You’re probably already familiar with Adobe AIR. In case you’re not, here’s how Adobe describes AIR:

The Adobe® AIR® runtime lets developers use proven web technologies to build rich Internet applications that run outside the browser on multiple operating systems

In other words, AIR lets you build desktop apps using Flash. You may be using at least a few of them right now. For example, I currently have TweetDeck and Yammer installed on my Mac.

Unfortunately, there are a few problems with AIR:

  • Like Flash, it’s a resource hog (on Macs, especially)
  • It’s installed software which means it needs frequent updates (both the apps themselves and the AIR runtime)
  • It’s proprietary

The Site-specific Browser as an AIR Alternative

If you’re a Mac user, you may already be familiar with Fluid. Simply provide it with a URL and it will create a site-specific browser.

Fluid settings
Fluid settings

Below you can see how Fluid has created a sort of “headless browser” for running Gmail. It’s the same Gmail I access in my browser, but now it looks like an app. No URL bar, bookmarks, etc. Just an app window and the Web page.

Headless GMail browser
Headless GMail browser

Fluid application tiles even support badges, so I know how many unread messages I have (far too many, in this example).

GMail running in a headless browser

In many cases, a Fluid-style solution may be all the user is looking for; a way to run a Web app as a stand-alone application.  The advantage here is that, once installed, the app is served up just like any other Web app, using standard HTML, JavaScript and CSS (or even Flash). Imagine, no more update dialogs telling your users a new version of the app needs to be downloaded, or worse, that AIR itself needs an update. No uncanny valley problem with an AIR app that looks and acts almost (but not quite) the same as it’s browser counterpart, which can lead to user confusion and frustration.

Of course, there are  big advantages for the app developers themselves. Everyone who downloads their app automatically gets a modern, HTML5 compliant web browser by default. They don’t have to port their traditional Web app to Flash just to get an application on the desktop. And if they’ve built the app in HTML5, they even get the offline functionality that many companies now rely on AIR to deliver.

This solution is obviously not for everyone and it doesn’t provide all of the features you get from AIR apps (e.g. toaster alerts), but it does offer a very lightweight solution for web app developers who don’t want to port their traditional apps to Flash.