Beyond the Browser: On Gears, BrowserPlus, Prism, AIR, Widgets and really long titles

Most Flash/Flex developers are by now pretty familiar with the Adobe Air platform. And maybe its a case of “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” syndrome, but suddenly the browser doesn’t seem to be enough for the kind of apps I would like to build. The realization couldn’t have come at a better time with so many new cool platforms to play with, and if big company adoption is any measure of the merit of an idea, then web apps that live beyond the browser is the way of the future.

Today a couple of interesting news items came to my attention.

1) Myspace integrated Google Gears into their messaging platform.
This makes Myspace the biggest Gears adopter and with the audience the size of Myspace, the platform has suddenly become relevant again.

For the uninitiated, here is the Gears announcement video from a while back

I use Google Gears (or Gears as apparently it has been renamed today at the Google I/O conference) for Google Reader, but it always surprised me that even GMail hadn’t adopted it. Based on what I read on Techcrunch, MySpace’s main justification was to reduce the load on their servers for pagination and sorting. While they haven’t enabled offline functionality a-la Google Reader, I am sure they will at some time.

This move, while obviously great for MySpace, also is a huge boon to people looking to create OpenSocial applications that would live on MySpace. They can, if not completely depend on, at least use it to lighten the load on their own servers. And these applications living on a different OpenSocial containers may prompt more non-MySpace audience to download Gears.

2) Yahoo launches BrowserPlus

BrowserPlus is an application that adds more services to a web browser. The plugin installs Drag-and-drop capabilities, image manipulation libraries, persistent stores, etc. And the idea is that you will be able to write your more and more services once the platform opens. Another great idea here is that, while there may be a million services out there, only the ones that are needed for apps are loaded on demand. Yahoo will adopt a ITunes-for-IPhone-Apps model to make sure services loaded in are not malicious, and given Yahoo’s history, I trust them a lot more that Apple or Google. All the services will be available via Javascript, so web developers can leverage any of the services out there to build their apps, all of which are basically web pages. I am really psyched about this one. To me it almost looks like a Adobe AIR-esque runtime but this time I can extend it if I need it to do something. Plus given that a Ruby interpreter is already included into the runtime, and I am getting to like Ruby quite a bit, you can potentially build some really awesome applications leveraging libraries available there.

Gears and BrowserPlus are awesome, and there are other technologies that look really interesting. One of these is JavaFX, Java’s stab at a client-side runtime very similar to Flash. The Java Virtual Machine (Java’s equivalent to the Flash Player), is a lot more powerful than the Flash Player itself, although I am not sure how much of that functionality will be enabled from JFX, it still could be an interesting technology to watch, especially after you see the kind of interaction they are hoping to enable (even if the demo below crashes repeatedly)

Besides these there are other technologies that Mozilla Prism as well as other widget engines Yahoo Widget engine, Windows Gadgets, Mac Dashboard widgets, Google sidebars etc etc, all of which are worth watching. With all these technologies and runtimes that are based on web technologies, especially client side technologies like HTML, Javascript and even Flash, the web developer is suddenly at a point where he can enable his applications to do a lot more than ever. Of course now we have to choose our runtimes and make sure we do not serve broken experiences when users dont have appropriate plugins, as well as learn some technologies traditionally we weren’t concerned with (like SQLite, almost everything seems to use SQLite). But in any case, its a good time to be a client-side developer ;).

Author: Arpit Mathur

Arpit Mathur is a Principal Engineer at Comcast Labs where he is currently working on a variety of topics including Machine Learning, Affective Computing, and Blockchain applications. Arpit has also worked extensively on Android and iOS applications, Virtual Reality apps as well as with web technologies like JavaScript, HTML and Ruby on Rails. He also spent a couple of years in the User Experience team as a Creative Technologist.

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