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Paul Caplin, CEO of Caplin Systems: Browser apps in financial services

Choosing the right web applications and plug-in technology for your needs is crucial, especially if you are planning for the long term. Here are some thoughts on the available options.

Over the last decade, the web has grown steadily faster, more reliable and more capable, to the extent that it now provides a seriously viable delivery channel for most financial trading applications, says Paul Caplin of Caplin Systems. Applications that used to require dedicated private connections and installed applications can now be run successfully in browsers over the internet

There is more than one way to deliver an application over the web, and the competition between the underlying technologies is currently red hot. Choosing the right web technology for your needs is crucial, especially if you are planning for the long term. Here are some thoughts on the available options.

Evolution of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs)

Applications that run within a browser are known as Rich Internet Applications, or RIAs. In the coming decade, the big prizes in the software world will go to the firms that control the new landscape that RIAs are creating.

RIAs are widely expected to dominate end-user application delivery in the future, while the battle for control moves from the desktop operating system, which is dominated by Microsoft, to the browser and mobile device, which are not. The potential for running applications in the browser was apparent from the first days of the web, and various competing technologies emerged early on to make this possible. Only three of these early contenders achieved any widespread success.

The first was Java, a language developed by Sun Microsystems that made it possible to write ‘applets’ that ran in a proprietary browser plug-in. The second was Dynamic HTML, which is the automation of web pages using a browser-based language called JavaScript (confusingly, nothing to do with Java). And finally Flash, a technology created by Macromedia (now part of Adobe) that allows browsers to display complex animated graphics by means of another special plug-in. Flash is widely used for online games and entertainment.

In recent years, all these early technologies have either been superseded or have evolved into more advanced forms. The one that has fared worst is Java: while still widely used to build conventional “heavy” applications, Java is now seldom used in browsers.

DHTML evolved into a series of ever more powerful forms, capable of creating full-blown applications, but still running in the browser itself without the need for proprietary plug-ins. With the advent of new standards such as HTML5, further major advances are taking place. It is now common to refer to applications that run native in the browser simply as web applications.

Flash was augmented by a new layer called Flex, specifically designed for business applications. Flex exploits the presence of the Flash plug-in in nearly all browsers to provide a platform for business RIAs. Adobe initially marketed Flex as a separate brand, but is now in the process of rebranding it back to Flash.

And there is a new entrant: Silverlight from Microsoft. This is a more-or-less direct response to Flex, providing similar capabilities but using a special Microsoft plug-in and based on Microsoft languages and development tools.

Winners and losers

Although there are other contenders, it is widely agreed that the battle for the RIA platform of the future will be a three-way fight between web applications, Flash and Silverlight. All three technologies can be made to work well, so the key considerations are:

• Availability – can my end-users use it?

• Productivity – what is the cost of developing my application?

• Strategic strength – will my chosen technology be a winner? Will it be well supported with a large pool of developers over the next few years?

How do the giants of software line up? Apple and Google both strongly support web applications, and both are anti-Silverlight. Apple strongly opposes Flash, while Google is, for now, neutral on it. Meanwhile Microsoft is, naturally, a proponent of Silverlight, and strongly opposes Flash. It used to be lukewarm about web applications, but is now becoming ever more enthusiastic about them as it perceives the inevitability of their success. In general, web applications are the only technology supported by virtually every software vendor.

Flash has been hurt by Apple’s refusal to support it on the iPhone or iPad, which has weakened its market penetration and, therefore, its strategic strength. Interest in using Flash for online trading applications seems to have waned recently with the advent of HTML5 and the increased credibility of Silverlight.

Silverlight isn’t yet widely deployed – it is installed in only about 50% of browsers, and much less in financial institutions – but it is effective, performant and easy to use to develop applications, and there is a growing developer base. However, it too suffers from a lack of support on mobile devices, which weakens its strategic positioning.

Native web applications can be run on any device, are virtually universally supported, and have a huge development community. The drawback is that they can be harder to build, with lower developer productivity. A lot of effort has gone into building ‘frameworks’ – development toolkits for web applications – to solve this problem.

Most of these frameworks, such as ExtJS, Dojo and jQuery, are general in scope. A few, like Caplin Trader, are optimized for specialised application areas such as financial trading, where more general frameworks do not perform well.


The web undoubtedly represents the future of end-user application delivery, in the world at large and in financial services in particular. But choosing the right technology is challenging.

Adobe’s Flash is in the weakest position, being strongly opposed by Microsoft and Apple, and offers no clear long-term advantage over the latest web applications on the one hand and Silverlight on the other. Silverlight is an attractive option, but suffers from poor availability in the short to medium term. Web applications look like the best long-term bet, but can be challenging to use with low productivity.

The good news is that a suitable web framework can close the productivity gap between web applications and plug-ins, providing the best of both worlds and making web applications an easy choice. Look closely at these options before making your choice.

Associated white papers (PDFs from Caplin):

"Platform wars" and "Which Web?" explore this topic in much more detail. 

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