Salesforce.com and Adobe Pact Adds Flash to the Cloud
Adobe Systems and Salesforce.com have linked their respective developer platforms -- Flash and Force.com -- to create a new tool suite for building cloud-based rich Internet applications (RIAs), the two companies announced last week.
Dubbed Adobe Flash Builder for Force.com, the new tool combines Adobe’s Flash platform and AIR technologies with the Force.com IDE to allow developers to build RIAs that run entirely in the cloud. Adobe Flash Builder comes with an Eclipse-based IDE that unites the two platforms, essentially making Adobe’s Flash Player capabilities available in the Force.com environment. It also comes with more than 100 customized, reusable UI components and data visualizations, including charting and animation components capable of processing large data sets.
In a nutshell, the combined technologies allows developers to build, in a single IDE, next-generation client/server applications with rich-client front ends that use Flash/Flex, and robust Application Platform-as-a-Service (APaaS) back-ends using Force.com, said Eric Knipp, senior research analyst at Gartner Group.
"Taking advantage of the offline storage, data synchronization, and local business logic capabilities of Adobe AIR allows for the creation of more useful applications," Knipp said. Previously this type of development was only possible using Google Web Toolkit, plus Google Gears, plus the Google App Engine, and strong knowledge of Java, he said.
"If you don't have any interest in building apps for Force.com, this announcement is meaningless to you. However, I think that Flex developers would be wise to take another look at Force.com. Even if they choose not to build applications for Force.com, understanding APaaS is critical, I believe, because it will eventually become the dominant container for Web development."
Gartner defines APaaP as a "highly productive, easy to learn and use development environment that delivers business applications that are customizable, changeable, capable of implementing serious business functionality and, when deployed, offered with massive scalability, high-end enterprise-class (and beyond) performance and reliability, supporting massive amounts of data, all at SMB prices."
Another key element of this new development environment is its inherent support for "ubiquitous access," which is the ability of applications to run online or offline seamlessly across operating systems and devices. Combining Adobe’s Flash multimedia platform with the Salesforce cloud-computing platform, the companies believe, creates a killer tool that enables client-side data management and synchronization between cloud and client in a way that makes life much easier for developers.
"All the different scenarios in which people need access to their data wherever they are, from many device types hasn’t really been fulfilled by the Web to date," said Eric Stahl, senior director of product marketing at Salesforce. "We think we can do a lot together to fulfill that promise."
The combined platform is integrated with Adobe’s LiveCycle Data Services, the middleware that connects Flash-based apps to Java application servers and automatically syncs data between the Force.com database and an Adobe AIR local data store on the client.
Stahl said that developers will most likely use the Adobe Flash Builder for Force.com to extend and customize Salesforce package application, such as the Sales Cloud and Service Cloud -- Flash on the front end pulling data from a Salesforce customer relationship management (CRM) account. But it can also be used to build entirely new apps that have nothing to do with CRM, Stahl said.
For its part, Adobe is currently in the midst of building the next generation of its Flash platform. This joint project with Salesforce fits well into that goal, said Dave Gruber, group manager with the Adobe platform business unit. "We’re focused on driving richer user experiences providing better ways to display complex data in engaging and visual ways that help people to make faster decisions. And that’s about driving productivity throughout the enterprise," he said.
Adobe and Salesforce have partnered before, Gruber added, and they share a lot of customers and developers, but this is their first major joint engineering effort.
"Salesforce.com has been using Adobe Flash as a part of its applications and Force.com platform for a number of years," said Jeff Kaplan, managing director at IT industry consultancy THINK strategies. "This announcement represents the latest round of features and functions aimed at making it even easier for users to integrate and utilize these development capabilities to create even more user-friendly applications."
It’s true that developers were building Flex-based front-ends for Force.com applications prior to this announcement, said Knipp, but the new dev environment will definitely make that process easier.
"To the degree that there were Flex developers interested in Force.com before, but unwilling to take the plunge because of the learning curve required, there will be new interest as a result of this offering," Knipp said. "The publicity around the launch also will generate interest in APaaS within the Flex developer community, and could lead to additional adoption. Existing Force.com customers who haven't yet taken the RIA plunge will also benefit from this partnership, and it may cause those companies to take a look at Flex."
It also overcomes to some degree what Gartner distinguished analyst Yefim Natis sees as one of Force.com’s biggest limiters.
"The leading platform for developing enterprise-class applications in the cloud right now is Force.com," Natis said. "A lot of people don’t realize this. But their language -- Apexcode -- is totally proprietary. That’s their (developers’) biggest problem with Force.com."
Apex is a Java-like programming language designed to allow developers to write code that runs on the Salesforce.com servers with features deployed entirely on demand.
"I agree that the use of Apex is a barrier to adoption for enterprises concerned about proprietary vendor lock-in," said Knipp. "Those vendors typically avoid Microsoft as well, preferring Java-based solutions. However, the Java vendors like IBM and Oracle add additional embellishment around the standard Java EE implementation to make the product stickier. Only rarely do enterprises actually migrate away from a major technology platform investment. Nevertheless, there is no reason for me to believe that the presence of the new Adobe-Salesforce tool set will decrease the proprietary lock-in worry for enterprises."
An Edge On Silverlight?
Knipp also sees this release as another example of Adobe positioning itself to better compete with Microsoft’s Silverlight technology.
"Adobe is definitely making moves to differentiate Flash from Silverlight," he said. "This is only one of many they've made lately. Silverlight is a strong competitor, but for the time being Flash/Flex is the leading choice for RIA implementations that go beyond AJAX. Force.com is also the leading choice for APaaS."
Adobe's most recent SEC filing indicates that only a small percentage of the company's business comes from its enterprise and platform segments, Knipp said, which include the Flash platform. "Adobe wants to grow that percentage, and as enterprises start to use Force.com for custom applications, it hopes to benefit," he said. "I have some anecdotal evidence that larger, more risk-averse companies are beginning to use Force.com. For example, a major bank I recently spoke with is in the process of setting up a Force.com ‘center of excellence’ within the development group. Now that Flex is a piece of the picture, these kinds of initiatives will be exposed to it, which could help Adobe make more inroads into enterprise IT."
James Governor, principal analyst and founder of RedMonk, believes that the real competition for Adobe will come not from Silverlight, but from HTML5, the next major revision of the Web’s core markup language, and a potential platform for building rich Web apps that some have called a "Flash killer."
"It’s one of the reasons deals with the likes of Salesforce.com are so important," he said. "Silverlight currently competes with the media side of Adobe's business, rather than data-driven apps."
Governor also doesn’t expect the new Salesforce-Adobe partnership to cause "a massive disruption in the market," but he sees it as a sensible move from both sides.
"Flash is a great platform for rapid application development of slick UIs to data-driven apps," he said. "Look at the offline world: many ISVs have standardized on Flash as a visualization front end (for example, BMC and SAP Business Objects' Excelsius software). We're going to see a lot of integration between on-premise business apps and cloud-based [apps]… Adobe Flash Builder can potentially be a very useful technology in pulling the experiences together. Why would developers be interested? For the same reason folks rob banks: because that's where the money is."
A preview beta release of the new Adobe Flash Builder for Force.com is available now for download. The two companies expect to make the product generally available in the first half of 2010.
The two companies plan to demonstrate the new toolset at the upcoming DreamForce.com event in San Francisco.