One of the biggest drawbacks of web-based applications is that you can only use them when you are online - and very often you aren't. But that could change. Google, Adobe and Microsoft are all working to make online applications available while you are offline, or vice versa.
With AIR, companies that have developed rich internet applications (or RIAs) with Adobe's Flash and Flex products should be able to convert them to run on the desktop, or develop applications from scratch. Adobe is offering a free SDK (software development kit) and a "Developer Derby" to encourage programmers.
Separately, Google is tackling the same problem with Google Gears, which also includes SQLite. Gears provides the local server and database facilities needed to run an online application offline. Google produced a version of its RSS Reader as an example, and you have to switch it to offline mode so it can download feeds before you log off.
Microsoft's offering, Silverlight, starts from the other end - you can take a desktop application and convert it to run in a web browser. It works with IE and Firefox on Windows and Mac OS X. A Linux version may emerge from an outside project. Rather than being a killer app, each system meets different needs, and they seem most likely to co-exist.
Silverlight is best for deploying desktop-style applications - but uses Windows Presentation Foundation, which only runs on Vista and Windows XP SP2, and looks like the worst choice if you want a cross-platform application. Gears is conceptually the simplest, while leaving the developer with the most work to do.
And Adobe's AIR provides a runtime product that should be properly cross-platform (it's open source). Also, according to Ben Forsaith, Adobe business development manager, AIR enables applications to run on the desktop without using a browser.
"It gives you the best of the web and the best of the desktop," he says, "but it's about building a whole new experience. We're wrapping our arms around the much broader development community. That's the key advantage for Adobe."
If Adobe sounds unusually cuddly, rest assured: it plans to make lots of money from the server side of AIR applications. Still, the fact that Adobe, Google and Microsoft are now duking it out is a reflection on Sun's Java, which was supposed to provide "write once, run anywhere" capabilities a decade ago.
Java father James Gosling says Adobe has "a toolset that works well for people who aren't engineers. One of the things on our 'to do urgently' list is to pay more attention to that corner of the world."
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