RIA wars heat up with arrival of Adobe's AIR and Flex

I recently saw a demo of Workday's human resource management applications build using Adobe Flex, and the ability for users to navigate and customize their work on the fly was very impressive. Workday has artfully crafted on-demand business applications that rival any client-server applications. I expect this to become the standard for online productivity applications, and for AIR to grease the skids for wider adoption of these compelling UIs.

In the world of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs), the battle for hearts and minds -- not to mention eyeballs and desktops -- heated up this week when Adobe Systems took the wraps off its Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR).

Adobe AIR, according to the buzz on the street, "blurs" the lines between the PC and the Web by allowing users to download Web applications to the desktop and letting them access those applications wherever the user may be. For example, eBay has developed an AIR application, so that bidders not longer have to monitor the eBay Web site or constantly watch their email. Instead, changes in an item they are interested in can be instantly displayed on their desktop.

Adobe announced the beta last fall in lieu of a promised alpha release, and, at the time, I said I hoped the company would move more quickly on completing their work on it, as the RIA market seemed to be catching on quickly. There's talk of a Linux version.

Everyone from the New York Times to niche bloggers are buzzing with trying to handicap the horse race that's now developing among the top contenders, including Adobe's latest entry, and offerings from such other RIA powerhouses as Microsoft's Silverlight and Mozilla's Prism.

Adobe is already planning to make its own applications available in an AIR version, and its Web site lists some major online organizations that have already developed AIR applications. In addition to eBay, these include such household names as The New York Times, AOL, NASDAQ, The American Cancer Society, Nickelodeon, Yahoo!, and Salesforce.com.

Those interested in a more grassroots approach can find over 120 AIR applications at the Airapps wiki.

While the spotlight seems to be on AIR, it's hard to ignore Adobe's other announcement, which is the availability of Flex 3.0, their open-source framework for building highly interactive Web applications, which has also been languishing in beta since last fall.

I recently saw a demo of Workday's human resource management applications build using Adobe Flex, and the ability for users to navigate and customize their work on the fly was very impressive. Workday has artfully crafted on-demand business applications that rival any client-server applications. I expect this to become the standard for online productivity applications, and for AIR to grease the skids for wider adoption of these compelling UIs. [Disclosure: Workday is the new parent of Cape Clear Software, a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]

These UIs also make excellent front ends for service oriented architecture-generated composite applications, combining the best of user flexibility and back-end flexibility. It's a powerful tag-team that I also expect to become a standard approach, first by service providers and over time seeping across enterprise applications and services.

Flex 3.0 has added a slew of new functionality to the 2.0 version, as well as enhancing some of the earlier capabilities. Among the new functions:

  • Drag and Drop support
  • Local File system access
  • Local SQLite database storage
  • AIR debugging and profiling
  • AIR application packaging and signing

There are more at the Flex Web site.

While Flex may tickle the fancy of developers, it's AIR that's caught the attention of the so-called mainstream media, with even the BBC weighing in on the matter. One major issue has already reared its ugly head -- security, with some commentators expressing the fear that users could unwittingly download malicious programs.

The developer will sign AIR applications, and it will be up to the user to decide whether to trust the certificate or not. While it's easy to say that end users should be prudent in their choices, experience has taught us that people often blow right by warning screens and download things they shouldn't. Time will tell how much of a problem this is.

Adobe AIR can be downloaded now. Flex is available for purchase.

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