Flex Builder, the promised IDE for Macromedia's Flex application framework, has arrived. Builder abstracts MXML, Macromedia's markup language for creating Flash-based user interfaces, giving programmers a visual layout editor and tools for binding to back-end data sources.
The IDE is based on DreamWeaver MX 2004, so anyone familiar with DreamWeaver will be at home with Builder's synchronized code and design views, canned palettes of behaviors and events, tag inspectors, and Flash effects.
Builder comes bundled with the Flex Server and is inextricably tied to it, requiring a connection even for development testing and debugging. Developers could use more flexibility here. I also would have preferred to see better XML code-editing capabilities, such as collapsible tag hierarchies. In addition, I would like to see support for XPath and XSLT, which, at least in the case of complex data structures, would make onboard transformations less cumbersome than using ActionScript.
Nevertheless, compared with the competing Laszlo Presentation Server's text-based development environment, Builder greatly eases creation of Flash-based front ends, lowering the bar to Web designers with minimal application-development and Web services expertise. Builder also includes a good network monitor and a tool for tracing data and debugging calls between client and server.
Flex Builder is a good first step at bringing the Flex presentation server to the masses. However, in terms of making Flash a compelling application deployment platform, Macromedia still has work to do. Flex itself could use improvements in areas such as reliable synchronization of offline clients, as well as the addition of support for publish/subscribe mechanisms and Microsoft .Net services.