applications to work offline. Google gears is a browser extension that can be downloaded and installed. It exposes Javascript classes which can be invoked by web applications to provide offline functionality.

While it appears cool at first look, it needs to be analyzed in detail. Here are some initial questions that needs to be answered:

1. Does the user have control over deciding which applications to make offline? How much data should be available offline?

2. Does the offline functionality run in-process (in the browser)? If it runs in-process is there a chance of browser bloating up in memory due to offline caching or run slow?

3. What about security? Is it possible for a rogue application to cache and use background threads to connect to their site just because the user visited the website and the Javascript accessing Google gears got loaded?  

4. Does Google gear intercept all HTTP requests going out of the browser? If I am offline and just type google.com/mail how does it capture this request and present me with offline content?

5. It appears the offline functionality is going to work only for pure Javascript applications. How does it work when application has other tiers like Java, PHP, Ruby….?

6. Writing applications to handle connection status and gracefully transition is going to be a programming  challenge (nightmare).

Interesting to note Adobe Apollo support for Google gears (or viceversa). “Kevin Lynch, senior vice president and chief software architect at Adobe, said his company will join Google in the effort to develop a standard cross-platform, cross-browser local storage capability. The Gears API will be available in Adobe’s Apollo tool that enables Web applications to run on the desktop, he added.”. I thought they did not accept this – Adobe Apollo – On A Collision Course With Web Browsers 🙂

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Examples of 2 RIA approaches

Here are 2 examples of Rich Internet Applications:

eBay San Dimas Project: Provides offline functionality for eBay. Can create desktop alerts for eBay bids. Written using Adobe Apollo platform.

Dekoh Calendar: Is a desktop counterpart to Google Calendar. Allows creating desktop reminders and audio alerts for Google calendar events. Works offline and syncs events next time connected. Written using Dekoh platform.

Functionality offered by both the above is similar. Both applications can be accessed in an airplane (no internet connection) The big difference is in the way user interface is rendered. eBay application is run like a native desktop application outside the browser. Dekoh calendar is accessed from the browser.

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Think before you move all your data online

I am not referring to privacy concerns or worries about what kind of analytics and user behaviour information social networking websites extract from your data and interactions on their site.

This month there has been several events that has occurred on some popular photo, music sharing websites. Recent one being Zoomr is down for a week. Earlier in the month Yahoo Photos announced closure of their service. Images check in but they don’t check out of Yahoo Photos!!? Another news this month was about Imeem’s future being uncertain.

While it is cool to share and socialize on websites, it is still not time for doing away with the desktop and keeping everything on the web.

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No need to go beyond the browser

Rich Internet Applications bring a new dimension of richness to web applications. While there are some who are skeptical about RIA value for end users there are others who believe that it is the Future Direction of Applications.

While most people agree that browser is a universal client and in a comparison of Ajax vs RIA – Ajax still rules, there is one prevailing thought that to do anything on the desktop you need to go Beyond the Browser.

This is not true. 

In fact by using browser as the client for RIA as Dekoh does, it is possible to provide a seamless user experience for web and desktop applications. Take a look at this screen shot from Dekoh Photos it is showing the local file-system in a AJAX UI.

Such applications also have the other advantage of gracefully degrading when internet connection is not available. An example of this is Dekoh Calendar. If the user is connected to the internet Dekoh Calendar synchronizes events with Google calendar in both directions. If the user is not connected, the calendar continues to work well locally, just that the sync happens the next time user connects to the internet. This kind of seamless user experience for offline and online operation for an application is possible only when the user interface is in the browser.

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RIA – is it “Rich Interface Application”?

Stephen O’Grady of Redmonk has written this good post Too Rich For My Taste: The RIA Q&A questioning the value of Rich Internet Applications to end users. Some of the observations are  very accurate. Two of them related to Internet Applications are very important:

1. We spend more time using browser based applications  than thick-client desktop applications (exceptions are developers). Browsers are universal client program people are comfortable using.

2. End users are happy using current web interfaces. In the recent years AJAX has made it even better. There is no real need for making application interfaces richer. Don’t fix what is not broken.

The big vendors of RIA, Adobe (Apollo), Microsoft (Siliverlight) and Sun (JavaFX) seem to be making excessive emphasis on richness of interface and pushing their technologies forgetting the above crucial points. The richness of interface is highlighted so much in the demos and talked so much about in their marketing that RIA can be interpreted as “Rich Interface Applications”.

Is there a reason why richness of interface is played up, although RIAs are meant to provide richness in 3 dimensions?

I think the 3 big vendors have a problem with “Internet Applications” part of RIA definition. Internet Applications imply using the browser as the client. Adobe Apollo and Sun’s JavaFX do not run inside the browser, so point #1 above is not in favor of them. If it is not about writing super cool UI Silverlight has no place, so point #2 is not in favor of Microsoft Silverlight.

Does this mean RIA has no role? Should you be a skeptic the way Stephen is?

I think RIA has a big role to play connecting the web to the user. RIA provides a way for web to interact with the user in more ways than current request-response model.

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JavaFX opens more options for Java developers

Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz announced at JavaOne a new product called JavaFX. In simple technical terms JavaFX is a easy to use scripting language for writing Swing and Java2D applications. Writing Swing based applications is considered complex by most developers and JavaFX should make it simpler.

With JavaFX coming up now there are more options for Java developers to write dsesktop-web integrated applications. Dekoh, supports writing desktop applications using web standards like JSP, Servlets, AJAX and Flash. JavaFX supports scripting for Swing UI.

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Java-driven Rich Internet Applications

Rich Internet Applications (RIA) is catching on very well. It is easy to appreciate the need to have an integrated desktop – web experience for all the good things such applications can bring.

However, in building RIA, two things from the web development experience become important:

  1. Being cross-platform and not to exclude anyone (as the web does not do it)
  2. Refactor and reuse what exists (skills, programming/deployment models, code-base, tools, and more)

With the kind of popularity enjoyed by Java and related open-source products makes us to think that Java-driven RIA may just be the best way to go. RIA platform like Dekoh combine many familiar technologies, products, API, making it easier for web developers to address desktop oppportunities with ease.

Those of you who will be at JavaOne in the next few days, are welcome to come and see Dekoh at Pramati Technologies booth #812 (right at the entrace, just after Intel).


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