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BEA transforms mobile apps with Alchemy

The server software and tools maker aims to simplify the creation of mobile Web applications that have the same rich graphical user interface as desktop applications.

SAN FRANCISCO--BEA Systems' top technology guru demonstrated an internal project to create a "universal client platform" designed to make mobile applications as functional as desktop Web applications.

BEA Chief Architect Adam Bosworth said the initiative, called Alchemy, provides the software foundation for Web applications that allow people to carry on working, whether they are on or off a wireless network. Bosworth spoke on Wednesday at the company's eWorld customer conference here.

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The Alchemy software is still in a prototype phase, and BEA is partnering with companies such as Nokia and Intel to develop it. Bosworth said BEA intends to use existing industry standards, such as protocols derived from XML (Extensible Markup Language) and scripting languages, to build Alchemy and make the software open-source.

With Alchemy, BEA is trying to address the difficulty of building and maintaining applications that run on mobile devices. Bosworth said the initiative is meant to enable developers to write Web applications with traditional Web tools and to help users keep working with the same programs, whether they are online or offline, adjusting to the intermittent access people have to wireless networks.

"This is not rocket science. It will require a lot of plumbing and a lot of hard work. I think it will take a couple of years," Bosworth said.

Alchemy consists of a handful of components, including software that runs on a client device to store data and then synchronize it with a server once a person gets back online. The server component of Alchemy will handle the requests from Web clients and fetch information from other sources. The software is designed to work with existing Web browsers.

Several companies have launched products or plans around mobile development tools and so-called rich clients, which are Web-based applications that have the same graphical interface as traditional desktop applications. Browser-based applications that rely on information being delivered from a Web server have limitations in certain situations, such as when data is processed locally on a desktop PC. Mobile Web applications generally also suffer from poor presentation, don't handle spotty network access well and require specialized tools to build, Bosworth said.

BEA's rich-client initiative is a challenge to IBM's Workplace initiative, which uses Eclipse software, and to Microsoft, which is trying to blur the lines between the browser and Windows in the upcoming Longhorn edition of the operating system. In contrast to these companies, BEA is taking an approach based on standards and existing development tools, said James Governor, an analyst at research firm RedMonk.

"The Eclipse rich client would be a replacement technology, and in the tech industry, things (like Alchemy) that tend to extend existing technology are powerful," Governor said. BEA's Alchemy is also a good, defensive move against Microsoft and its Windows-based desktop software, he said.

Alchemy also aims to make it easier to modify Web business programs and to eliminate the need to build separate versions of an application for mobile devices and PCs, Bosworth said. In his keynote speech, Bosworth said BEA is designing its tools to not only make application developers more productive but also to make it simpler for nonprogrammers to change, maintain and support a business application, once it is running.

Separately, BEA announced developer outreach efforts on Wednesday. The company is making software "blueprints," or technical templates, that coders can use to create applications that adhere to a services-oriented architecture (SOA), or modular system design.

The company also said it has created "controls," or prewritten software components, for that use public Web services from Amazon, eBay, Google, Federal Express and United Parcel Service. Making access to these Web services available as controls, which work in conjunction with BEA's WebLogic Workshop, will simplify programming with those Web services, said Cornelius Willis, BEA's vice president of developer marketing.