“Who would've thought…it figures”

John Sundman, friend, founder of Wetmachine and my colleague at Curl, wrote some reflections on what went wrong at the two Rich Internet Application startups he worked for. (One was Curl.) I think his comments are spot-on. Here are some concurring reminisces, and one additional hindsight: we engineers were wrong not realize the deep structural flaw in our position.

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The Legend of OpenLaszlo Legals

I work for Laszlo Systems, Inc.., on OpenLaszlo, “the premier open-source platform for rich internet applications.” For the last year I’ve been working on the Legals project, which is a re-implementation of the entire platform — compiler, doctools, runtime-specific kernels, common core runtime libraries, you name it, while keeping APIs intact– in order to support compilation of source applications in our LZX language to arbitrary runtimes, starting with Flash and DHTML, but with SVG and Java on the horizon. This undertaking has been compared to the magician’s trick of pulling the tablecloth out from under the place settings — while dinner is being served.

Over the last calendar year, within the small but growing world of web application developers, the Legals project has gained increasing attention. Technorati shows that bloggers in China, Russia, France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, and elsewhere are paying close attention to our every move.

Amusingly enough, these very sharp developers have grasped the essential idea of the project, but have been bewildered by the project name, “Legals”. Even within the company Laszlo Systems, those not invloved on the project have been intruigued by the moniker. Well, yesterday we essentially began our Beta program, and the Legals codename is being retired in favor of the much more normative (and bland) “OpenLaszlo 4 Beta Release 1.”

Below the fold you’ll find a little story I wrote for internal consuption at Laszlo about how the code name “Legals” came to be. If you like geek arcana, I think you’ll like this. Some tidbits for context: Everbody mentioned is a hardcore developer, except for Amy, the erstwhile program manager, and me, the technical writer. David is the CTO and founder of the company, our big cheese. Max is also a founder of the company. Oliver is the original designer of the LZX language. (The OpenLaszlo website can tell you more about all these people.) I’ll only add that I’ve been in this business since 1980, and the people mentioned below the fold are the smartest developers I’ve ever worked with. Finally, to set context, I might admit that a year ago our company’s financial situation was, shall we say, not especially propitious. Since then we’ve put millions in the bank and things are really looking up. But a year ago, things were more scary.

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OpenLaszlo to Java Mobile

OpenLaszlo is a platform for making Rich Internet Applications. The “production” version of OL (presently at release 3.3, I believe) allows you to compile to (Flash) swf7 or swf 8. OpenLaszlo version 4.0, project name “Legals”, will support, in addition, compilation to DHTML (aka “Ajax”). Legals is in “pre-beta”; an official Beta program will be announced soon. To see how far along the project is, you can go to the OpenLaszlo site and play with a variety of demos that run pretty much equally well in either Flash or Ajax. Sometime next year, probably in the spring, OL version 4.something will support Flash 9.

Now here comes an announcement of Project Orbit from Sun Mircosystems, to compile OpenLaszlo apps to Java Mobile Edition. Java ME runs on *billions* of devices, notably cell phones.

I work for Laszlo Systems, Inc, the creator and main supporter of OpenLaszlo. I’m responsible for all the OL documentation. It’s a good job. It’s cool to see the whole idea of “write once run everywhere” really starting to become real. Flash 9 which is based on the next version of ECMAscript/JavaScript, is different enough from earlier versions of Flash that it really constitutes a separate runtime. For those of you keeping score, that means that OL has active projects underway to support four distinct runtimes: Flash 7/8, Flash 9, DHTML (Ajax), and Java. Yes, there will be locally distinct differences in some applicaitons depending on the target runtime. But in general, OpenLaszlo applications truly are runtime-agnostic.

It’s also fun see the OL community growing and becoming real. There are now several developers who have “commit” priveliges to the code base who do not work for Laszlo Systems — including developers from Europe and Japan.

Note that OL is developed completely in the open. Anybody can sign up for the mailing lists on which we discuss architecture and implementation. The “nightly build,” which incorporates each successive day’s work, is avaible for free download. In other words, even though “Legals”, our Ajax port, is not yet in an official Beta program, you can still get your hands on the code if you’re the kind of person who likes to read code to see what’s going on.

Open Laszlo

Here’s a write-up lifted from the site of Oliver Steele., Laszlo’s chief software architect. (I’m the Laszlo “doc guy.”)

As of today, the Laszlo platform for building rich internet applications is open source. This includes everything: the server software, the client software, the examples, the documentation, the language — the whole platform. Like Mozilla, this is open source with a corporate sponsor; and like Mozilla, it’s honest-to-goodness open source — no dual licensing, no poison pill. It uses the Common Public License, listed on OpenSource.org.

OpenLaszlo.org has the source distribution for our new release, LPS 2.2, which also includes support for SOAP and XML-RPC, and over 500 new pages of documentation. For developing Laszlo applications, as opposed to hacking on the source to the Laszlo compiler and runtime, I recommend the binary distribution instead, which comes with installers for MacOS, Linux, and Windows. (You don’t have to actually write any code to see some neat stuff in the standard installation.) If you want to see some examples of the kinds of applications you can write, take a look at the customer showcase, the demos, and at MyLaszlo.com. If you want to dive into the source code, look at Laszlo Explorer and the Developers Guide.

Today is part one: the source code is available, the license is free. Part two is to open up our development process, including our source repository and bug tracking systems, so that you don’t have to be at Laszlo Systems (the company) to see what’s going with Laszlo (the open source project). Currently we’re in send-mail-to-the-dev-list mode for questions, and send-us-a-patch mode for contributions — about on a par with some of my other open source projects, but we can use those corporate sponsorship $$ to do better.

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We interrupt this program

For a brief commercial announcement.

My employer, Laszlo Systems, makes some cool XML-based technology for so-called rich internet applications that run in Flash players. For those of you who don’t have a current degree in marketing buzzspeak, I’ll explain that that means you use Laszlo’s stuff to write nifty interactive web apps that don’t require page refreshes, and that the language in which you write them doesn’t suck. See the little blogging widget to the right for a micro-example.

As of yesterday Laszlo has greatly liberalized its free-for-developers and free-for-noncomercial-use policies. If you do any web development you really should go get the download. It’s cool, and it’s free.