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To the Web and Back Again

Adobe’s AIR allows applications to bridge the Web and desktop.
December 7, 2007

More and more applications that used to be tied to the desktop are now available on the Web; well-known examples include Google Docs, the search giant’s online word-processing program. (See “Google’s Cloud Looms Large.”) But as people become used to running applications and storing their data online, Adobe is working on technology that will bring those applications back to the desktop again, transformed by their time in the “cloud.” Called Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), the technology is intended to help developers take advantage of the strengths of both Web-based applications and traditional desktop applications.

Back to the desktop: Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) aims to allow applications, such as those shown above, to access features of both the Web and the desktop.

Adrian Ludwig, group product market manager for the technology, explains that AIR applications can run whether the user is connected to the Internet or not. Like desktop applications, AIR applications will be able to store information locally on the user’s computer. Users can also access data from the desktop: they can easily drag and drop information into and out of an AIR application. When the user is online, the applications can function as Web-based programs do, giving instant access to up-to-date information, regardless of what computer is used to retrieve it. When the user is offline, the AIR applications continue to run, waiting to synchronize data until the user connects again.

“We’re blending together the desktop and the Web application,” Ludwig says.

Users don’t have to be particularly aware of AIR, he says. Like Adobe’s ubiquitous Flash player, AIR is a plug-in that users download the first time they want to use an AIR application. All subsequent AIR applications can be downloaded without any additional fuss. And like Web pages, AIR applications are designed to work regardless of what type of computer a user has; the programs will work on computers running either Windows or Mac OS. (Adobe is also working on a version of AIR for Linux.)

For programmers, however, developing for AIR is very different from creating applications that run on a user’s desktop. Instead of being written in computer languages such as C++ for a specific operating system, AIR applications are written using the tools of Web development, such as HTML, JavaScript, and Flash.

Several companies have already built applications using AIR, including eBay, Nasdaq, and fashion retailer Anthropologie. These early applications illustrate a variety of approaches to using AIR. The eBay application, for example, is designed for power users who want access to the auction site at all times, Ludwig says. Not designed with offline features, the application uses its integration with the desktop to feed alerts to the user, such as a bouncing icon in the dock on a Macintosh when someone bids in an auction that a user is following.

An application designed by Allurent for Anthropologie, however, focuses on the offline experience. The application downloads the company’s catalog onto a user’s computer and keeps it updated when online, but it contains offline search features that Ludwig says tend to run faster on the desktop than over the Web. The user can even create offline orders that will be processed the next time the application connects to the Web.

Joshua Rand, CEO of Sapotek, the company that makes the Web-based operating system Desktop Two, says that technologies like AIR are good for cloud computing because they make it simpler for users to keep their data consistent. (See “Computer in the Cloud.”) While Web-based services such as Desktop Two allow users to access the same data from multiple machines, Rand says that he thinks it’s a significant improvement to be able to work offline, without having to take additional steps to keep the data the same. Sapotek is currently working on a version of Desktop Two that uses AIR.

Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst at Forrester Research, says that if Adobe AIR is widely adopted, he expects it to allow developers to design far more adventurous applications. “The challenge will be making the plug-in ubiquitous,” he says, noting that Adobe has largely succeeded in meeting the same challenge with Flash. Although there are products now available that have some similar features, such as Microsoft’s Silverlight and Google Gears, Hammond says that he doesn’t consider them direct competitors with AIR.

Adobe expects to release a full version of AIR in early 2008.

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