RIAs for the holidays

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Activate your handy-dandy desktop time machine and crank it back to 1999. Ah, those heady days of the dot-com bubble! Try some Internet shopping. Sure, it's a bit slow since you're on dial-up, but what you really notice is that online shopping has changed little in seven years: the same page-by-page "drill down" through categories and product pages; the same search results pages (now showing items 1-20 of 47 bazillion); the same annoying shopping cart and checkout process. The original Internet shopping experience is much the same today.

A whole new generation of shopping sites is on the horizon based on Rich Internet Application technology. RIAs, also known as AJAX or Web 2.0 applications, are transforming how the Web looks and feels because they are designed to take advantage of broadband Internet speeds and are not based on the traditional Web page metaphor. Instead of sending you a page of text and images to view, an RIA-enabled site first sends you software that takes over some or all of your Web browser and delivers the experience the Web site owners have developed.

You've probably experienced RIAs already. Google Maps and Yahoo Maps Beta are examples of how an RIA can improve an online experience by getting rid of the notion of pages. Instead of the old-style online maps that sent you a new map every time you moved around or zoomed, these new services send you map-viewing software that lets you drag the map around with your mouse and fluidly explore.

RIA technology is spreading into online shopping as well, and no wonder. Retail is, after all, the monetization of customer experience, so anything that improves that experience will generate more revenue and customer loyalty. So far, RIAs in Internet retail have been limited to a few expensive experiments, but there are signs that we're on the verge of widespread adoption.

I'll even predict that the 2006 holiday season will be seen as when shopping RIAs hit the mainstream. Online retailers go into holiday lockdown mode sometime in late October to early November, so a lot of new site features get rolled out in the summer and early fall. The trend this year is overwhelmingly around RIAs, from individual features such as product finders and configurators to the entire shopping experience. Here are a few RIA shopping experiences created recently:

• Shop Composition: The site at http://www.shopcomposition.com/- great-looking, full-blown RIA shopping for designer home goods.

Nike Store: Another RIA shopping experience from the folks who "Just Did It."

Etsy: Serendipitous product finding interfaces; try the Shop by Color, Time Machine and Sampler features.

One intriguing thing about these three examples is that their experiences differ greatly from each other. And they should. Shopping at Target is a different experience than shopping at Tiffany's. Each brand has its style and personality expressed through its in-store experience. Why shouldn't the online experiences be equally differentiated?

If the RIAs rolled out for this holiday season are any indication, I'm certain that if you turn your time machine ahead a year or two, you'll see online shopping delivered completely through RIAs with conventional Web-page shopping as antiquated as dial-up. Don't have a time machine? Just sit back: The future will come in a blink of an eye.
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