Adobe Revamps Flash Platform

Adobe Systems today is providing developers with the first public look at its next-generation tooling for creating rich Internet applications (RIAs) with the release of two key betas and updates to its framework.

The first previews of Flash Builder 4 and Flash Catalyst are the latest salvo in the company's effort to allow both developers and designers to work more closely in the building of cross-platform RIAs.

Flash Builder 4 is the new name for Adobe's developer tooling, which was previously known as Flex Builder. The rebranding is an effort to clarify the lines between the company's open source Flex framework and proprietary Flash RIA runtime development environment.

"As we up-level the larger conversation to be about the Flash platform and the power of Flash, we want to align the brand with the platform," said Dave Gruber, Adobe's group manager for developer marketing. "We are trying to make it crystal clear that all of this is based on the core Flash Player runtime."

Flash Builder, which is based on the Flex framework, is Adobe's Eclipse-based IDE for developing RIAs that run in Adobe's Flash and AIR environments. While Flash is a mature tooling environment, Gruber said Flash Builder 4 boasts three important new features. The first is improved developer productivity via an IDE that supports drag-and-drop editing and the updated Flex Framework. Second is support for data-centric applications by allowing for the binding of components such as charts and data grids. Third, according to Gruber, is the fact that Flash Builder 4 is much more conducive for handling workflows between designers and developers.

The latter is enabled by the first public preview of Flash Catalyst, Adobe's new tool aimed at letting designers build user interfaces without coding and creating workflow. Pivotal to Catalyst, which has been under development for two years under the code name "Thermo," is that it's designed to let designers work in concert with developers.

Flash Catalyst can migrate content created in Adobe's Photoshop and Illustrator packages into live user interfaces. Designers can also build interactive prototypes and publish finished projects as .SWF files, the Flash file format.

The company has also updated its open source Flex framework, which includes the release of the new Flex 4 SDK. The most noteworthy feature in the new framework, according to Adobe, is support for a new skinning and component architecture. Code-named "Spark," it is built on the Halo architecture and gives developers and designers more expressive tooling to work together on Flex apps.

Spark currently includes 30 components that work with the new Flash Builder and Catalyst offerings, Adobe said. The Flex framework adds support for MXML, an XML-based markup language that describes rich components and their behavior.

Enterprise Battle: Flash or Silverlight?
Adobe's releases today underscore the latest battle line for the loyalty of enterprise development and design teams. While Adobe's Flash and Flex platforms are regarded as the leading RIA development environments, Microsoft's Silverlight platform is gaining significant momentum as an alternative. Indeed, Microsoft last week said it will launch Silverlight 3 at an event in San Francisco on July 10.

"Microsoft clearly has the developer core competency and Adobe has the designer core competency, and that's not going to be resolved right away," said IDC analyst Al Hilwa. "Designers will generally prefer Adobe's tools and developers are generally going to find Microsoft's tools stronger in the overall richness for developers. Both of them are growing into each other's space."

Web and RIA development is one of the few areas in the software tooling environment that is growing. Worldwide revenues for such tooling grew 14 percent to $940 million in 2008, according to IDC research. "We actually have negative growth in a couple of other markets in application development, but in this particular market we anticipate single-digit growth," Hilwa said.

Adobe's move to recast Flash Builder and the release of Catalyst will be key to filling gaps in its story to enterprise developers, he added.

Support for data-aware applications promises to broaden the appeal of Flash Builder 4 to enterprise developers, said Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond in an e-mail interview. "That's far and away the most common type of app you see in IT, and the easier it is to integrate data into a Flex app, the more application developers will pick up and use the tools," Hammond said.

Regarding Catalyst, while it promises to bridge the gap between designers and developers, the former could be a tougher sell, Hammond noted. "While I'm not sure traditional designers are ready to give up their current tools, I do think that developers will find Catalyst a much more approachable way to integrate the work of designers into the development process," he said. "I actually see just as many developers using Catalyst as designers."

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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