The Coming Apollo vs. Firefox Battle

Adobe announced the public alpha of its Apollo development framework that allows developers to build cross-platform hybrid web/desktop applications using Flash and Ajax. The tech blogosphere responded mostly positively, looking forward to the era of so-called rich Internet applications that’s been predicted for some time and to the possibility of web applications used offline.

The alpha download includes the Apollo runtime which embeds the WebKit open source web browser engine, an SDK for building applications, and an Eclipse plugin for Flex Builder. It’s aimed at developers who already know how to develop HTML and Flash applications but who want to target the desktop, whether it’s Windows, Mac, or Linux.

You might wonder why we need a new application development framework and runtime, when so many developers are targeting the web for cross-platform applications. However, Apollo gives the developer access to system resources like the file system, allowing for offline applications. Also, Apollo applications eliminate the browser paradigm for better or worse. Apollo applications must be installed and upgraded explicitly like desktop applications and they don’t have browser features like back buttons and tabs, unless the developer specifically codes them.

Some consider Microsoft’s WPF/e platform the main competitor to Apollo, because it promises rich cross-platform applications, just like WPF/e. However, I wonder if the real competitor to Apollo is the web browser, specifically Firefox. Richard MacManus of Read/Write Web reported last month that Firefox 3 will include support for offline web applications. He also noted that some of Firefox developer Mozilla’s top workers are employed by Google.

It’s not Microsoft that matters so much these days — it’s Google and the web and new ways of doing things. Does Apollo represent a truly new way of doing things or a backwards look at the desktop and past hopes for a cross-platform development environment? Even if Ajax applications are heinously hard to develop and some apps just need to break out of the browser, the momentum towards the web seems almost unstoppable. Ballmer would love you to think that Microsoft’s the competitor to keep your eye on, but the real steamroller may be Google’s billions married to an open source browser with offline support.