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Yakov Fain Talks With OpenLaszlo

An exclusive interview with David Temkin, the Founder and CTO of Laszlo Systems

(February 13, 2007) - In  my  overview of the RIA  I've included just a couple of lines introducing  a popular open source tool called OpenLaszlo.  I had a chance to interview  David Temkin, the founder and CTO of Laszlo Systems.

When you have created Open Laszlo back in 2001, why did you chose Flash Player as your runtime environment? Can you please provide a brief history of the product?

OpenLaszlo started life as a commercial product called Laszlo Presentation Server, first released in 2002. When development began in 2001, our goals were twofold -- first, to enable the delivery of rich applications that run in any web browser without installation; and, second, to make the development of these applications more web-like -- i.e., to use a markup language and script to describe rich interactive applications, just as HTML describes hypertext documents. Remember that in 2001, the mainstream way to create interactive applications was to use C++ and Windows -- platform-specific tools that result in applications requiring installation.

So the markup language, the user experience, and the no-install requirement were central to our thinking when we began development. At that time, browsers were nowhere near as robust as they are today; Java on the client was a non-option, and Flash wasn't on the map as an application development platform. However, Laszlo's founding team had enough experience with Flash to realize that the Flash Player, then in version 5, could serve as a delivery engine, though not as a basis for an application development model. We made the decision to hide all "Flashisms" from LZX, our markup language and JavaScript API, both because Flash at that time was not an application-oriented runtime engine, and also because we expected that other runtime options would be important down the road.

In 2004, Laszlo Presentation Server became OpenLaszlo, a professionally-supported open source platform. Since making this business model change, we've never looked back: we have had two consecutive years in which we've doubled our revenue, and OpenLaszlo adoption continues to grow with each passing week. The latest work on OpenLaszlo has focused on realizing its cross-runtime potential -- since LZX has always been independent of the Flash API and its runtime model, we have remodularized OpenLaszlo so that it can support Flash and Ajax, with OpenLaszlo 4. This work will pay off beyond Ajax itself, since it makes it possible to add support for a new runtime execution environment with relative ease.

Laszlo's runtime openness is important to companies who value open source. Many developers and IT shops are leery of being locked into closed systems and runtimes whose futures are unknown, and our runtime-independent message is being received very well both by IT management and by developers themselves.

If I’d stop ten people on the street asking,  “What comes to your mind when I say Internet plus Cinematic User Experience”, I bet nine out of ten would answer Flash Player, even though this term was created and branded by Open Laszlo. Would you agree with me? If yes, where do you see the problem.

A quick search on Google shows that seven of the top 10 search results for "Cinematic User Experience" refer to Laszlo, directly or indirectly (interestingly, one is a Microsoft site). The problem that you may be referring to is that the term "cinematic" is pretty closely linked to both animation and video, which is how most people think about Flash. Flash is still not generally seen as being about applications; it's associated mostly with YouTube, advertising, and "skip intro". Putting your question back to you, as an advocate for Flash and Flex: Where do you see the problem?

I guess, shortage of marketing dollars is always the problem.  I’m a strong proponent of rich Internet applications vs. plain page-based ones. I am familiar with capabilities of Adobe Flex as one of the ways of creating applications for Flash Player, especially as a tool for creating GUI for Java EE applications. The IT shops that are historically .Net-oriented most likely will consider WPF/E.  Java and .Net cover majority of the enterprise server-side development.  Is there a place for Open Laszlo in this market?

OpenLaszlo is a leader in today's RIA market. There are large, strategic deployments of OpenLaszlo applications at Walmart.com, H&R Block, Barclays iShares.com, Monster.com, IBM and more. These are some of America's largest corporations using Laszlo technology to serve millions of people, in some cases directly on their homepage. Interestingly, some of these deployments use Java on the server, some use Microsoft .NET, and some use other systems; OpenLaszlo supports each of these. We do not see the server platform providers necessarily extending their reach to the RIA/Ajax platform.

We also see a tremendous amount of interest in open source, and not just for cost reasons. IT shops want control over their destiny; they do not want to be at the mercy of ever-changing priorities and business models of software vendors. Over a long period of time, we see the market for infrastructure software of all types shaking out into two broad categories: Microsoft and open source. In such a scenario, commercial companies other than Microsoft will be squeezed out. One might ask where Adobe fits in a market like this.

Last Summer, during SOA World conference in New York you told me that one of the advantages of Open Laszlo over Flex 2 is that your product supports earlier versions of Flash Player, which are available on Linux and Mac as well. Today, penetration of Flash Player 9 is already over 60%, and Flex 2 is available on Linux and Mac. Did Laszlo loose these benefits over Flex 2?

In marketing materials, 60% penetration may sound substantial. But in a real-world situation, in which a large company is creating a web offering that is intended to reach millions of users, turning away 40% of potential customers is unacceptable. It's been our experience that for a public-facing application, anything below 95% is potentially a problem, and anything below 90% is a no-go. Most of our customers insist on requiring nothing more recent than Flash Player 7, and the claim that "it's a quick install" is not credible, since many users are either not permitted to install software (in corporate settings) or trained out of it because of negative experience with viruses, spyware, etc (in home settings). The fact is that 60% is a long way from ubiquity.

Some day Flash Player 9 will be at 90-95%. The question is whether, at that point, you'll be able to use the latest Adobe tools -- or will those require Flash Player 10? OpenLaszlo is different; it is not wedded to the runtime environment, and we make a point of supporting consumer-ready RIAs -- meaning supporting runtime environments that are ubiquitous today, not in 12-18 months.

Well, Adobe claims that Flex 3 will run on Flash Player 9.  Can you provide the URLs of a couple of killer Web applications that were created using Open Laszlo?

Pandora, Laszlo Mail (Click on “Register Now” to check it out), H&R Block homepage, H&R Block: “OrganizIt”, Barclay’s Global: “Index Comparison Tool”, (enter as a “financial investor” and create an account), Barclays Global: “Index Returns Chart”.

How do you envision the future of Open Laszlo as a platform for development of RIA targeted for different runtime environments? Can you comment on your involvement with Sun Microsystems in the mobile space?

We see OpenLaszlo evolving into a a universal language for RIAs, in which code bases and developer skills can be reused across multiple delivery platforms. This does not mean that OpenLaszlo is limited to lowest common denominator features -- in fact, we have designed OpenLaszlo 4 so that it provides the OpenLaszlo Core API, which works across all supported runtimes, as well as runtime-specific features. OpenLaszlo 4 introduces components designed specifically to provide Flash-specific features (for example, components for upstream and downstream video) as well HTML-specific features (for example, rendering of native HTML content inside of Laszlo views).

Our collaboration with Sun, code-named Project Orbit, is one way in which OpenLaszlo applications will be able to reach mobile environments. This particular effort is now at a proof-of-concept stage, and allows an OpenLaszlo application to run in an environment that supports Java Micro Edition, a very widely deployed mobile platform. Given OpenLaszlo's architecture, however, there will be other ways to run OpenLaszlo application on mobile devices. Apple's iPhone, for example, does not appear to come with either Java or with Flash. It does, however, come with a browser that should be capable of running OpenLaszlo Ajax applications. The same holds for the latest Nokia phones, which come bundled with a similarly powerful browser. These are some of the benefits we expect to see coming out of our runtime-independent architecture.

Another environment that may someday serve as a delivery target for OpenLaszlo is Microsoft's WPF and WPF/E. Again, this environment would provide unique capabilities that are unavailable elsewhere (for example, hardware-accelerated 3D graphics), but developers would be able to reuse their existing OpenLaszlo code and development skills to deliver their WPF applications.

Thank you David and good luck to OpenLaszlo!

More Stories By Yakov Fain

Yakov Fain is a Java Champion and a co-founder of the IT consultancy Farata Systems and the product company SuranceBay. He wrote a thousand blogs (http://yakovfain.com) and several books about software development. Yakov authored and co-authored such books as "Angular 2 Development with TypeScript", "Java 24-Hour Trainer", and "Enterprise Web Development". His Twitter tag is @yfain

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