The Immersive, Cinematic Application: Improving the User Experience

Social networking, video and collaboration are just part of the next generation of Web applications, say these technology experts.

Cinematic. Collaborative. Not words you use to describe most enterprise software today, but that could change in the next two to three years, if the tool visionaries are right. Future applications will be "immersive experiences," says David Wadhwani, Adobe's VP, RIA platform. Ajax has already changed the market, he says, because of its emphasis on eliminating the need for page refresh. (That is, a site updates without the user having to click on a Submit button.) "That's a step in the right direction, but I think the movement will be driven by companies like Apple with iTunes and iPhone. It's a beautiful cinematic experience. People are going to want that in everything."

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"The cinematic user experience" isn't specific to video. According to David Temkin, Laszlo Systems CTO, "Cinematography involves motion, and that tells the story." Applications will have a lot of animation, a lot of continuity. The result: another period of disruption. "The entire user interface is up for grabs," Temkin says. If we could fast-forward a couple of years, he believes, we'll see some consolidation and another stability point.

Bob Brewin, Sun's software CTO, believes that software development has to go beyond what we can get with Ajax. "Start thinking about how we can become more tightly integrated with the desktop, not just the apps on your desktop," he advises.

More Social Interaction and Customization

But another key, upcoming change isn't in the technology of building software, but "encouraging a culture of contribution," says Tim Bray, director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems.

Traditionally, information—particularly corporate information—has flowed in from the edges, with central control. "Those days are gone," Bray says. "People are saying, 'There's a culture of wikis, blogs, tagging and community knowledge—and why can't our enterprise apps be more like that?'" It's especially valuable in information-intensive apps, he believes. "This is coming faster than people think," says Bray.

Collaboration and information sharing needs to be addressed in the application planning phase—and developers should probably start thinking about it now. "Do something that encourages community development," Bray advises.

The rise of social networks and information sharing will likely also change the development process itself. In the next couple of years, says David Intersimone, CodeGear vice president, the Internet will improve the ability of individuals and small teams to work together, in coffee shops and homes, and build new apps in new ways. That movement is arguably already under way, with team members regularly working in different geographies, but Intersimone expects more to come. "The whole social level means more people can collaborate. That's this next wave: how we collaborate over the developer network and put collaboration into our products." Perhaps, he muses, some new languages and object models will come out of this change as well.

For more on collaborative software development, see Grady Booch's "10 Tips to Help Employees Collaborate."

Sun's Brewin believes that social interaction is "no longer a nice-to-have" feature, and expects it to be integrated fully into new applications using asynchronous, annotating documents or data feeds.

Today, synchronous data is fed to us primarily by instant messaging, but over time, says Brewin, our input will include audio and video feeds. There will be live event dispatching, with people working together, such as sharing a single document or application in real time. "It's easy to think of it in text, but imagine two traders working on a trader desktop, deciding whether to buy a billion-dollar stock," he suggests.

Rethink that concept of documents, while you're at it. Brewin expects distinctions between documents and applications to blur. "They'll become more interactive and more dynamic," he says; for example, users won't see as many unnecessary data input fields.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Video will also raise its profile in the enterprise world, the toolmakers believe. Jean-François Abramatic, chief product officer of ILOG, expects video and audio to mature in the next two or three years. "We'll see rich Internet applications on computers, cell phones and televisions," he says. Of course, whether this vision comes to pass depends on the network carriers and device makers as well: Along with bandwidth and storage, we need a mobile infrastructure and Internet that can stand up to that much video streaming.

Several experts brought up the Apple iPhone, usually followed by an expression like "...is just the beginning." That's because Apple is inspiring these developers to think of mobile application design in a new way. Phone input and output is essentially numbers, video and audio, which are far different from the documents that a Web browser handles. Yes, a phone can show webpages today—but its native interface is numbers on that teeny keyboard.

With the application design concerns about those two different worlds, Alex Russell, project lead for the Dojo Toolkit, says, "We'll get better access to the phone hardware, and that will change app design. Mobile app design will change."

Users will also demand more application personalization, points out Sun's Brewin. They won't want just data feeds or schemes; they'll want to compose applications to extend the data model that the application is aware of, create fields for data capture, and have "composability."

Certainly, all that data sharing will have its price. Web 2.0 enables users to exchange information—but how much? With whom? Companies jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon will eventually run into problems with security and privacy, Brewin says.

No amount of cinematics or personalization will help the applications take off, though, if the process of building those applications is too difficult for developers to bear. That's our next topic: Making Development Less Difficult, or Interceding with the Browser Gods.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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