Open Enterprise Interview: Jeff Haynie

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Web-based rich Internet applications (RIAs) are hardly new: their roots can be traced back to Java applets and ActiveX controls, but they are certainly experiencing a renaissance at the moment. Dominated by Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) and Adobe's Flash, RIAs can be built using a wide range of tools including open source options like OpenLaszlo as well as Microsoft's Silverlight.

But just because the field is increasingly crowded doesn't mean there isn't room for more – at least that is presumably the thinking behind Appcelerator, an open source startup in this area. Here Jeff Haynie, Appcelerators's co-founder and CEO, explains the background to the company, the Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) connection, what it offers that rivals don't, and why Jboss founder Marc Fleury has come on board.

GM: When and how was the company formed? There seems to be a fairly strong connection with JBoss in terms of personnel: what did people learn from working at JBoss? In what ways does Appcelerator aim to be the same/different?

JH: Appcelerator was formed in October 2006. The company spent its first year developing its product by working closing with several large public and private organisations and their product development teams to launch production applications. We released the first public, open source version of the RIA Development Platform in October 2007.

JBoss is one of the best validation stories when it comes to the viability of commercial open source as a business model. Having an inside look at what worked and didn’t inside of JBoss gives Appcelerator a significant advantage in building a successful open source company and trying to avoid mistakes early on from our previous learnings.

Appcelerator will be similar in regard to its commercial open source model, providing complete access to all software for free under the GPL license, and generating revenue from commercial licensing, subscriptions, training and consulting. Like JBoss, Appcelerator will be tackling large enterprise IT challenges with innovative products and services. Beyond that, Appcelerator will make its own history as it evolves – but will benefit greatly from the experience provided by former JBoss’ers.

GM: What business problem is your company trying to solve? How does it aim to do that?

JH: The most obvious problem to solve is giving developers the ability to build next-generation rich Internet applications that are integrated into existing or new Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) infrastructure. We believe that ultimately the investment in RIA+SOA will help companies more quickly build better applications that perform and provide value at a lower cost to develop.

Appcelerator has integrated all the necessary rich functionality into the core of our solutions, enabling developers to build Ajax applications without having to write a ton of Javascript code and cobble together different frameworks. They can still write in JS if they want to -- we support all open standards-based languages -- but our Web Expression Language makes it easy and fast to build highly interactive, rich applications that are event-driven in 70 percent less time and a lot less code. If you add in our Appcelerator RIA widgets, our support for third-party widgets, and the ability for developers to build their own widgets, then those numbers are even more impressive.

A secondary problem we solve is the initial development of applications. We’ve really challenged the use of requirements documents in development, enabling developers to create fully-functional, client-only prototypes – what we refer to as Interactive Use Cases – instead of 100-page, paper-based documents. It’s easier for all stakeholders to see how the application will work and to contribute feedback to the development process in real time. This approach proves to be more effective in developing better requirements right off the bat and is also less labor-intensive since there is no server-side development required to build a working prototype. All prototype code is then reusable in the final application and pre-defined for easy integration into the back-end of your choice. We’ve separated client from server to simplify both development and deployment.

GM: Who are your main competitors? What does Appcelerator offer that other RIA companies don't?

JH: Appcelerator is probably most closely associated with Adobe Flex. They certainly have the most traction in the market right now. Adobe relies heavily on Flash as part of the RIA solution – we also use Flash for some of our charting elements – but overall, we don’t believe the browser-in-a-browser approach is right for RIA. We are exploring ways that Appcelerator and Adobe technologies can complement one another, looking for a solution that meets the greatest range of needs and requirements for RIA development. Our goal is to continue to innovate around existing Web standards and continue to promote the Web programming model and benefits of the existing investment in Web infrastructure, tooling and skill sets that enterprises already have. We don’t require them to learn yet another proprietary language and set of tools.