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The Business Case for Rich Internet Applications

Software renaissance creates new opportunities to deliver a better user experience

To quote Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changin’.”

Less than 10 years ago, still in its infancy, the Internet was a land of promise for businesses. Companies saw bright new ways to increase their agility, reach more customers and to deliver new, never before seen services. Unquestionably since then it has transformed the way consumers and businesses exchange information and has become a vital part of nearly every organization’s communication and operational architecture. Through the proliferation of Web-based applications, many companies have been able to expand their global footprint, empower and improve their business processes, and strengthen connections with customers, employees and partners.

While the Internet has become a critical catalyst for business advancement, and despite its widespread adoption, many organizations have found it to be incredibly primitive as a business platform. Trying to use traditional HTML for serious enterprise business applications, for which it was never designed to support, has shown significant chinks in its armor. For one thing, HTML is non-extensible and cannot be customized to support special needs. More important though, traditional HTML page-based Internet applications inhibit interaction in the interface; pages are slow to load, processes require multiple steps, and a small, standard set of controls limits the ability for developers to create truly engaging, user-friendly applications. These limitations do not allow for a dynamic user experience and lessen productivity, while causing frustration as users try to complete online tasks. One consequence of this frustration is process abandonment, which negatively impacts the bottom line.

For businesses used to a wide range of high-performance features from desktop applications, these traditional Internet applications are more cumbersome to use than their desktop counterparts. Going hand-in-hand with higher process abandonment rates are lower adoption rates, which limit an organization’s ability to realize a return on their technology investment. However, the next generation of Web application development is gaining attention and counteracts the limitations set forth by traditional Web development. Rich Internet applications (RIAs) fulfill the promises of the Web and deliver a platform for immediate feedback, greater usability, and a better user experience.

RIAs combine the ubiquity of the Web browser with the richness of user interface elements found in traditional desktop applications, creating a truly interactive, engaging and sticky environment perfectly suited to deliver today's business applications. As software developers have moved from traditional packaged desktop applications to a Software-as-a-Service (Saas) delivery model, users are clamoring for access to a number of compelling features that make using SaaS an easier decision.

According to research group Gartner, by 2010, 60 percent of new applications will include RIA capabilities, meaning support for user interfaces that look very much like native interfaces, including sliders, calculators, and radio buttons. For software companies looking to provide better service to their customers, RIAs will provide a more strategic advantage.

RIAs speed time to development, are easier to use, simple to deploy, offer significant cost savings, increase productivity, and fuel efficiencies – all while providing an engaging end-user experience. While many businesses have begun to experience the power of RIAs for customer-facing software to provide a better level of interaction with customers, there’s also a powerful argument why they should be incorporated into back office mission-critical processes to further drive business results.

They Have Staying Power
The rich Internet application is the next evolution in Web development and is here for the long haul. RIAs are attracting attention because users easily interact with them, they enable interactions that HTML can’t, and – despite their youthful stance – they get business results.

Consumers have gotten a taste of RIAs and management theory suggests that better experience leads to higher profits, leading more businesses to strive to deliver a fantastic end-user experience. According to a recent report from Forrester Research, 52 percent of online consumers have used highly interactive applications such as Google Maps and Zillow. Organizations that do not provide users with content and services in an engaging and interactive interface will find their customers high-tailing it for competitors that do provide a better user experience.

RIAs also shine as tools for managing the quality of the user’s experience. There’s a growing focus on the importance of experience and the realization by many businesses across multiple industries that it matters as much as the functionality. As the lines between work and home continue to blur, people expect their business applications to have the same dynamic power as the Web-based consumer applications they’re using everyday.

Also contributing to RIAs’ staying power is the strong industry support from software giants such as Microsoft and Adobe Systems. Rich Internet applications are another step in the Web’s evolutionary process and are being spearheaded by Adobe’s Flash/Flex and Microsoft’s Silverlight/.NET. As a result, these solutions enable developers to create more interactive, dynamic, and engaging user experiences that increase user satisfaction and encourage greater productivity.

Further illustrating RIAs’ capacity for continuance are the hardware devices permeating the market. Apple’s iPhone, Hewlett-Packard’s interactive Canvas, and the Microsoft Surface are perfect examples of devices designed to host RIAs. RIAs work with existing technology infrastructure and extend the capabilities of the browser with a rich client such as Flash player. RIAs can be distributed across a broad range of devices including Pocket PCs, Palm Pilots, and Sony PlayStation while delivering a consistent user experience across all platforms and devices without requiring any extreme modifications.

When the software is being developed by industry leaders, and hardware manufacturers are designing devices that enable users to take advantage of the technology wherever they are, it is evident that RIAs are indeed the real deal and here to stay.

They Drive Customer Loyalty
The powerful digital platforms offered through RIAs are also invaluable for the marketers whose job it is to build brands. With the expanding role of the chief marketing officer moving beyond advertising, brand management, and market research, many senior marketers are busy managing the rise of new media, the growing number of sales and service touch points and the fragmentation of customer segments. A recent McKinsey Quarterly report notes that as the forces of marketing proliferation gather strength, it is requiring a broadening of the CMO’s role.

A critical component of that role is an understanding of new technologies such as RIAs that respond to customers’ needs, can transform the way marketers build brand relationships, and deliver an experience that exceeds customer expectations, encouraging them to spend more time and money when patronizing a company Website.

Z + Partners, a marketing, research, and forecasting firm located in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently conducted an analysis of the top 20 global brands, revealing that each spends less on marketing than its next nearest competitor. The same analysis illustrated they all spend on average 18 percent more on IT infrastructure than their nearest competitor. For many business, what this means is that RIAs may be the new glue that holds brands together.

RIAs can create more passionate users, causing a social epidemic that extends the marketing reach. When the end-user experience is enhanced, people are excited and pass along the message of what they’ve liked, thereby igniting buzz and increasing brand awareness. Users engaged in an application that is intuitive and familiar are also more likely to spend more time using the software. As a result, process abandonment decreases, and, by easing transactions, they are likely to spend more.

More Stories By Dave Wolf

Dave Wolf is a Vice President of Cynergy Systems, Inc. Prior to joining Cynergy, he held senior management positions at several major software firms including Sybase and Microsoft, where he was responsible for the development, marketing and sales of several enterprise class software products. A sought-after public speaker, he has presented at major technology conferences such as JavaOne, AJAXWorld and Microsoft TechEd. At Cynergy, he oversees consulting operations worldwide and spends most of his time interacting directly with the field and working in every time zone but his own.

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