Rich Internet Applications: Has Microsoft Finally Seen the (Silver) Light?

What are Rich Internet Applications?

Rich Internet applications provide an end-user with an interface that is more responsive than traditional applications. Many of the frameworks used for these applications, including both Microsoft Silverlight and Flex to make more of the processing back to the client instead of leaving it on a central server. Browser the user to exchange large, monolithic blocks of information, but sends small pieces of data at a time, usually asynchronously. And this means that only the relevant parts of the interface must be updated to allow users to do more and do it faster than traditional web applications possible. For this reason, more and more web applications use rich Internet technology of some form to give the user an optimal experience.

There are of course many other frameworks for rich Internet applications in use, but Flex, AJAX and Microsoft Silverlight are three that are more generally known, and each deserves a more in-depth look.


Currently, Flex has the largest share of all other framework for rich Internet applications, with a penetration of about 90 percent, something that Microsoft Silverlight is a challenge. Flex is built on Flash technology, originally designed to manage multimedia functionality. The Flash plug-in, which is supported by most major browsers and is freely available for download, runs its programs in what is known as a “sandbox” – a separate entity from the browser itself, and a safe environment that the user protects. When used properly, Flex enables a website to behave like a thick client application (one only on a user’s computer instead of on the internet).

As with any client-side technology, there are drawbacks. Not all browsers start the Flash plug-in installed, and Flash is also from time to time. In both cases the end user is required to download a new version if he or she reaches a page that needs it. Other frameworks for rich Internet applications have the same issue, which some viewed as a disadvantage, because not all users will (or should) download the plug-in, and in many cases, completely away from the page to navigate.

Microsoft Silverlight

Microsoft Silverlight was created to compete with Flex and with other frameworks for rich Internet applications that are already in use. It is based on. NET technology and Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), which is a part of. NET 3.0. Though. NET is a Windows-centric technology, Microsoft Silverlight offers a lightweight version of. NET that is cross-platform (running on Mac OS and Windows) and running in a browser sandbox.


AJAX stands for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML. It is a programming interface that is slowly gaining acceptance by some of the larger web presences, including Google (which makes heavy use of AJAX in the Mail and Maps applications). As with the other frameworks for rich Internet applications and technologies in existence, AJAX gives a developer the ability to a Web page that acts like a thick client application to make. However, it requires a good understanding of the JavaScript language. Moreover, not all browsers handle Javascript the same way, and many users disable JavaScript in their browsers, both drawbacks of AJAX when compared to other frameworks.

The advantages and disadvantages of Microsoft Silverlight

The main drawback of Microsoft Silverlight at the current time is not as widely used as Flex, and thus may lead users to a webpage to be used in place of the necessary plug download in. Using Microsoft Silverlight would be a developer to to leave behind the application with the largest number of users and embrace a newer, untested application (with, admittedly, a respected and trusted company – Microsoft – back).

However, Microsoft Silverlight is very appealing to developers who already know. NET. While a developer would have to learn Flash and Flex from Square One, he has a deep understanding of. NET and was therefore good jump in the use of Silverlight. As. NET is already very pervasive in the web development world, Silverlight could easily grab market share in the future.


Even web developers that are comfortable with AJAX or Flex (or other frameworks used for creating rich Internet applications) will soon need to immerse themselves in Microsoft Silverlight, while new developers want to learn about Microsoft Silverlight from the beginning. Because of its foundation. NET, Microsoft Silverlight is a smaller learning curve than many other frameworks used to create rich Internet applications.

While it may be for the average user some time to warm to the technology used with Silverlight, Microsoft is a formidable company and is likely to progress with its product in the near future and to determine if a important application to know over the long term. Anyone who continue to advance the curve when it comes to rich Internet applications will do well to learn about Silverlight now rather than later.

About the Author

Charlie Fink is the vice president of product development and delivery of Westlake Training and Development. He has been designing and developing leading software solutions for over 15 years and has client training focused on the use and support of custom software and systems. Prior to joining Westlake, Charlie was the vice president and chief product architect for the Arlington Group and a principal of AEC software.

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