The web is evolving into a full-fledged app-delivery platform, but this calls into the question your web browser's ability to fulfil the needs of today's rich internet applications. We investigate whether the browser's time is up.

The web and web browsers go hand-in-hand but, while browsers have hardly changed from the format used on the NCSA Mosaic in 1993, websites have seen huge changes in the 15 years since the birth of the net. Static pages and limited graphics have been replaced with lush, highly interactive experiences, as visually rich as any desktop application.

In fact the web has become the preferred platform for enterprise application delivery, to say nothing of online entertainment and social software. In response, new kinds of online experiences have begun to emerge, challenging old notions of what it means to browse the web.

Take Twhirl, a desktop client for the Twitter online service. Double-click its icon and the application launches in seconds. Its window is small and stylised, with an attractive, irregular border and configurable colour schemes. What few controls it has are convenient and easy to use. It's sleek, fast, and unobtrusive. In short, it's everything that navigating to the Twitter website with a browser is not.

But don't be fooled. Although it looks and feels like an ordinary desktop application, Twhirl's user interface (UI) is rendered with HTML, CSS, Flash, and ActionScript. In essence, it's a web app.

Twhirl is built on Adobe AIR, which has a lightweight client library that allows web developers to use familiar tools and languages to build first-class desktop applications. Software created with AIR is fully interactive and network-enabled, with a rich UI. But unlike traditional web applications, AIR apps gain the immediacy and user engagement that come from running outside the browser window.

"The browser is terrific for transient experiences… things that a user might do once in a while, or for a short amount of time," says Ed Rowe, director of AIR engineering at Adobe. A frequently accessed service such as Twitter, on the other hand, cries out for a lightweight client. AIR allows the same developers to build both.

But AIR is only one branch in the web's ongoing evolution. Already, Google, NetSuite,, Zoho and others are using web tools and infrastructure to deliver full-fledged enterprise software, defying the limitations of today's browsers.

As the static web gives way to rich internet applications (RIAs), client software must continue to adapt and evolve; and in some cases, this could very well mean stepping beyond the traditional browser altogether.

NEXT PAGE: The web, refracted

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