The New Web War

Inside Adobe, Microsoft, and Sun's fight to power the next wave of rich Internet applications.

Visit Google's Finance site or Yahoo Maps and you'll see it. Check out any number of startups—such as Kyte.tv, which lets you create your own interactive channel, or multimedia scrapbook app Scrapblog—and it's right there. A new, more interactive, graphical, and visceral Web is bubbling up all over. The only question is, who's going to build this new Web?

In my day job, I create videos about the technology industry for Podtech.net. I post as many as three or four videos a day, and the more people I meet, the more big-picture trends form in my head. My hope is to share those trends with you, helping you navigate this exciting, but tumultuous, moment.

Perhaps the hottest debate in my circle today centers around the technologies we'll use inside, or outside, the browser to build a new kind of rich Internet application. We're talking mostly about video, because that's where the action is, thanks to Google's $1.65 billion YouTube acquisition along with the online advertising market that's poised to see billions moved from TV onto the Web. MySpace and YouTube built themselves on the back of Adobe's Flash, so here comes the competition, craving the more than $1.4 billion (and growing) Adobe currently rakes in annually selling tools to creative companies.

Ironically, the three companies to watch in this next-generation Web war are all at least 25 years old. Adobe, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems all announced new platforms this spring (and Google, of course, is rumored to be getting in this game too). When you have to choose which product to buy, here's a handy field guide to each company's platform.

Adobe: The entrenched leader. Its latest moves make it very attractive to developers reinventing desktop apps for the Web. Great Web apps such as the calendar 30 Boxes lose a lot of effectiveness—and potential customers—because you can only use them when connected. Desktop apps such as Microsoft Word can't be delivered via a Web browser, meaning you have to wait two years for new features, and if you want a similar Web app, you have to learn a new way to work. Plus, you can't easily collaborate with other people on documents the way you can with, say, Virtual Ubiquity's new word processor BuzzWord (built using Adobe's tools). Adobe's Apollo platform lets you create apps that work online and off.

Microsoft: It introduced Silverlight at the National Association of Broadcasters trade show, signaling its ambition to challenge Adobe's Flash head-on by wooing content companies interested in building fantastic video-centric experiences. Its higher-resolution video makes Flash-powered sites look like an old Zenith sitting side by side with a 52-inch HDTV plasma, and it comes with superior programming tools. For a peek, check out Microsoft's Popfly, built partially in Silverlight: It lets you create mashups in minutes, not hours. Silverlight also enables new kinds of advertising that can be layered on top of videos. Watch a NASCAR race clip and see a Coca-Cola ad, but Fox could dynamically switch out that ad next time, replacing it with Budweiser.

Sun: Java is already included on more than 2 billion cell phones, which is its key advantage. Sun's new JavaFX scripting language offers better animation and interactivity than what was previously possible with Java, and it should be faster, less messy, and easier to design and debug. Apps that could work the same on the desktop and on your phone are a no-brainer.

It's too early to say who will win. But the loser is obvious: If your competitor builds a more interactive site than yours, customers will flee to the "flashier" foe. So in the words of that noted Web developer 50 Cent, get rich or die tryin'.

Robert Scoble is an influential video podcast pioneer and blogger following the tech industry. Watch him at Podtech.net and read him at Scobleizer.com. For a video podcast of this column and daily "best of the tech Web," go to fastcompany.com/scoble.

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