RIAs and Portals

In a RIA Weekly podcast, Michael Coté and Ryan Stewart had a brief conversation on the role of RIAs in portals. They didn’t go into much details on it, but it was enough to get me noodling on the subject.

In the past, I’ve commented on the role of widgets/gadgets ala Apple’s Dashboard and Vista’s Sidebar and how I felt there was some significant potential there. To date, I haven’t seen any “killer app” on the Mac side (I have no idea about Vista given that I don’t use it at home or at work). One thing that I found curious, however, was that when I went looking for a decent Twitter client for the Mac, there was no shortage of dashboard widgets, but actually very few desktop apps. I wound up choosing Twirl initially, and am now using TweetDeck. Both of these are Adobe AIR applications.

So what does this have to do with portals? Well, my own view is that your desktop is a portal. A portal should contain easy access to all of things you need to do to do your job. The problem with desktops today, however, is that the typical application is so bloated, that the startup/quit process is very unproductive, and if you leave them open all the time, you need dual monitors (or a really big monitor) and a boatload of memory (even though most isn’t getting used). For this reason, I still really like the idea of these small, single-purpose widgets that do one thing really well. The problem with it right now, however, is that Dashboard and Sidebar fall into the out-of-sight/out-of-mind category. I want my Twitter client in a visible portion of my desktop at all times, or at least with the ability to post a visual notification somewhere. If I leverage a Dashboard widget, it’s invisible to me unless I hit a function key. It’s out-of-band by intent. There are things that belong there. That being said, the organizational features of Dashboard could easily be applied to the desktop, as well. If I had a bunch of lightweight widgets that I used to do the bulk of my work always available on my desktop, that would be great. It had better perform better than the current set of applications that I have set to start at login, however.

Where does RIA fit in? I don’t know that I’d need portability from my desktop in a browser-based portal environment. I’m sure there a people out there that do everything they need to do on a daily basis via Firefox and a whole bunch of plugins. I’ve never tried it, nor do I have any interest in doing so, but for people in that camp, common technology between a desktop portal and a browser-based portal could be a good thing for them. For me, my primary interest is simply getting a set of lightweight tools for 80% of my day-to-day tasks that aren’t so bloated with stuff I don’t need. I thought a bit about portability of my desktop environment across machines (i.e. the same TweetDeck columns at work and at home), but I think that’s more dependent on these widgets storing data in the cloud than it is on storing the definition of my desktop in the cloud somewhere, but that might be of interest, as well.

The gist of all of this is that I do believe there are big opportunities out there to make our interaction with our information systems more efficient. Can RIAs play a role? Absolutely, but only if we focus on keeping them very lightweight, and very usable.

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