Ajax Or Flex? How to select Rich Internet Application technologies

Forrester published a paper that analyzed the strength and weaknesses of Flex and Ajax. The findings are very interesting and by the end of the paper I got the impression that Forrester thinks big things are in store for Flex.
Written by Ryan Stewart, Contributor

After writing about the Rich Internet Applications vs. HTML paper by Forrester Research I came across another paper that they released during the last week of December which hits a little closer to home: Ajax Or Flex?: How To Select RIA Technologies.

Once you buy into the fact that RIAs give developers and customers innumerable benefits, then you've got to decide which path to take. The report covers the important considerations: reach (the reach of browsers, penetration of plugins, ect), development time (deployment and testing) and community infrastructure among others.

The paper takes a good, unbiased look at the two technologies and comes away with some general feelings. The report itself is well worth the price tag for any development shop because it spells out exactly what you need to take into account when making a decision but I'll summarize some of the more common strengths and weaknesses behind Ajax and Flex and then talk about what I see as the bombshell of the report.

Choosing a commercial Ajax solution means adopting a proprietary framework and development tools.Ajax has always had the edge when it comes to developer numbers. As the paper notes, if you need to get to market quickly, there are a lot of people with JavaScript and HTML experience out there that you can grab. I think that's one reason for Ajax being so popular with web startups - it's fast. That makes it seem trendy and becomes a self fulfilling cycle. However the report also notes how fragmented the Ajax framework market is and how a bad framework choice can get you in trouble. The report goes into a lot of detail about how to evaluate Ajax solutions and enumerates a lot of options for going down the Ajax path.

The paper correctly notes that the learning curve for Flex is higher. You need to learn both ActionScript (which is very similar to JavaScript) as well as MXML. For a company that needs to have a product yesterday, that's a tough pill to swallow. But the report also points out that Adobe has invested a lot in Flex and is building up an ecosystem around it that will provide a lot of support for Flex developers.

So after weighing the pros and cons, what does the report say? It implies that for your strategic applications, Flex is a better option than Ajax. Part of the reason is that Ajax's open source community has caused a lot of chaos while Flex is directed by one company and has room to maneuver. One of the key takeaways is for those looking to commercial Ajax providers: "Choosing a commercial Ajax solution means adopting a proprietary framework and development tools. In this light, commercial Ajax vendors look more like Adobe than like open source Ajax tool kits." Meanwhile, Adobe continues to make significant strides in opening Flex. David Mendels did a good job of explaining how open Flash really is and Adobe has provided a free Flex SDK and compiler with the hopes that the open source community would take the tools and run with them.

The Forrester report got me excited because it seems to indicate that while Ajax has made a lot of inroads, Flex is a more robust solution for anyone looking to deploy Rich Internet Applications down the road. Time to market is still an issue, but as the Flex community grows the advantages to Ajax will dwindle and more and more people will look to richer platforms for their applications. We're going to break the web out of the browser yet.

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