Microsoft’s .Net a rich market in more ways than one

In my last column I argued Microsoft finally has some competition in the developer tools space. There is an area where Microsoft Visual Studio .NET still has a clear advantage though–tools for rich client-based applications.

Rich in this context doesn’t mean rich media, per se. No–the

richness in question is the ability of the app to instantaneously refresh required fields and variables, without any user intervention, such as hitting the page refresh button on the browser.

Rich clients allow for a better user experience–with less latency and fewer user errors.

Take Amazon.com’s Internet-based order entry system. Amazon has one of the best designed browser-based apps out there but still doesn’t offer the quality of interaction that many run-of-the-mill Windows apps do. And what about the many web-based apps into which much less care have been invested?

Especially for less experienced customers, the browser-based model is not always so intuitive. (“”How can I cancel just one CD from that order?””). Many of my friends have had strange experiences when attempting to shop for groceries online. (“”I thought I ordered one loaf of brown bread, but ended up getting five different loaves.””). The problem is the browser-based model that underpins most Internet transactions. The client is not rich enough to offer a truly intuitive and self-contained user experience. State is maintained in the network server rather than on the client.

Another use case is packaged apps. Vendors such as PeopleSoft have invested millions in reinventing their apps as n-tier networked architectures (“”100 per cent pure Internet””) but in doing so they have created new problems.

How thin is too thin? In the case of SAP, Java Server Pages (JSP) is already too thin. Last year SAP announced it would build extensions and class libraries to JSP. SAP’s Business Server Pages (BSP) would enable the rich experience required by data entry clerks (allowing auto-completion of fields, for example) and business power users.

For a business application, the pure browser client model is counterintuitive. Isn’t this why the PC took off in the first place? Surely no one would argue for a return to green screens! Yet HTML and JavaScript have become so accepted as a universal panacea that vendors apparently forgot the need for truly interactive clients.

Last year IBM undertook a major internal program to identify competitive threats. The research threw up one major example: IBM’s lack of a rich client strategy is a competitive disadvantage against Microsoft.

BEA has implicitly admitted the same problem when it introduced the concept of a “”push browser”” which doesn’t require refreshes to update fields and content. But such architecture is some way off.

Not only does Microsoft own a rich client platform already, but it also owns the related developer tools market. Borland has announced it will support .NET, but from a rich client perspective, Microsoft is a long way ahead. Until BEA, IBM, and Sun get serious about the rich client issue they risk leaving Visual Studio .NET in the catbird seat for the foreseeable future when it comes to rich applications and satisfied end users.

James Governor is an analyst for Nashua, N.H.-based market advisory firm Illuminata, Inc. Before joining the company in August 1999 he was deputy managing editor at Information Week U.K.

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