Change Management

Road to Riches: Exploring the Foundations of the Emerging RIA Transformation

Change Management columnist Bola Rotibi continues her exploration of the challenges and opportunities shaping the adoption of user experience and rich Internet application development in the corporate space. (Part 2 of 2)

In part 1 of this series (Buried Riches: Can Vendors Overcome their RIA Flaws?), I explored the challenges dev tool vendors face in providing enterprise-capable RIA development tools. Now in this concluding column, I look at some of the factors within organizations that serve to shape and, too often, impede the deployment of rich, user experience (UX) savvy tools and techniques.

For vendors, it is one thing to engage the developer and design community with appropriate tooling, but getting buy-in from business sponsors is another challenge entirely. Unfortunately, Microsoft, Adobe and others have struggled to effectively engage business sponsors of corporate line of business applications.

The value proposition for RIA and UX remains best recognized by suppliers of consumer facing applications and Web sites. These organizations see identifiable bottom line impacts and revenue returns. But where is an industry co-ordinated effort to champion analytics and metrics that show the successes and returns for corporate line of business applications and the efficiency gains for corporate development?

Development and design within corporate IT teams is a different beast, and produces some complex challenges in the development of effective UX and RIA.

It starts with the corporate infrastructure. Corporate data and applications are bound within complex distributed systems with tight access rules and processes. Security, distributed environments and applications, performance and governance are top line concerns that make architecture and design both involved and complex. But the architectural, security, data storage, synchronization and performance issues and constraints must be resolved when developing for RIA, especially if it is a Web application that must provide both online and offline access.

Fundamentally, the challenges involved in developing RIAs for line of business applications, where data and information is locked in a multitude of different systems and application packages, are similar to those presented by Enterprise Application Integration (EAI). Under EAI, a services-based approach with a standards-based services interface protocol would open access to data across disparate systems and application packages, making it easier to extract. However, the operating infrastructure and application architectures for many organizations are still in the process of undergoing Web services and SOA transformations.

The corporate environment is one that is bound by the formality of policy, rules, regulation and the need to show and prove compliance. Unfortunately, tool vendors are not aligned with the everyday concerns of the development team and the realities of the corporate environment.

The Blame Game
RIA tools vendors can't take all the blame for the sluggish adoption of rich UX and RIA penetration in the corporate space. Enterprise organizations have earned their share of blame too.

In businesses, design too often is not given a high priority and organizations simply won't bear the cost of it for many front line applications. User experience and RIA are still considered to be more about the “wow” factor rather than a critical enabler of functionality. There also continues to be unease with the security of virtual environments like Silverlight and Flash. Many IT managers also do not understand the deployment improvements presented by these virtual environments and worry about the availability of plug-ins if they are supporting older platforms.

Adoption of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is also a factor. SaaS applications are appealing to organizations that have gone down the Web application route, because the programming paradigm and technology up-skilling is considered far less challenging than shifting to a rich UX environment. The market share for SaaS solutions is also growing significantly.

Not that corporate UX and RIA development is a lost cause. Enterprise business heads want front line applications to provide the same productivity benefits and rich experience that consumer audiences enjoy. They want to tap into the sophisticated technologies, devices and applications their workforces use outside of the business. They know that there are savings to be had, and revenues to be gained.

Market potential ripe with healthy support
Corporate developers and UX designers are now in a better position than ever to take advantage of the portfolio of products available to them. Companies that have committed to SOA transformation programs have seen these investments pay off for enterprise RIA development, achieving real bottom line benefits because of it.

Software architectures and protocols such as REST (Representational State Transfer) and OData (Open data protocol) are sweetening the RIA pot, providing open interfaces for the sharing of data and resources in distributed systems via the Internet. These are being championed by vendors like IBM and Microsoft within their respective portfolios, enhancing the ability to develop enterprise RIAs quickly and easily.

There is growing support for the value of UX across the vendor landscape. IBM’s Lotus division has embarked on its “Exceptional Web Experience” initiative and the IBM project Northstar. This sees improvements in WebSphere Portal Server and Lotus Content Management, making it easier for the development and delivery of customer facing applications that take advantage of Web 2.0, social media and unified communication technologies.

Many of the traditional incumbents of the development tools market are also supporting RIA development within their tools and processes, most notably Compuware Uniface with Uniface 9.4 and Magic Software with uniPaaS. Micro Focus with TeamDefine and IBM Rational with its partnership with iRise have also joined Microsoft and Adobe in bringing UX within the confines of a more formally accountable requirements capture and management process.

There are also positive signs from Microsoft, Adobe and many others suggesting that there is a collective recognition and acceptance of the challenges facing RIA and UX development for LOB applications. Vendor tooling portfolios and partnership strategies demonstrate an understanding of what is required to bring RIA and UX development into alignment with the corporate software development process and workflow.

Microsoft, for instance, has in its Expression Studio platform a well developed tooling portfolio aimed at the Web, media and design communities. The latest version, Expression Studio 4, sees valuable improvements and new features for each of the three core products -- Blend, Web and Encoder -- that can improve the productivity of the targeted roles and the quality of their output for a broad spectrum of interactions.

Of note In Expression Studio 4 are the Windows phone support, enriched support for Adobe Photoshop, new designing style features for key draw objects, and support within Blend for Model View View-Model. Expression Web adds a new SuperPreview beta for online browser compatibility testing (adding support for Macintosh Safari). Expression Encoder gets better Live Smooth Streaming and support for H.264. While these tools target Windows, Microsoft has broadened its approach with Silverlight, which offers cross-platform capability.

Expression Studio boasts tight integration and interoperability with Visual Studio, Microsoft’s powerful development platform. Microsoft Team Foundation Server is tightly woven into Visual Studio to provide a central repository backbone for all developed and designed artifacts. When you add all this together, along with the rich development support of VS2010, one begins to see the very real potential for an end-to-end solution for user experience and rich interactive application development. Importantly, integration with the mature Microsoft development stack offers powerful assurance for corporate development teams committed to formal processes, rigorous compliance and policy-bound environments.

Adobe, aware of the expectations of the design community, will address limitations in Flash Catalyst in the next release, ensuring round trip interactivity for designers and developers. Flash Catalyst has already applied transition and interactions to data sets and objects, improved its facilities for applying custom themes and status, and added a finer-grained Model View Controller (MVC) model that can be applied at the individual component layer. This is all thanks to the new component architecture within Flex 4 that clearly separates the visual appearance layer from the component logic, allowing them to be stored in separate files.

Adobe's Flex framework is in-line with the Java programming model -- widely used by enterprise development teams -- offering developers greater access to technologies and features for building more expressive interactive applications. Adobe also offers an integration layer to corporate data systems through its LiveCycle data services server. While not unique in its integration strategy, the LiveCycle data services technology can help reduce the development load when building complex Web applications, heavy duty real-time data streaming, and applications that provide visualization, self-service and decision support.

Both vendors have invested in growing an ecosystem of partner support, providing tools that target key requirements for enterprise development such as testing and QA services (e.g. secure code audits), process frameworks, component libraries, etc. Adobe goes one step further in its cross platform support, which has helped drive the ubiquity of its client platforms and Acrobat Reader, and has raised Adobe's value proposition for many in the design and development community. A significant number of Cloud based vendors are also turning to Adobe’s Flex framework as the basis for delivering their own user interfaces and next generation applications.

Adobe has wisely worked to improve integration and interoperability within its portfolio of design and development tools, application frameworks, clients, data and processing servers, as well as in the area of application, content and video creation. The Flash Platform is the embodiment of its integrated portfolio.

Theory of Revolution
Ultimately, developing and delivering RIA requires a shift in the dynamics of the software delivery team and additional steps in the workflow of the delivery process. It is an evolution process that sees the inclusion of new roles and new types of people forming new types of relationships. But perhaps the most significant evolutionary requirement is a shift in attitude and behavior, and a willingness to explore new capabilities by thinking outside the box and beyond the boundaries of tradition.

UX is an architectural consideration that requires a collaborative and communicative approach to ensure all the key roles (end-user, designer, developer, QA) are engaged in delivering the most productive and effective experience. It will mean new tools that can interoperate with existing tooling and management frameworks and platforms, as well as new steps in the development and delivery workflow. This, after all, is no different from many of the change practices being employed by enterprise development teams today to improve the delivery and quality of their deployed applications and raise end-user satisfaction.

About the Author

Bola Rotibi is research director for market analysis firm Creative Intelligence Consulting and an award-winning analyst focused on the areas of software development, delivery and lifecycle management. Rotibi can be reached at bola@creativeintellectuk.com.

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