RWW’s Sarah Perez: Microsoft Hitwoman?

The NYTimes is featuring an article by Sarah Perez which asks so casually yet duplicitously – “Are You Over AIR Applications? “. Let me set the stage. AIR is the Adobe entry into the RAIA– Rich Anywhere Interface Applications race. AIR allows developers to deliver to users apps that combine just about any rich media [think audio, video, liveTV, Flash animations, graphic charting,etc], GUI widgets, database connections, online collaboration, and the full rich set of desktop PC features. AIR apps run on the major operating systems – Apple OS/x, Linux most versions, and Microsoft Windows. But AIR adds 6 unique capabilities that browser-alone based apps are hard pressed to match:

1)AIR allows apps to run online, offline or both;
2)AIR allows secure access to the local file system;
3)Air provides unique desktop features that the browser does not or requires a special plugin for such as background notifications, system tray updates, drag and drop operations with the desktop, clipboard awareness, etc;
4) AIR allows complete control over look, feel and branding while browser apps must live in a potentially competitively branded browser container;
5)Browser and Web must be available to run a Web app; an AIR app can run offline and then resync when online becomes available;
6)AIR apps, unlike browser apps, can run in the background while monitoring and responding to desktop events

In sum, AIR adds versatility to Cloud Computing because it is able to take advantage of a PC’s desktop more fully while adding the important dimension of being able to run offline if the Web is not available.


The Hit

First, a bit of disclosure. I have been following the RIA/RAIA marketplace for the past 5 years and consider Adobe’s AIR to be the leading RIA/RAIA technology over Java/Java FX and Microsoft Silverlight primarily because of AIR’s strong set of GUI widgets, cross-OS platform capabilities and robust offline as well as online operations. However, I am currently working on an article that elevates browsers which support HTML5 + JavaScript 1.7 or better with robust JS engines as new top flight contenders for RIA/RAIA leadership. The primary reason is that a)most browsers [Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera’s Opera] support fast JavaScript engines; b)run on Linux, Mac, Windows, and several mobile phone Operating Systems; c)but are missing full HTML5 support [the four listed browsers have advanced important pieces of HTML5, but with full HTML5, they will support offline operations in a standardized way and d)offer a number of other HTML5 sponsored improvements including better CSS, DOM, SVG and new HTML tag support. In short I will be arguing that as browsers implement HTML5 the RIA/RAIA and Cloud Computing race will become a lot more interesting in the coming months. However, be advised the four top browsers are far from meeting HTML5’s online/offline spec and Ian Hickson, the head of the HTML5 W3C working group, is not expecting full compliance with HTML5 until 2022.

In contrast, in writing her piece for RWW and the NYTimes Ms. Perez saw no need to disclose these facts nor the info ┬áthat she writes for Microsoft’s 10 Blog. This is important because 10 Blog advances Microsoft technology such as various Office versions, Silverlight [direct rival to Adobe AIR], and the IE8 browser [the best of Microsoft’s browsers; yet still losing by most measures to the new group of much better browsers from Apple, Google, Mozilla(Firefox), and Opera].

So when Ms. Perez faintly praises AIR but then suggests it is now becoming passe’ –

When Adobe AIR was first released, we were in love. These glorious rich internet applications let us interact with web services outside our browser. In many ways, AIR apps were revolutionary. More complex than simple desktop widgets, these programs delivered the web to us in beautiful little packages. Almost immediately, we were updating Twitter, streaming video, reading feeds, editing photos, and so much more using various apps built for this new platform. But recently, we’ve begun to question AIR’s longevity. Now don’t get us wrong – many of our favorite apps (TweetDeck, Tumbleweed, Yammer, etc.) are built using Adobe AIR. However, there’s no reason why these apps couldn’t just run in a browser instead…and that might even be a better place for them.”

one wonders why attack AIR when it will likely perform as well if not better than any browser equivalents. And AIR offers its developers some unique desktop-online sharing plus attractive offline capabilities which browser based apps cannot currently offer [with only partial possible delivery through Google Gears]. Further, browsers’ AIR-like capabilities awaits browser vendors implementing much of HTML5 in order to get close to what AIR can do now. This is far from passe’ and appears to be category leading capabilities.

The article goes on to argue that the above named Twitter utilities really don’t need AIR and its superior speed of operation or superior cross platform capabilities:

Yet despite everything we love about TweetDeck, we wonder why it can’t exist simply as an online application. What purpose does running TweetDeck in Adobe AIR serve? It’s not AIR’s cross-platform abilities – after all, web browsers are the original cross-platform apps -and it’s not that AIR is notably faster than than an online version either. Probably the only reason for TweetDeck on AIR is that when the app was first built, AIR was the hot new thing. Now that the company has settled on the platform, they’re just sticking with it.

And true enough most of the Twitter utilities do not take full advantage of the desktop’s local storage, superior speed, and ability to continue to perform even if the Web is down or unavailable. First Ms. Perez credits all popular browsers with the same cross platform reach where in fact the ranking of browser finds that Opera is the best; Firefox a close second, Chrome and Safari still have major OS gaps, and IE8 is the worst by far being really a Windows-only browser [but IE8 fails to support Win 98, Win ME, WinNT, and Win 2000].But more critically what Ms. Perez is remiss on is that failure to support dual online/offline operation is a big opportunity lost.

For example, eTrade, Morningstar and Fidelity have all recently revised their online financial apps to be more Web/Cloud performant – nice GUI widgets and desktop-like operations. Fine. But what I really want is the ability to run through those stock screens online or offline. I need to make changes to my portfolio, or do the final analysis of what my purchase strategy is regardless of whether or not the Financial Analysis app is connected to the Web or not. I know I will be giving up the ability to contact the huge, site-based stocks/funds database so I will have to live with the screen of stocks, funds and other data that I did save last. Also if not connected I will not be able to get the latest stock quote data. But I am willing to live with that if I can do the supporting analysis and portfolio adjustments offline [and likely much faster than the browser based online analysis]. But most important I want to synch up the offline results and changes to my portfolio when I am able to sign onto the Web which AIR explicitly provides for. Do you hear the opportunity knocking Etrade, Fidelity, Morningstar or any entreprenuerial start up ?

Important note: I can do this offline/online Financial App right now and best with AIR, next best with Java/JavaFX, and least best with any of the browsers and Microsoft SilverLight [because SilverLight has weak cross platform browser support and offline capabilities]. Here is where Ms. Perez’ evaluation really falls down. She credits browsers with too much capabilities, fails to delineate any shortcomings of Silverlight while attacking AIR for not bringing anything to the table in the online-only situation where AIR “only” has a speed/performance and cross-OS platform advantage. Why this confusing and almost perverse analysis?

Unfortunately, the perversity continues.

‘Streaming Video: Yeah, We Can Do that Online. Other AIR apps on our radar in the past have included video-streaming programs like Adobe Media Player, AOL Top 100 Videos, and the YouTube-streaming DeskTube. Incidentally, today DeskTube is launching a new beta of their application, claiming “performance improvements” that now make their player “netbook-ready.” This immediately got us thinking: why do we need netbook-ready AIR applications? Maybe I don’t speak for everyone, but my netbook is currently running XP and the only “app” I’ve installed is Google Chrome. With this fast, lightweight web browser and its pop-out tabs, desktop apps all of sudden seem so passe’.Besides what does DeskTube do (or any of these video-streaming AIR apps for that matter) that the web cannot?’

Well Ms.Perez, AIR applications run online or offline or both[2 up on most browsers]; with a single unified but user cusomizable look and feel; able to address/store both online and offline files with equal alacrity. Unlike browser pages, AIR pages can take advanatge of available local resources such as drag and drop from the desktop, system tray, and clipboard to AIR apps; use of the local files system for read and write operations locally and with speed. Finally AIR apps have unlimited and persistent local storage, access to a local database, and access to local encryption/decryption feeds while enjoying the same online access as browser programs. Here Ms. Perez simply fails to give credit to AIR’s superior processing options. Ms. Perez analsysis is seriously deficient about AIR [or Java/JavaFX or Microsoft Silverlight’s] offline+online access capabilities. It is almost as if Ms. Perez willfuly overlooks the best of both online+offline world provided by AIR and its cohorts.

Perhaps the problem is that Ms.Perez in the next paragraph credits Google’s Chrome with the singular ability to do offline operations through Google Gears – which supports some offline operations in the fashion of AIR and others. Yes, Google Gears works with Google Chrome but also Apple Safari on Mac, Mozilla Firefox 1.5 or above on Mac, Windows, and Linux, and Internet Explore 6 or above on Windows XP and Vista []. All of the browsers are moving rapidly to support many HTML5 features – one of which is offline operations. But none of the browser vendors has a complete offline implementation in HTML5. So AIR continues to lead in Offline+Online capabilities; but the writing is on the wall: online browsers are working to close the gaps. What would have been useful is if Ms. Perez had been able to supply a timeline on how fast IE and Silverlight will be able to support HTML5 in general, and specfically offline+online capabilities and on what OS platforms beyond Windows Vista and 7 [leaving the status of Windows XP on Netbooks as an open question].


Spurious Attacks on Firefox
Finally, almost in passing, Ms Perez takes a couple of incorrect shots at Mozilla Firefox. “bloated with a plethora of add-ons (Firefox)” and “Firefox now seems heavy and so much slower than before”. First, it takes some gaudy choices to Bloat up Firefox with its add-ons [Ms Perez would have better argued for better co-ordination with add-on developers because each new version of Firefox seems to require 10-30% of developers to update their add-on code]. As for “heavy and so much slower”, Ms. Perez has clearly not tried either the beta [available for the last 2 months] or final release of Firefox 3.5 which shows marked performance improvements such that it is neck and neck with Chrome 2.0 and Safari 4.0. Again, Ms. Perez would do readers a service by asking her Microsoft 10 colleagues to predict when Internet Explorer 8 would address the 4x slower speed deficit on JavaScript versus Chrome, Safari and Firefox which currently lead the pack in browser tests here and here again.


Summary
In sum, Ms Perez appears to be a loose cannon on the fast moving browser and RIA/RAIA scene. Her remarks are sometimes embarrassingly wrong and are most reckless and/or spurious when addressing Adobe AIR and Firefox. The fact that these two programs represent thorns in the side for Microsoft [Adobe AIR/Flash leads Microsoft Silverlight by a wide margin and Mozilla Firefox leads all browsers in taking market share from Microsoft’s IE6+IE7+IE8 browsers] raises real questions on journalistic propriety. Given these circumstances, the wonder is that the New York Times saw fit to publish such jaundiced Web journalism. I can point to browser articles by Jim Rapoza at ZDnet or the long careful pieces by Om Malik at Gigaom as just a few of the much more balanced evaluations of the Web scene and RIA/RAIA technology.

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