|2008: year of rich internet apps? (April 2008)|
Rich internet applications can give a static website moving graphics and video, making for easier navigation and a generally more immersive feel. As many early adopters are quietly making gradual changes the vendor community is bringing out wares that promise ever more capability. A look at what’s new with the Net now.
By Lauren Bielski, senior editor
The new web, also called Web 2.0, became a crowd pleaser in the last few years for its collaborative and social nature: wikis, MySpace, blogs, and other concepts such as user-supplied content and the “wisdom of crowds,” have people flocking online, as if to tap into a new form of lingua franca.
But there is another aspect of 2.0 getting less consumer press attention: rich internet applications, which can be thought of as the codes and programming strategies that make for a more immersive, more engaging website. And yet, RIAs offer the promise of a web environment with easier-to-place links, buttons, tables, and pop-out dialogue boxes among other such features, which can engage customers with their sheer niftiness, not to mention, their utility.
The improvements don’t have to be enterprise sized to make their mark. Vivek Mehra, vice president, global financial services, for Boston-based Keane Consulting, points out that the ability to glide a mouse over a link and have a cascading list or dialogue box appear with useful information about banking transactions are the sorts of little details that can make a big difference to the average consumer and offer a big lift in website use.
Because of this, Mehra believes more banks will begin to adopt RIA and modernize the web channel yet again.
“There isn’t a point where you say the project is finished,” he says of the web. “It will be a work in progress. The biggest financial services firms are introducing features and small navigational improvements on a 90-day cycle.”
A prominent web developer’s journal noted that 2008 will be known as an important year for RIAs, which will show up in more RFPs and more deployments over the next six months and beyond.
RIA’s time has come
Of course, the peaks and valleys of technology adoption are tough to chart, with anecdotal evidence easier to come by than meaningful stats. Certainly, many tech conferences spotlight technologies that deliver richness to the web, most notably the mid March AJAX World (“AJAX,” meaning asynchronous java, one language driving RIAs).
Furthermore, Gartner, Forrester, and other tech consulting firms have written about RIAs and early adopters, including Fidelity, Citibank, and Deutsche Bank have been busy.
And vendors are active. Adobe, for example, recently introduced a cross-operational-system platform called Air that attempts to let users blend internet applications into one interface without the constraints of standard browsers. Also, Adobe’s third iteration of the Flex development framework, is putting its bid in to dominate the emerging commercial RIA space. Microsoft has similar thoughts, doubtless, with Silverlight, its own RIA platform.
Dinesh Sheth, CEO, uMonitor a Memphis-based web development firm, agrees that top 25 banks have made incremental improvements using RIA technologies over the last 15 months.
At the same time, some very small banks that pride themselves on IT sophistication are also participating in pilots or introducing features on their own like information grids, or simulators with sliding buttons that can help a user visualize retirement savings or the impact of loan terms.
“This will be a time where mid-sized banks, which haven’t done as much even though they stand to gain the most, will be playing catch-up and seeing how they can drive more business process to the web,” says Dinesh.
“Where, originally, Web 2.0 was about information sharing, now, it’s evolved to being used for transforming paper-based processes and pushing them out to the web,” says Gina Poole, vice-president of social software programming and enablement with IBM. “Basically, Web 2.0 technologies let the net be more of a full-service channel while offering a less clunky user experience as it does so,” she says.
What RIAs can do for you
Some of this sounds beneficial and yet, you may be wondering, with a flailing economy and the ripe memories of other recent woes, should RIAs be a cover story and a priority? Yes, say proponents. And we agree.
For starters, the “technologies of richness” can make the web more successful at the sales and service functions it was originally designed to handle.
“Rich user experience can help with channel branding and marketing,” notes Paul Giurata, managing partner, San Mateo, Calif.-based Catalyst Resources.
“In terms of existing customers, RIA features can help banks enhance self-service capabilities,” he says.
Giurata is known as a top user interface developer and his company specializes in the financial services vertical. He is extremely knowledgeable about the new generation of web-oriented code libraries and scripting languages. As a coding strategy, Giurata says, these technologies allow better website performance because what makes rich applications “rich” is an approach to coding that allows, in effect, partial web page refreshes.
So, a user can be in the middle of an internet banking task and have a screen pop up that asks for more information instead of a time-consuming “side” navigation to another section of the site, or worse yet, a log out and call in to a customer service rep to confirm something like a password revision, new payee information, or something else, in which case the original task would have been broadly interrupted.
Likewise, what makes richness a boon to bankers is that it can support motion graphics (i.e., Flash), news feeds, asset allocation gadgets and mash-ups (applications that are derived from several distinct source applications and blended).
The beauty of AJAX and other RIA approaches is that code execution for tasks like refilling values into tables doesn’t need to take place “long distance” between client and server computers, with all the lag time that implies.
Accenture’s Blair Jones, senior executive, technology architecture group, who is based in Sophia Antipolis, France, agrees that client-side coding can make video and other streaming content or other navigational features feasible.
“Websites can look sharper and deliver something compelling both in terms of promotional content or workflow experience for existing customers.”
Bankers in the know seem to agree. In recent research Jones worked on, 70% of financial services clients who characterized themselves as innovators indicated plans to adopt RIA technologies over the next year or said they had pilots in the works. Jones, who agrees that the graphical richness of RIAs is unmatched in anything Web 1.0 offered, stresses other dimensions to RIA, including how it can aid in the design of guided selling experiences.
“The user can input information, but it won’t feel like they are filling out a digital form or taking part in a survey, because of the rapid screen refresh and the fact that sections of the screen operate independently of each other. The experience feels more interactive as a result.”
Jones, who works with many financial services clients in the evaluation of portal technologies, says that two good consumer examples are what Google and Yahoo offer on their financial pages. “Both companies feature customizable feeds and let users create a digital portfolio report view,” he says. “So you can see what your investments look like graphically and you can read about them and find research to help with key portfolio management decisions.”
How two banks use RIA
Interestingly though, RIAs (which keep what’s known as the “state” of the program as well as the data the program requires back at the client) have been brewing, in various incarnations, over several years as developers have gotten beyond static HTML for web presentation. “Internet banking has evolved from basic transaction history presentations to an increasingly two-way communication device,” says Chip Greenlee, director financial services, Adobe. “With imbedded logic in the presentation layer banks can finally get past their green screen looking billpay capabilities and do more online.”
Scott Morris, application development manager, UMB Bank, Kansas City, Mo., says his $9.3 billion assets organization has been making incremental upgrades that incorporate AJAX and other Web 2.0 “concepts,” as he refers to them since the adoption of a content management system from Oracle two years ago.
“Now, content loading and approval, which used to be a pretty manual process, is more automated. Our business users can take control of it themselves.” One example of an RIA site enhancement Morris gives is a billpay feature that he refers to as “modal dialogue”—the use of a pop-out box and simultaneous “gray out” of the screen when some additional information must be input, such as the address of a new payee. Another example: a digital Rolodex for the company’s intranet site. “We exposed phone number information as a service and have AJAX call ups pulling the data into the intranet. This way, the information stays accurate and reflects personnel changes retained in backend systems.”
Although Peter Johnson, senior vice-president, enterprise architecture and web services, The Bank of New York Mellon, spent less time discussing the presentation layer, or aesthetic aspects of what RIAs can deliver, he did admit that appearances count for customer-facing portals. “We’re judged, in part, on how our clients experience these web portals,” he says. “We are presently prototyping the use of RIA-powered capabilities to improve customer service.”
But the collaborative web is the bigger deal for Johnson. “I first began presenting about the subject about ten years ago,” he says, explaining how the $1.3 trillion assets global bank has benefited from early work in the Web 2.0 vein.
Currently, he relates, BNYMellon’s extensive IT community, some 6,000 people, communicates about project details and technical know-how, in part, through Wikis and blogs. “These devices drive more productivity out of our work groups, regardless of geographic distribution,” says Johnson. “For instance, we use a Wiki to support our architectural governance body.”
An internal FaceBook
The technology is also filtering into the actual business user community because the “business folks are beating down the doors,” according to Johnson.
“We have some pilots under way, including a project that will offer a blend of FaceBook-like personal profiling capabilities and a space to display subject matter expertise, using blogs, so that sales people and specialists can easily find each other and collaborate,” he says.
“Asset managers that specialize in derivatives and asset servicing operations personnel—the latter function being outsourced—can share information about this constantly changing area,” says Johnson.
But Johnson sees other uses. “We have employees in the capital market group that could tap into that knowledge base,” Johnson says, not specifying project rollout details but indicating that a “derivatives resource” would be under development.
In general, he notes, bank staff—including the institutional sales force and Asset Managers International Group—can provide better customer service with collaboration. “Say, you’re a sales person in Germany, there’s a fund manager in San Francisco. Something happens, there’s rapid movement in the markets, and you get a frantic customer call at 3:00 a.m.,” Johnson poses. “A collaboration tool beyond e-mail can help that sales person handle the call to the customer.”
UMB Bank is also going collaborative with business-user contributed “specialist” content, for the intranet, on subjects that range from HR to various financial products or services.
The need for customer retention also drove the interest of another bank technologist. Walter Latinik, senior vice-president of online financial services, First Horizon Corp., Memphis, says his organization is currently reviewing a series of Web 2.0 technologies to improve the sales appeal and usability of First Tennessee Bank. “Since retention is important to us, we’re interested in making the site easier work with,” says Latinik.
“Over time, we intend to make any function that’s currently a manual, back-office process and replace it with an automated, website function. We’d also like to replicate all branch related functions at the website.” Currently, the bank has partnered with third party providers to support online account opening and account-to-account transfers as well as online password resets without support from call center personnel.
All of these improvements have whetted the bank’s appetite for collaboration, and possibly the use of some sort of customer-facing blog to present financial advice, although no specific project is in the docket at this time. Still, a cross-functional, cross-departmental management group has been meeting weekly to discuss internet strategy and what approaches would yield superior customer experiences.
And yet, there are challenges. Ron Rogowski, a Forrester analyst specializing in application development, architecture, and Web 2.0, has written a research note indicating that some organizations fear added complexity. He advises organizations to engage in active planning with business users and specialty lines of business to make deployments successful.
“These issues shouldn’t be long- term barriers to adoption,” he says, “but they do need to be addressed.” BJ
Rich Internet Applications Guide
Want to know more about rich internet applications but don’t know where to start? These links can help.
Wikipedia/”rich internet application”: Search the biggest wiki around (www.wikipedia.org) under “rich internet application” and you find a complete write up on the subject, including some references to the history of the method. The site points out such geek details as the fact that RIAs typically run in web browsers and do not require a software installation. They run locally in a secure environment called a “sandbox.”
Flex Developer’s Journal: This site (http://flex.sys-con.com) offers many articles on the subject, including: Three RIA Tools Examined: JSF, Flex, and JavaFX.
DevX.com: With a tagline, “The know-how behind applications development,” DevX.com (http://www.devx.com) is technical in nature but a good lead for vendors, and something that the tech-savvy in your firm might benefit from. Plus, it has its own special report, “A New era for rich internet applications.”
RIApedia: A blog devoted to “real applications developed with technologies like Adobe Flash, Flex or Air.” (www.riapedia.com)
Catalyst Resources: This consultancy specializes in financial services and has worked with a variety of RIAs for its clients. (www.catalystresources.com)
Forrester: (www.forrester.com) Cathy Graeber and Ron Rogowski have written about early use of RIAs in the banking industry.
Xoetrope: This RIA provider offers examples of the technology’s uses in product display, dashboards, charts, and graphs. (http://www.xoetrope.com/xui/screenshots/rs3)
The electronic version of this article available at: http://lb.ec2.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/sb/ababj0408/index.php?startid=34
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