What’s holding back RIA interfaces

It seems that each day brings a new way to build RIAs. I won’t dive into the list here, but suffice it to say that choosing a platform for an RIA application is becoming an increasingly complex task. But that’s a post for another day. The point is that while there are a large number of options, they all seem to be driving towards a common goal: to look like a desktop application.

What’s so bad about that? I’m glad you asked. But before I get to the bad, let’s look at what’s good about mimicking desktop applications. The most obvious benefit is familiarity. People generally know how to operate hierarchical menus, tree controls, context menus, etc. Naturally, it makes sense to include the familiar desktop metaphors in RIAs where appropriate, and even make the RIA look and feel as much like a desktop application as possible. Right?

Well, I disagree. Breaking away from the desktop is a great opportunity to break away from the desktop application paradigms. Reinventing the desktop of the past decades for the web is a mistake. Sure, the “desktop interface” was evolutionary, but it was just a step in the process, and is certainly not the gold standard after which future paradigms should be modeled.

Yet we go to amazing ends to make the web look like the desktop. And sadly, the web is beginning to fall in line. And here’s why:

  • Ignorance. If you don’t know of a better way, you’ll probably stick with the same.
  • Risk. New is different (arguably). Different is risky.
  • Budget. Treading new ground often means more testing, which takes more time and money.

As pioneers do what they do and progress is made, mistakes will also be made. Take Google. Gmail presented a simple and natural interface, yet was more powerful and flexible than any other email client. OTOH, Google’s first shot at a news reader fell well short of being usable and competitive with other readers. They’ve since learned their lesson and improved the Reader. Was it Guy Kawasaki who said (paraphrasing), “If you weren’t embarrassed of version one, you were too late?”

It will take creativity, imagination and conscious effort to improve the interfaces of tomorrow’s RIAs. I only hope that the framework and library vendors (on whom us mere mortals rely) “get” this and provide some sorely needed leadership in this area.

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