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Report: The time for rich clients is now

Research firm ZapThink LLC says browsers and portals won't cut the mustard when it comes to Web services consumption. It's time to add a rich client to your enterprise menu.

It's all in the presentation.

Web services do the job when it comes to accessing the distributed computing functionality found in a service-oriented architecture. But, while the technology and standards are up to snuff, a compelling, high-performance interface for accessing that data is nowhere to be found.

In fact, a recent research report from Waltham, Mass.-based research firm ZapThink LLC declares that browsers and portals just don't do the job at the presentation layer, and enterprises using Web services need to start investigating rich clients.

The report also predicts that, while smaller vendors like Nexaweb Technologies Inc. and Curl Corp., among others, are getting an early jump today, they will have a monster of a time competing against Microsoft's Avalon technology, which is expected to be integrated with Longhorn, the next version of Windows, due out in 2006.

The ZapThink report points out that the Web has moved distributed computing off the Web browser and thick clients, to rich clients that are loosely coupled from the distributed computing infrastructures they expose.

"[Users] are demanding a set of rich-client capabilities that include visual interactivity elements and instant access to information, interaction with distributed and remote applications, and integration with local desktop applications," said the report, written by senior analyst Ronald Schmelzer.

As more enterprises move their applications to the Internet as Web services, they gain operational and cost advantages. Browsers and portals, however, impose limitations on the user interfaces that cut into those benefits, Schmelzer said. Rich-client platforms solve this problem, he said, because they are loosely coupled from the distributed computing infrastructures they expose.

Rich clients don't have the performance, interaction or real-time limitations that HTML-based browsers have, for example. Rich clients provide the interaction users need, including windowing features, several menus, bars, multitrack sound and other media components that a browser or portal cannot. They also integrate local and remote sources of data and business logic and loosely couple presentation from application logic. In this case, users do not have to modify server-side business logic. Likewise, application developers shouldn't have to change rich-client functionality to ensure communication, the report said.

Other advantages to rich clients include offline and online usage modes, and the ability to deploy them on many platforms and interaction channels, like e-mail, telephone and voice interaction, in addition to network-based computing.

Schmelzer predicts that rich clients will gain enterprise prominence as more companies develop internal Web services and expose them to the Internet.

"Users will increasingly demand the ability to present very large data sets to a dispersed audience without sacrificing the economics that either Web applications or the rich user experience that traditional client-server applications provide," Schmelzer said.

This rich presentation layer can be delivered via the desktop, through specific desktop applications that evolve into Web services rich clients, rich-client solutions, rich-client development languages or server-based approaches that enhance existing interfaces. These are done through proprietary plug-ins, Java-based rich clients, browser-based rich clients or custom-developed rich clients.

The ZapThink report does explore some potential barriers to rich client adoption, such as security issues, the diversity among user interface technologies, and the embedding of rich-client technologies into operating systems.

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