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Four RIAs that can be used on the desktop

Which one should you choose

Rich internet applications not only make web pages more responsive to surfers, but they can also be used as more responsive desktop apps too. We've looked at the four biggest cross-platform RIAs that were launched last year to find out just how good they are.

Google Gears

Google Gears is a free open-source project that adds desktop capabilities to the Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Chrome browsers on the Windows, Windows Mobile, Mac OS X, Linux and Android operating systems.

(Chrome has Gears built in and does not need a separate installation.)

Currently at Beta Version 0.5 (but ready for prime time now), Gears lets web applications interact naturally with your desktop; cache and store application resources and blobs (binary large objects) locally; store data locally in a fully searchable SQLite database; run JavaScript in the background to improve performance; and perform geolocation both by IP address and by Wi-Fi antenna data.

Basically, Google Gears is a way to take web applications offline in a browser. Curl Nitro and Adobe Air can go one step farther and dispense with the browser.

Google Gears exposes a JavaScript API to supported browsers. Google hosts the Gears runtime engine, which users must install before running any Gears applications. Developers need to copy gears_init.js into their application directories, in order to initialise the Gears factory and APIs. This script will offer to launch the Gears installer if it cannot initialise successfully.

The online Gears developer documentation discusses Version 0.5, released a month ago. It includes nine samples that illustrate the use of the APIs. You can download the source to all of these samples, plus some articles, a couple of tools and an Apache mod implementing the resumable HTTP request proposal.

One of the articles is a tutorial on taking web applications offline with Gears, written by Omar Kilani of Remember The Milk. Kilani and his team implemented offline functionality for their application in "four caffeine-fueled days".

I found the sample code very easy to understand. The Gears API is very straightforward and, like other Google APIs, won't present a problem to experienced JavaScript developers. The samples all worked well for me.

Google Gears is free. Adding Gears functionality to a web page is a simple exercise in JavaScript programming, which can be accomplished using any HTML or text editor. The effort of taking a web application fully offline with Gears is commensurate with the complexity of the application.

Note that using a local database to synchronise large amounts of data can introduce performance issues; this is the reason for the asynchronous JavaScript WorkerPool API.

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NEXT PAGE: Microsoft Silverlight

  1. Which one should you choose
  2. Adobe Air
  3. Curl Nitro
  4. Google Gears
  5. Microsoft Silverlight
  6. Our conclusion


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