The AIR is getting Blurry with Clouds — Computing that is

Stephen DeAngelis

March 04, 2008

In an earlier post [The Coming Age of Cloud Computing], I focused on an article that described how a collaboration between IBM and Google aimed at teaching graduate students more about cloud computing came into being. Cloud computing is likely to take another leap forward as Adobe floods the World-Wide Web with a new application it calls AIR [“Adobe Blurs Line Between PC and Web,” by John Markoff, New York Times, 25 February 2008]. Like the article discussed in my previous post, part of Markoff’s article provides the story behind the headlines.

“On sabbatical in 2001 from Macromedia, Kevin Lynch, a software developer, was frustrated that he could not get to his Web data when he was off the Internet and annoyed that he could not get to his PC data when he was traveling. Why couldn’t he have access to all his information, like movie schedules and word processing documents, in one place?”

Lynch asked a good question. In my past discussions about innovators, I have stressed that good answers almost always begin with good questions. Innovators are curious people. They were probably irritating little children constantly asking the people around them “why?” The difference between innovators and the mere curious, however, is that innovators go beyond asking the question and apply their genius toward finding a solution that satisfies them. That pretty well describes Kevin Lynch and what he did.

“He hit upon an idea that he called ‘Kevincloud’ and mocked up a quick demonstration of the idea for executives at Macromedia, a software development tools company. It took data stored on the Internet and used it interchangeably with information on a PC’s hard drive. Kevincloud also blurred the line between Internet and PC applications. Seven years later, his brainchild is about to come into focus on millions of PCs. On Monday, Mr. Lynch, who was recently named the chief technology officer at Adobe Systems, which bought Macromedia in 2005, will release the official version of AIR, a software development system that will power potentially tens of thousands of applications that merge the Internet and the PC, as well as blur the distinctions between PCs and new computing devices like smartphones.”

Adobe, which is one of Enterra Solutions’ technology partners, made one of history’s greatest acquisitions when it bought Macromedia and its Flash software.

“Adobe sees AIR as a major advance that builds on its Flash multimedia software. Flash is the engine behind Web animations, e-commerce sites and many streaming videos. It is, the company says, the most ubiquitous software on earth, residing on almost all Internet-connected personal computers.”

If Adobe has its way, AIR will become just as ubiquitous.

“But most people may never know AIR is there. Applications will look and run the same whether the user is at his desk or his portable computer, and soon when using a mobile device or at an Internet kiosk. Applications will increasingly be built with routine access to all the Web’s information, and a user’s files will be accessible whether at home or traveling. AIR is intended to help software developers create applications that exist in part on a user’s PC or smartphone and in part on servers reachable through the Internet. To computer users, the applications will look like any others on their device, represented by an icon. The AIR applications can mimic the functions of a Web browser but do not require a Web browser to run. The first commercial release of AIR [took] place on [25 February], but dozens of applications have been built around a test or beta version.”

In order for AIR to gain the same acceptance as Flash, two things have to happen. Programs that use AIR must be developed (i.e., programs that people are willing to use) and people are going to have to feel secure that their information is safeguarded when using such programs. Those are two fairly large hurdles; although a number of programs have already been developed.

“EBay offers an AIR-based application called eBay Desktop that gives its customers the power to buy wherever they are. Adobe uses AIR for Buzzword, an online word processing program. At [the 25 February] introduction event in San Francisco, new hybrid applications from companies including Salesforce, FedEx, eBay, Nickelodeon, Nasdaq, AOL and The New York Times Company [were] demonstrated. Like Adobe’s Flash software, AIR will be given away. The company makes its money selling software development kits to programmers. Mr. Lynch and a rapidly growing number of industry executives and technologists believe that the model represents the future of computing.”

If pundits are correct and this does represent the future of computing, you would think that Adobe wouldn’t be alone on the playing field — and you’d be correct.

“Adobe faces stiff competition from a number of big and small companies with the same idea. Many small developers like OpenLazlo and Xcerion are creating ‘Web-top’ or ‘Web operating systems’ intended to move applications and data off the PC desktop and into the Internet through the Web browser. Mozilla, the developer of the Firefox Web browser, has created a system known as Prism. Sun Microsystems introduced JavaFX this year, which is also aimed at blurring the Web-desktop line. Google is testing a system called Gears, which is intended to allow some Web services to work on computers that are not connected to the Internet. Finally, there is Microsoft. It is pushing its competitor to Flash, called Silverlight. Three years ago, Microsoft hired one of Mr. Lynch’s crucial software developers at Macromedia, Brad Becker, to help create it. Mr. Becker was a leading designer of the Flash programming language.”

The movement to cloud computing will also get a boost as hardware designers and manufacturers join in. The first step in that sector is also about to take place.

“The move away from PC-based applications is likely to get a significant jump start in the coming weeks when Intel introduces its low-cost ‘Netbook’ computer strategy, which is intended to unleash a new wave of inexpensive wireless connected mobile computers. The new machines will have a relatively small amount of solid state disk storage capacity and will increasingly rely on data stored on Internet servers. … The blurring of Web and desktop applications and PC and phone applications is further encouraged by the cellphone industry’s race to catch up with Apple’s iPhone. The industry is focusing on smartphones, or what Sanjay K. Jha, the chief operating officer of Qualcomm, calls ‘pocketable computing.’ ‘We need to deliver an experience that is like the PC desktop,’ he said. ‘At the same time, people are used to the Internet and you can’t shortchange them.’ Much software will have to be rewritten for the new devices, in what Mr. Lynch said is the most significant change for the software industry since the introduction in the 1980s of software that can be run through clicking icons rather than typing in codes.”

If you like to watch big corporate battles, the coming war ought to be a beauty — much like the one we just watched unfold between Sony and Toshiba over high definition disc formats only bigger.

“This upheaval pits the world’s largest software developer groups against one another in a battle for the new hybrid software applications. Industry analysts say there are now about 1.2 billion Internet-connected personal compute
rs. Market researchers peg the number of smartphones sold in 2007 at 123 million, but that market is growing rapidly. The battle will largely pit Microsoft’s 2.2 million .Net software developers against the more than one million Adobe Flash developers, who have until now developed principally for the Web, as well as a vast number of other Web-oriented designers who use open-source software development tools that are referred to as AJAX. Microsoft executives said they thought the company would have an advantage because Silverlight has a more sophisticated security model.”

Markoff reports that battles to date have been fairly low key, but that they are sure to heat up as cloud computing catches on and other developers enter the fray. I suspect that the potential savings promised by cloud computing (through the use of thin clients) and its phenomenal access to data will be offset by continued security concerns. As one Microsoft executive noted in the article, they learned that lesson the hard way.