For a long time, people have debated the meaning of every part of the acronym RIA (rich Internet application). What is rich? What do you mean by "Internet"? What's an application as opposed to a site that renders content? (The last one has become clearer for some apps that sit outside of the browser but is still contested for functionality that runs within a browser.) The debate was really a way of making the case for player-based technologies like Flash and Silverlight vs. AJAX and dynamic HTML. While the former powered experiences that were more akin to software than sites (generally speaking), the latter enabled more dynamic, yet still page-based, experiences (again, generally speaking). But the lines are about to blur even further as we look at experiences that are increasingly fragmented across interaction points.

What does the future look like? Forrester believes that four attributes will characterize the online experience of the future. As my colleague Moira Dorsey points out in her report, "The Future Of Online Customer Experience," experiences will be: customized by the end user, aggregated at the point of use, relevant to the moment, and social as a rule, not an exception. 

In my most recent report, “Rich Internet Applications Will Power Online Experiences Of The Future,” I point out how RIAs enable customized, aggregated, relevant, and social (CARS) experiences and give a few examples of online experiences that exhibit two or more CARS attributes. But if you look closely at the examples Moira cites in her research, you’ll notice that many of them are RIAs, although you — like most users — probably won’t know by looking at them which technology is being used. And while you might care about the technologies at play if you’re reading this, it’s nearly certain that your customers don’t.

As we look to the future of online experiences, which will include application-based and browser-based experiences, it's important to recognize that regardless of the technology powering the experience, user expectations have evolved — and will continue to evolve — to the point where they expect richer, more fluid interactions than what they get in many cases today. Those users will also grow increasingly frustrated by task-flow inefficiencies such as full-page refreshes when clicking on an in-page tab that don’t match developing interaction paradigms.

While creating the CARS experiences of the future doesn’t require use of one technology over another, firms will increasingly turn to the array of rich technologies — many of which are called RIAs today — to enable customization, aggregate data from multiple sources into a single UI, build cross-platform/device applications, and blend social interactions and updates into the overall experience. The truth is that firms don't need an RIA strategy; they need an online customer experience strategy that leverages all of the tools at their disposal for building the CARS experiences of the future. RIAs will become an increasing part of that mix of tools to the point where, very soon, describing an experience as “rich” or RIA will be as passé as using the term “color TV.”