Adobe's Apollo looks to one-up Ajax

Proponents say new platforms like Apollo pave way for applications that bridge the Web and desktop. Image: Finetune Desktop

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read
Adobe Systems' Apollo software is at the vanguard of an emerging set of technologies that seek to improve on Ajax, perhaps the most popular style for writing interactive Web applications.

Adobe on Monday released an alpha, or early, version of Apollo, software that can run Web applications both online and offline.

Reaction to the release has been enthusiastic among programmers who create so-called rich Internet applications (RIA), cross-operating system applications that combine the interactivity of desktop software with the Web.

Ajax-style development, used for many Web 2.0 services, improves on the interactivity of Web applications, compared with those of only a few years ago. Web 2.0 generally refers to Web services that let people collaborate and share information online.

But Adobe's Apollo and other alternatives offer some advantages over Ajax, said Richard Monson-Haefel, an analyst at the Burton Group. For example, Flash-based applications can run multimedia content such as video, and Java has a richer set of development tools. Now the ability to mix online and offline content is coming to the fore.

"In terms of trying to capture the development community, I'd say (Apollo) helps Adobe compete more with Ajax," Monson-Haefel said. "Offline development is becoming a real issue now. You need to make applications available offline, and Ajax can't do that."

In addition to Apollo, slated for a version 1.0 release in the second half of the year, there is a growing roster of rich Internet application platforms, including Adobe Flash-based tools, Java, and Microsoft's Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/E), which is still not generally available.

Which of them will become the most popular among programmers remains to be seen. But many people believe that the richness of the latest generation of tools will usher in more full-featured Web applications as well as hybrid applications that cross the line between the Web and desktop.

"The fundamental thing is that Apollo is enabling innovation on the Web to come onto the desktop. These have been completely separate worlds," said Kevin Lynch, chief software architect and senior vice president of Adobe's platform business unit. "Potentially, we're going to unveil a flood of innovation on the desktop."

Pushing the limits of the Web
Virtual Ubiquity, a 10-person start-up staffed with IT industry veterans, decided to forgo Ajax when it set off to make an online word processor about a year and a half ago.

The company tried to write a prototype using a range of development technologies but eventually decided to use Adobe's software, said company CEO Rick Treitman.

The word processor, called Buzzword, runs in Adobe's Flash and is built using Flex 2.0, Adobe's development software for writing rich Internet applications.

Finetune Desktop

"We're convinced this is the only way we could write this product," Treitman said, adding that his team looked at Java and JavaScript, which is commonly used for Ajax programming. "The other technologies just didn't take use where we were going."

Virtual Ubiquity intends to build a version of its application for Apollo as well, he added. Company engineers will build an offline option for its Flash-based word processor. But using Apollo will make the offline capabilities more "elegant," Treitman said.

An important factor in choosing Flash is that it is installed so widely in browsers, he said.

Indeed, having a single vendor control a browser plug-in, like Flash or WPF/E, means that developers have a more consistent platform for running applications compared to Ajax, Monson-Haefel noted.

Many developers prefer open standards-based Web development, like using JavaScript, rather than adopting development tools and browser plug-ins from a single vendor such as Adobe or Microsoft.

But "there are still a lot of problems with browser compatibilities with Firefox and (Microsoft's) Internet Explorer," Monson-Haefel said.

The strengths of different development tools may go a long way to determining the relative popularity of Ajax or other browser plug-in technologies.

OpenLaszlo, for example, is an open-source development tool designed to build Flash or Ajax-style rich Internet applications.

Another is Nexaweb, which has built an Eclipse-based Ajax tool. And there are several Ajax frameworks to speed development. Adobe's Flex allows developers to combine HTML, JavaScript and Flash in a single application.

Monson-Haefel said that Ajax has significant vendor support and has captured the most "mind share" of Web developers. Java, although the most mature, suffers from people's poor experiences with applets which ran in browsers when Java first came out in the 1990s, he said.

"It's going to be fun and interesting to see where Ajax will go because people keep pushing the envelope," he said. "We're seeing a lot of people experiment, so we haven't see the full potential of Ajax."

Meanwhile, the newest entrants into the rich Internet applications race--Microsoft's WPF/E and Apollo--will require end users to download a new browser plug-in to run applications.

Developers can take advantage of the offline capabilities of Apollo to do things like notify people working on a shared document that an update has been done, Treitman noted.

"It's got a lot of potential. We have to see how users react to it," he said.