RIAs and the death of the page (rumors greatly exaggerated)

I’m in my final morning of the Information Architecture Summit in Montreal. One of the costs of staying in a cheap off-site hotel was that I didn’t have ready access to my computer (not wanting to lug both a PowerBook and the conference proceedings with me everywhere) and so haven’t blogged about the conference in the way I’d hoped. Maybe I’ll catch up, maybe not. I’ll start with a session for which I have notes at hand, the one on Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) by Dennis Schleicher, Jennifer King, Tara Diachenko, Pat Callow, Gene Smith, Livia Labate, and Todd Warfel.

RIAs are web apps which transcend the page-by-page model of web design (“the death of the page” was one slogan batted about at the session) and are built on platforms like Flash, Ajax and Laszlo. Advantages of RIAs include smoother transitions based on a wider variety of user inputs and more nuanced responses than the click-and-load model; lower latency because the app can anticipate user actions and pre-load what it will need next; and built-in media support that avoids the gotchas of external players. Some RIAs you may have seen include Gmail, Google Maps, Map of the Market, and Newsmap.

A couple of the presenters showed how they used RIAs in recent commercial applications and the rest talked about the potential and challenges to IA presented by RIAs. They saw the challenges as centering on matters like how to design cinematic elements like plot arc in an IA context and how to create wireframes with dynamic elements or some other method with which to communicate specs to developers. To further the discussion they’ve registered riaia.com, yet to be populated with content.

I have to say that I’m skeptical, not about the potential for RIAs but about the idea that their advantages exceed their disadvantages by enough for the “death of the page” to be remotely in consideration. One obvious problem is that the richest platform for RIAs, Flash, is proprietary and closed. Another which I asked about in the session but which wasn’t seriously addressed was what pageless systems mean for functionality like linking to, saving, and bookmarking content (to which in retrospect I would add harvesting, searching, syndicating and semantically marking content). The only item in this category of problems that got much discussion was how RIAs complicate web metrics (how to log and crunch stats on non-click-based interactions).

I find it curious that the panelists’ view of the challenges presented by RIAs was so IA-centered and not at all user-centered. I’m sure IAs will invent the vocabulary they need to talk to developers and if it means the death of the wireframe, then so be it. What matters most is what RIAs mean for users, particularly the loss of the affordances (see my shiny new usability vocabulary!) provided by the page model.

Taking my skeptic’s hat back off, there’s whizbang stuff going on in the RIA field, especially what Google is doing with Ajax. I hope the panelists do get riaia.com off the ground as a place to keep up with it.