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Browser Tools Need to Grow Up

You might say that Web developer tools for presentation layers have cut a couple of new teeth with offerings such as Macromedia's Flex and Microsoft's latest Visual Studio beta additions.

But it's not like those tools will help Web user interfaces chew through complex applications anytime soon.

For all the expectations we have about advanced business transactions over the Web, the latest tools -- as good as they may be -- tell us the industry has some growing up to do before presentation layers can handle the rich applications and data exchange we now expect.

Analysts such as Mark Driver, a vice president and research director with Gartner Research , have been beating the drum about this trend for some time.

Today, Driver explains, the gap remains between the two worlds of Web development. On one side is the traditional fat client GUI that helps provide a rich user experience -- that spiffy "look and feel" we all expect.

On the other side of the development gap is the traditional Web model, which provides amazing reach, but skimps on its ability to support consumer and on-demand corporate deployments. Business intelligence? CRM? This is great stuff. But it's frustrating when a page takes forever to load because the presentation layer is chewing up -- make that gumming up -- too much bandwidth.

In the meantime, a new application model from third-party vendors is emerging, one that Driver says will help address the gap between the fat, but rich, client/server UI model and the thin, but poor, Web-based UI model. He calls it Rich Internet Application, a platform that will address the best elements of both. Ultimately, the tools will evolve past the page-based, document-centric HTML foundation that rules the browser-based applications.

Infragistics is one such vendor that provides tools to help developers build these UIs quickly. Its products keep developers from getting bogged down with plumbing questions about the presentation layer, so they can think about the business logic that goes into the middle layer.

For example, the company's NetAdvantage 2004 Volume 2 allows developers to build commercial-quality UIs for Windows Forms, ASP.NET, Tablet PC and COM. And it doesn't matter if they're working in a .NET or Java shop. The toolset offers style presets across all ASP.NET elements, as well as MSDN-style help through HelpCenter. It also includes new features in WebTab, WebGrid, WebCombo, WinSchedule and WinGrid in addition to the introduction of three new elements: WinDataSource, GridBagLayoutManager and FlowLayoutManager.

Dean Guida, Infragistics CEO, says the idea is to cut down the time spent developing the presentation layer in a development cycle. With a pre-set presentation layer strategy, he says, you get a consistent interface across all applications in an enterprise.

"One thing we've heard from developers and project managers is that people want this thin-client capability to be able to deploy on the server," Guida told internetnews.com. But here we are at that gap again: what is unacceptable are all the round trips to the server in a thin-client environment.

This is one reason for so many performance bottlenecks in Web environments and why too many of us are drumming our fingertips on our desks waiting for the page to load. That's why Infragistics' NetAdvantage has implemented a client-side API to help reduce the message load.

Keep in mind, too, that HTML was never designed to be used as an application interface. With the rise of the Web, it has been appropriated for that purpose, but it was never more than a document format, Driver says. Using HTML for what it wasn't designed for has skewed features, as well as design-thinking, to page-based metaphors.

Even with XHTML, a lot of this stuff works just fine, Driver says. You can even buy tools for this, and you can create a cool look and feel on the presentation layer using only JavaScript and Dynamic HTML. But then it becomes a problem for developers to replicate.

Plus, he adds, "If I'm a company that sells shoes, etc., do you really want to spend a lot of time building low-level plumbing, particularly with Internet development or traditional fat client development? When developers get mired in the infrastructure and plumbing, they start to lose sight of what they wanted to do: build a business application.

"We see this a lot in enterprises," Infragistics Guida added. "Developers have to play a lot of catch up with the need to build and re-tool. A lot of companies want to build a service-oriented architecture. They need the ability to reuse and retool on the front end of the presentation layer. Companies are continually trying to re-use that, to reuse this data and logic."

ASP.NET tools, and Visual Studio for that matter, are offering this ability, but there's more room to grow.

"Vendors are focusing on providing a set of technologies, components that allow you to get a richer user experience," Driver says. "We're starting to see other [vendors] start to deliver these." So you see companies providing these sets of user interface components that give you tremendous amount of bang for the buck.

Plus, development teams pretty much maintain a code base for one dominant browser: IE. That may be changing with the rise of Mozilla and other browsers. But still, more than one code base is too costly. So we will miss a lot across different browsers until richer, high-fidelity development for one browser platform can translate to another.

That's why declarative UIs are the critical aspect and necessary toolset to fill this gap. Driver noted that declarative UIs will move the model itself to become a set of blueprints, such as an XML text document, which will be shipped down to the computer and windowed on-the-fly while controls will also be built. That helps cut down on bandwidth and CPUs, which will help the presentation layer.

Microsoft's Avalon features in Longhorn, it's next generation of Windows, as well as its XAML language, will be building on these declarative UI tools. But that won't be for a few more years. And that's why, for now at least, third-party vendors are moving in to fill the gaps while presentation layer tools build their chops.