Adobe pumps up rich Internet apps with Flex 2

Looking to increase adoption of its Flex rich Internet application development technology, Adobe Systems released its Flex 2 product line on Wednesday, which features free versions and the ability to push data to clients.

With Flex 2, enterprises would only begin paying as they scale up their applications. "We think this really changes the game significantly in the rich Internet application space," said Jeff Whatcott, Adobe senior director of product marketing.

While the new, tiered pricing strategy might be construed as a response to the ubiquitous AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) technique for Web development, Whatcott denied that this was the intent. But the company's pricing plan seems likely to make Flex either a more popular alternative to or more of a companion to AJAX.

With Flex 2, the company seeks to remove barriers to adoption. The Flex 2 software development kit is free; previous versions had been bundled with the US$15,000-per-CPU Flex Presentation Server 1.5.

With the new SDK, developers can build and deploy applications with no server component needed for lower level applications. "This gives developers a tremendous way to start building Flex applications without a lot of investment," Whatcott said. Currently, about 5,000 developers use Flex but Adobe wants the former Macromedia technology to grow to 1 million developers in five years.

With Flex 2, XML and Web services can be used for connecting to a server when data is accessed infrequently and payloads are small. For more advanced applications, Adobe is offering its Flex Data Services 2 Express software for linking between data and the presentation layer. The Express version gives developers the ability to deploy to single-CPU systems for free.

If an application is clustered across multiple CPUs, Flex Data Services licensing starts at US$20,000 per CPU. Flex Data Services is the renamed Flex Presentation Server plus additional capabilities for data management and messaging.

Adobe's pricing moves make Flex 2 more competitive with AJAX, which has enjoyed the economical status that comes with primarily being open source, said Richard Monson-Haefel, senior analyst at the Burton Group. "I don't think Adobe had much of a choice if they wanted to remain competitive," Monson-Haefel said.

Flex Data Services 2 can push data from the server to the client. Server-side intelligence can extract data from SAP, for example, and send it to the client. Flex Presentation Server capabilities now are embedded within Flex Data Services.

Adobe's push technology was cited as a highlight of Flex 2 by beta user Jeff Maling, president of Roundarch, which does consulting and development for clients such as Citigroup and the U.S. Air Force. The feature improves efficiency by eliminating the need for polling between the client and server, Maling said.

"Really, for the first [time] in any enterprise fashion, Flex is able to push data to the [Web client]," Maling said.

"In general, [Flex 2] fixes many of the current issues with the Web," by providing capabilities such as the pushing of data, said Maling.

Flex features all the bells and whistles of contemporary rich Internet application development, according to Adobe. "You have rich media such as audio and video [that] can be incorporated into the apps and you also have collaborative data exchange," Whatcott said.

"The end user experience surpasses traditional Web applications. You have no page refreshes, you have rich data visualization," he said.

AJAX can work with Flex, Whatcott said.

"We don't believe that AJAX has to fail for Flex to succeed," said Whatcott. The two technologies fit together "like peanut butter and jelly," he said. An AJAX developer, for example, might use Flex to add charting and graphing to an application, Whatcott said.

Analysts concurred that AJAX, Flex and Flash can coexist. "The reality is AJAX technology does a subset of what Flash does and with the tools provided by Adobe, you can use whatever combination of AJAX or Flash [you prefer] as a runtime," said analyst Mike Gilpin, vice president and research director at Forrester Research.

Flex, Gilpin said, provides an enterprise solution for developing applications in the context of SOA, with clients using services provided by a back-end system,

Adobe believes it is offering the most technically elegant, sophisticated and most complete way to develop rich Internet applications.

Also being unveiled in conjunction with Flex 2 is an improved Flash runtime, Flash Player 9. "In some cases, we have seen performance go as much as 10 times faster," Whatcott said.

Performance is improved through a new version of the ActionScript virtual machine, which is where applications are run. ActionScript is based on the ECMAScript Edition 4 specification, which provides the basis for JavaScript.

The Flex Builder 2 IDE, which offers increased productivity, is based on the Eclipse open source software development platform. Since many developers already use Eclipse for Java development, the IDE gives them a familiar environment for development of both Java applications and rich clients.

The IDE supports more advanced code-hinting, in which Flex Builder will provide recommendations on completing statements. The code-hinting feature now works within the Eclipse model.

Flex Builder's visual layout capability has been improved as well, being based on Eclipse with WYSIWYG functionality. Skinning and styling capabilities also have been revamped, enabling developers to apply their own customized look and feel to an application.

Flex Builder 2 costs US$499 per seat. An enhanced version featuring the ability to build charts and other graphics costs US$749 per developer seat.

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