Enterprise apps get a face-lift

At Oracle OpenWorld and JavaOne, improving the UIs of enterprise Java applications was all the buzz

Modern enterprise applications have been praised for many virtues. They are powerful, scalable, reliable, complex, and secure. One thing they typically aren't, however, is pretty.

That could soon change, according to Doug Fisher, vice president of software and services for Intel. "Consumer usage is evolving faster than the enterprise," Fisher admitted, speaking at the Oracle OpenWorld conference this week in San Francisco. But as consumers grow accustomed to the sophisticated user interfaces of modern Web-based services, he said, increasingly they will expect the same level of sophistication in the applications they use for work.

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The result is what Intel likes to call "the consumerization of enterprise IT," in which the drab, dated UIs we've come to expect of enterprise apps are gradually replaced by experiences that resemble those of consumer-facing services. "You as a developer are going to be expected to delight that end-user," Fisher said.

But how? Enterprise developers have never really been in the delight business. Rich Internet application (RIA) toolkits abound, but few have caught on in a major way, with the possible exception of Adobe Flex.

Giving Java a makeover

One way to encourage richer UIs in enterprise apps might be to build RIA capabilities into the Java platform, which remains the leading tool for enterprise development. Indeed, a stroll around the exhibition hall at this year's JavaOne conference, which took place concurrently with OpenWorld, revealed numerous vendors offering tools and frameworks aimed at creating attractive, highly interactive UIs in Pure Java.

More important, Oracle has taken notice of the issue and is moving forward with aggressive efforts of its own. Thomas Kurian, Oracle executive vice president of product development, devoted much of his JavaOne keynote to explaining the various ways Oracle plans to give Java applications a face-lift, both on the desktop and in the data center.

For starters, a forthcoming version of Java SE will include a high-performance 2-D and 3-D graphics engine. For the first time, developers will have access to advanced media and vector graphics APIs that take full advantage of hardware acceleration, while still retaining Java's cross-platform capabilities.

Next, Oracle plans to integrate its JavaFX RIA technology more tightly with the core Java platform. "We're going to bring together the power of Java and the ease of JavaFX," Kurian says. That means developers will be able to use traditional Java IDEs, profilers, debuggers, and other tools to build interfaces using a single programming model, based on JavaFX, which spans both desktop and server environments.

To facilitate richer server-side apps, Java will become better integrated with existing Web standards, including HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Java developers will be able to use embedded HTML5 to deliver application UIs. In addition, Oracle plans to build a layer that facilitates easy two-way interoperability between Java and JavaScript. In short, while Java has long fancied itself the "language of the Web," now it has begun working toward actually achieving that goal.

Will developers rise to the challenge?

But while these improvements are all well and good, will enterprise developers really take advantage of them? "The root problem as I see it is not lack of powerful UI technology," says Gartner research vice president Ray Valdes. "Instead, the root causes for suboptimal user experience have to do with lack of appropriate process, and governance, and lack of a genuine commitment to a quality user experience."

Yet this too could change. Competition is a powerful motivator, and if even a few application vendors begin stepping up to the challenge of the consumerization of enterprise IT, the broader industry will be forced to follow suit.

Here again, Oracle is leading the charge. The stars of this year's OpenWorld were the Oracle Fusion Applications, the long-awaited results of Oracle's efforts to merge its various business application lines, including those it acquired from PeopleSoft, Siebel, and J.D. Edwards. And while Oracle CEO Larry Ellison made much hay of the five-year coding effort that produced the new applications, he devoted equal time during his OpenWorld keynote to extoling the virtues of their UIs.

Describing the current generation of enterprise apps as "20-year-old technology," Ellison explained how Oracle consulted with customers and UI experts to improve the user experience of the Fusion Applications, such as winnowing down the number of keystrokes it took to complete commonplace functions. "Even Salesforce is 10 years old," Ellison said -- the implication being that if you want to succeed in the Web-based applications business, you need to stay ahead of the curve of Web technologies and standards.

Mind you, the Fusion Applications aren't using the forthcoming JavaFX-based programming model Kurian described in his keynote -- yet. But there's every indication that Oracle plans to eat its own dog food with this latest generation of its applications. Just for starters, the Fusion Applications are built on the very same middleware stack Oracle sells to its customers -- which it had never done before.

"This is the first time an ERP suite has been built on industry-standard middleware," Ellison said. And the fact that he'd boast about it may be the most encouraging thing of all about the changes Oracle is making, both to its applications and to the Java platform. It tells me that even Oracle recognizes that in today's market, it's not enough simply to be the biggest. You also have to build enterprise applications right -- and that goes for the front end as well as the back.

This article, "Enterprise apps get a face-lift," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com.

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