Open Source Web Is Nipping at Microsoft's Heels

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Hey Star Trek fans, do you remember the Tholian web? It was sort of an outer space spider web that ensnared the starship Enterprise and threatened to end that five-year mission. I bring that up because two announcements this week -- one by Google, a second by Appcelerator -- look like a few more strands in the open source web threatening to stall starship Microsoft.

At the very least Google's Native Client (see if you can guess why some jokers are calling it "salt") strikes me as a replacement for ActiveX. But more important, it's another step toward a Web OS. Appcelerator's Titanium, a development environment for rich Internet apps, competes with Silverlight and also underlines the blurring of lines between the desktop and the Web, something Microsoft doesn't really want to think about.

Appcelerator in the Cloud

Appcelerator is an aggressive young company. A semifinalist for InfoWorld's Hot Startups list this year, it raised $4.1 million in venture funding and moved its headquarters from Atlanta to Silicon Valley.

This week, Appcelerator released Titanium, an open source RIA (rich Internet application) runtime and integrated development environment. And next month, it will launch RIAssure, a cross-platform RIA-testing tool that is the first of several cloud-based RIA tools planned for the future.

Titanium lets developers use standard Web technologies such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to develop applications that can be deployed to multiple platforms, including the desktop, the browser, and the mobile device. Titanium desktop applications can read and write local data on the desktop and interact with the operating system. In particular, Titanium lets developers build desktop Web applications that can operate both online and offline. (Here are some videos that will give you a better sense of what it does.)

It's obvious that Titanium is largely aimed at the audience for Adobe's AIR (Adobe Integrated Rutime).

Indeed, Nolan Wright, CTO of Appcelerator, wasn't shy about making comparisons to AIR in interviews with several analysts, including Dennis Byron of IT Research and Anthony Ha at Venture Beat.

But Titanium also competes with Microsoft's Silverlight and Sun Microsystem's JavaFX, says Vishwanath Venugopalan, an analyst at the 451 Group. "It is clear to us that immersive RIAs blur the line between a Web browser and the desktop," he says And that is a concept that strikes at the heart of Microsoft's desktop-centric universe.

In his interview with Venture Beat's Ha, Hynie said he expects Appcelerator to earn revenue from "cloud-based application services" launching next year. And he told Ha that his company won't pull a "bait and switch" by offering a free, open source version, then charging for a better product that uses proprietary code.

Adding Up Google's Play

Google already has Gears software, which lets Web apps store data for offline use and synchronize it later. And Google has the Chrome browser. Add on Native Client, and doesn't that get pretty close to Web OS?

I asked Paul M. Watson, a South African developer whose posts have been getting some attention these days, about Native Client and he summed it up nicely: "The wider significance of Native Client is the ability to deliver desktop-rivaling applications with the ease of a Web app. The next version of Photoshop could be delivered via www.photoshop.com. Not a Flash version or a file you download and install but literally opening www.photoshop.com and you begin editing your local PSD file in the browser. You wouldn't have to download new versions, they'd just be delivered when you access the Web app."

OK, Photoshop as a Web app may be a bit of a stretch, for the moment at least, but it's still an intriguing thought. As for ActiveX, you could say, "Who needs another one?" True enough. But Microsoft's own Silverlight is already looking to replace ActiveX, and Java is a viable ActiveX competitor already. So this may be the time for something new. And Native Client's case would likely be bolstered if it was sanctioned by various standards bodies.

But those are shorter-term issues. In the long run, Native Client could be part of a true Google stack. And that's really interesting.

Oh, and That "Salt" Joke

Finally, as we all learned in high school chemistry, Native Client is the formula for sodium chloride, or salt. If you guessed correctly (or even if you didn't), here's a place to watch the original "Tholian Web" episode of Star Trek.

This story, "Open Source Web Is Nipping at Microsoft's Heels" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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