Is the direction of Web development technology now settled?

March 7, 2014 Gordon Plunkett

For some time, the choice of which Application Programming Interface (API) to use for Web map development has meant making a selection from three leading technologies. Now, it seems the choice is down to HTML5/JavaScript. Is this API a slam dunk going forward?

In the past, interactive Web map sites have primarily been developed using any one of three (or possibly four, if mobile is included) different technologies, which are: 1) Microsoft Silverlight, 2) Adobe Flex and 3) W3C HTML and JavaScript. For the mobile community, native apps (i.e., apps that are developed and maintained for each specific mobile device) are currently the norm.  

So when an organization wanted to develop a Web map presence, they had a choice to make on which Web API technology to deploy. Since there wasn’t a lot to differentiate the technologies, the selection often simply depended on the technology that the developer was most familiar with. Sometimes, it depended on the existing technology framework within the organization. However, each of the three major API technologies had their benefits and drawbacks.

Esri, like everyone else, had three programmable APIs: one each for Silverlight, Flex and JavaScript. Nevertheless, this still meant that the organization wishing to develop a Web site for their maps needed to pick one of the three. Also, users needed to make sure that their browser (client) technology worked with the API.

In 2011, Microsoft surprised the software community by announcing that Silverlight development was being ended. Adobe followed suit saying that their Flex development would end soon and that the Flex software would be moved to open-source status. The problem at that time was that the W3C was still furiously getting HTML5 approved and implemented by their members. Since both Flex and Silverlight require browser plugins, the attraction of native HTML5 was strong as it could provide a cleaner common interface in most modern browsers.

Today, the way forward is much clearer. Esri recently announced that in order to align its product road maps, the company will continually monitor general Web technology trends and the direction of customers’ development efforts. Advances in modern browser technology combined with limited browser support for Flex and Silverlight encourage the use of JavaScript/HTML5 for Web GIS implementations. JavaScript/HTML5 has become the technology of choice among Esri’s user community forWeb GIS solutions going forward. Given this shift in technology, Esri will aggressively encourage the use of the ArcGIS API for JavaScript to build custom and out-of-the-box Web applications.

The future direction for Web map development can’t be much clearer than this. Flex and Silverlight development technology will not be immediately deprecated, but emphasis will be placed on JavaScript/HTML5 development environments going forward. Flex and Silverlight environments will continue to be supported so there is no need to immediately perform a rewrite, but migration of Web sites to JavaScript/HTML5 should be considered over the next few years. Training and outreach will be increased to bring the community up to speed on the new ArcGIS API for JavaScript.

Figure 1.1: The JavaScript API can be used to develop visually appealing yet complex Web map sites.

Is this a good solution or is it just making Web map APIs more consistent? Well, perhaps it’s a bit of both. Given that the entire development community will be focused on one technology (and not three), it will allow more sharing of code and perhaps a more common Web experience for users. Also, users will not need to worry about browser plugins and the security concerns that often accompany them. However, the downside is that the W3C needs to continue its development of HTML5 and JavaScript by obtaining agreement among the big industrial players on improvements. In the past, the W3C has succeeded, so there’s no reason to be overly concerned about this going forward.

In my opinion, a single Web map API technology is good for the community, for both developers and users.

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About the Author

Gordon Plunkett

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

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