Rich Internet application (RIA) development didn't used to be a heavyweight competition. Just a few short years ago, when developers wanted to create a browser experience beyond the ordinary -- to incorporate sophisticated dashboards or jazzy special effects, for example -- they could draw from a handful of obscure and fledgling tools. The ingredients of AJAX were still coming together. Even the Flash-driven solutions from Macromedia and Laszlo Systems showed their youth.
Now that Flash is part of Adobe Systems, AJAX is omnipresent, and Microsoft and Sun have entered the game, RIA is as mainstream today as mainstream gets. At the lightweight end of the RIA spectrum, a number of open-source libraries have caught fire. Dojo, Ext, Google Web Toolkit, jQuery, MooTools, Prototype/Scriptaculous, and Yahoo User Interface are ideal for programmers who just need to add a bit of fancy functionality (a date chooser, a data grid, some form preprocessing, etc.) to a page.
[ InfoWorld, with the help of its readers, designs the ideal notebook. Here's a look inside the perfect laptop. ]
A step up from the open-source tools are commercial AJAX frameworks such as Backbase, Bindows, JackBe, and Tibco General Interface. But can these maintain their edge? With so many good open-source alternatives available, why spring for a so-called "enterprise AJAX" solution?
The reasons range from better technical support and documentation to more polish and flexibility. But it's becoming increasingly difficult to draw significant, categorical differences between the open-source and commercial tools.
As the open-source projects extend their reach, the commercial players are finding niches beyond AJAX. For instance, JackBe's offering has evolved into an "enterprise mashup" platform that ties together HTML, RSS, Web services, and SQL calls. Backbase also has zeroed in on the server side, plus has added support for offline RIAs and released a version of its AJAX framework for Java developers. Laszlo Systems, now the shepherd of a standout open-source RIA platform, focuses on Web 2.0 desktop solutions for businesses and service providers.