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Is Adobe breathing down Microsoft's neck?

News.com's Charles Cooper says Adobe's new AIR tech and others' plans for Web apps could finally mean Redmond has to compete for your loyalty.

Remember the initial hoo-ha that greeted Netscape in the mid-'90s? The idea being that a new computing platform--in this case the Web browser--would obviate the need to use Microsoft Windows anymore.

That fired imaginations. Instead of writing applications chained to a proprietary operating system, developers would build programs that ran on top of the Internet browser.

Microsoft was dead in the water. Or so a lot of smart people wanted to believe.

Even Netscape's co-founder, Marc Andreessen, got caught up in the hype, famously dismissing Windows as a "poorly debugged set of device drivers." A lot of people felt the same way. If the industry was about to embrace Web-centric computing, Microsoft would be in danger of losing its hegemony over desktop computing.

Of course, if I had a nickel for every time some smarty-pants claimed to have found a surefire Microsoft killer, I wouldn't have to meet deadlines for a living. The optimistic scenario obviously didn't work out the way Andreessen and his fellow travelers hoped it would. But the final coda had yet to be engraved on this story.

Microsoft is getting used to living--and competing for your loyalty--in a brave new world.

Now comes the announcement of a new product from Adobe Systems that intrigues me--as much for what it suggests about Adobe's ambitions as for what it might presage about the future.

I'm simplifying, but Adobe Integrated Runtime, or AIR, lets you build applications that are kind of the best of both worlds. That is, they'll run in a Web browser or as a standard client app on your desktop (and, presumably, OS-agnostic, too).

There's a lot of activity in this field--including the rise of browser-based Office competitors. This cross-platform development approach has been attempted before. Sun is still trying with Java on desktop. The company announced Java FX at JavaOne this year.

Of course, there are some potential limitations. People can do a lot with scripting languages. (That's where Ajax comes in. You can write an AIR application with an Ajax toolkit.) Adobe's doing Photoshop Express with scripting, but some apps still will require the native OS. But to the degree that any of this is successful, it means the further marginalization of Windows (someday, maybe).

We can quibble over who's got the better technology, but there's a bigger picture to consider. With all the recent advances in Web development the last couple of years, this is emerging as a golden era for users. We're up for grabs and now we've got options--lots of them.

When former Sun CEO Scott McNealy and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison were barnstorming around the country during the bubble trying to sell the world on the network computer, it was--as McNealy was wont to say on other occasions--all hat and no cattle. (Sorry Scott, but I couldn't resist.) The big reason the network computer approach failed to work was the "cloud" factor. Critics like Microsoft would (rightly) note that it was impossible to work on your spreadsheet or word processing documents unless you were first connected to the Internet. If you needed 24-7 access to your stuff, you had to pay The Man.

But a product like AIR, which is still in beta, allows people to do their work offline. They can drag and drop graphics or text between Web and desktop applications without first needing to be online. One potential negative: AIR is another proprietary plug-in and people may not want to write to it because it's Adobe's technology and consumers may get sick of downloading yet one more download.

In public, Adobe's observing diplomatic protocol. Instead of waving a red flag in front of Microsoft, Adobe execs dismiss any suggestion that they're spoiling for a fight with Microsoft (or the Java development community, for that matter.) Speaking earlier in the week with my CNET News.com colleague Martin LaMonica, Adobe's chief software architect Kevin Lynch offered this gem of an understatement: "Microsoft is trying to bring the .Net community to the Web. We are really focused on bringing the larger Web community to the desktop. It's two different approaches. It's not a head-on thing--it's just two groups of developers," Lynch said. "Our bet is on the Web."

I'm not sure that's going to mollify the folks in Redmond. But Microsoft is getting used to living--and competing for your loyalty--in a brave new world.