Macromedia ‘Flexes’ Its Flash Muscles

Officials at software developer Macromedia launched a new “Flex” presentation server and application framework Monday, in a bid to entice programmers to trade in their HTML-based Web applications and upgrade to Flash technology.

In order to make the Flex server a reality, the company performed a kind of “$6 Million Dollar Man” operation on their Flash tools authoring code, making it better, stronger, and faster. Developers at the San Francisco-based software company set out to rebuild the browser animation technology in order to make it more compliant with J2EE and Web application-centric protocols such as SOAP
, Active Script and XML .

Officials said Flex, available for free trial or purchase Monday to J2EE developers and .NET programmers later this year, replaces the page-based presentation layer used in HTML.

With HTML, many of the processes used in Web applications are handled on the server side. Flash, on the other hand, handles most of those processes on the client side through its downloadable Player. The net effect, officials
said, is a much smoother ride for users, resulting in fewer complaints to the
developer team that created the Web app.

Jeff Whatcott, Macromedia’s vice president of product management and
marketing, conceded that in the past, the technology hasn’t worked out quite
like what developers expected.

“[Developers] would look at some of the tools we were offering, the Flash
authoring tool and others, and they weren’t quite the tools they would
expect to use or technology they expected to use,” he said. “It didn’t work
the way they wanted it to work, it didn’t follow out the standards they
would expect it to work, and it didn’t fit into the infrastructure in a way
that was natural.”

With the changes, however, the company expects developers to embrace Flex’s ability to create dynamically-generated Web applications for the Internet or intranets that exceed the limitations of HTML, he said.

Flex runs on top of IBM’s WebSphere, BEA’s WebLogic, Macromedia’s JRun and Apache Tomcat applications servers, all of which are J2EE based). Officials said .NET-based application server tests
are in beta now and will ship later this year.

Flex takes nearly the same approach as Java Server Pages , where the source code is compiled at the server side and sent out in dynamically-generated HTML. With Flex, however, the code is sent out using
Macromedia XML (mXML) syntax on the SOAP Web services messaging standard.

If this doesn’t sound like a normal Flash authoring experience, it isn’t. For the most part, developers haven’t embraced the medium
despite Macromedia’s claims Flash Player uses less bandwidth and delivers more functionality. The Flash Player, however, is installed on an estimated 98 percent
of today’s computers, making for a ready-made and instantly accessible audience.

Stacy Young is one of those developers who wasn’t initially keen on Flash authoring through Macromedia at his company, Terra Payments. He was one of three developers from the company (along with a curious vice president of architecture) who participated in the Flex beta program, a process that began five months ago.

Like other programmers, he said he’s used the first-generation Flash MX model successfully for internal project but paid a price in the obstacles it took to implement them. As a Java-based company, it was used to ASCII or text-based files (whereas Macromedia used binary files) and their own integrated development environment

But he said they were quickly won over by the Java-friendly environment. By basing Flex, and by extension Flash, on J2EE, application developers could
go back to their trusty IDE. Macromedia officials said it would run on any
J2EE-based tool, from NetBeans and Eclipse to JDeveloper and QuickCup.

“The server side guys’ reaction was surprisingly stronger than I would have
thought,” Young said. “I’ve had some design experience, so of course I
loved it; it gave me the ability to create these Flash-based paths but yet
it was so much easier to do than HTML markup.

“But I was a little more worried about our server side guys because of the
experience they had with previous [Flash] projects,” he continued. “Believe
it or not, they were more excited than I was. The reason I think it’s so is because they’re dealing with XML and they don’t essentially have to know anything about graphic design because we really like the default component and architecture.”

Young said the switch to Flex has delivered cost improvement already, as the firm prepares to switch from PeopleSoft’s Vantage developer application. It is also holding off on some Microsoft-based enterprise purchases to build their own,
smaller-scale applications for use in-house. Product lifecycle management
will now also be done via a Flash-based application, as well as a
specialized customer relationship management (CRM) module for customer
management in the sales group.

The “Steve Austin” operation didn’t make Flash authoring completely alien to
developers already using the platform. Whatcott said they heeded suggestions
from its customer base to keep the code that made developing on Flash

But ultimately, he said, Flex was created with one demographic in mind,
the enterprise application developer. With “several million” developers
using a range of Macromedia products, Whatcott expects 25-30 percent of them to
switch over to Flex, and predicts a big gain in new app developer customers.

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