Macromedia: Tussling with Longhorn

At its annual user forum this week, Web design and development specialist Macromedia fleshed out a plan to push more developers into using its Flash product - a plan which could see it going head to head with Microsoft

The ongoing mantra being repeated by Macromedia executives at this year's Max 2003 conference is the idea of blending the role of developer and designer -- developing tools that bridge the gap between an application's appearance and performance. "We want to create applications with great design and design with great functionality," said Macromedia's president of products Norm Meyrowitz, speaking at the opening session for the conference held this year in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The overall aim seems to be to move Macromedia on from being a company that is perceived to be all about design -- exemplified by its hugely successful Flash animation product -- to a real player in Web application development. "The merger of content and apps is a major industry trend. It's all about blurring the line between development and design," says executive vice-president Al Ramadan.

Macromedia's transition from being mainly known for Flash to a "rich-Internet" applications company was given a shot in the arm with the acquisition of Allaire two years ago with its Coldfusion Web application server. The latest push in the direction of fusing Web design and development is a product due to ship in the first half of 2004 called Flex. The product, which has lived under the code name Royale up until it was formally announced at the beginning of this week, is a combination of server software and other tools to enable traditional Web application developers to create components in Macromedia's Flash format.

"Flex is about re-factoring how Flash applications are developed and deployed into a form factor that these professional developers will find intuitive," says Macromedia product manager Rod Hodgman. "It's a presentation server that provides a text-based programming model -- if you have coded in JSP, ASP or HTML you'll find pretty easy to pick up and understand."

IBM is also backing the project because of the potential impact on its WebSphere J2EE Web application server platform. IBM's vice president of emerging technology, Rod Smith, claims Flex will enable companies to create sophisticated Flash applications that plug into existing infrastructure: "The work around J2EE and XML has been about expanding ebusiness without making costs crazy. I hear customers saying they want to integrate with what they already have."

Wrestling with Longhorn
But while Flex has the potential to expand not only the remit of Flash technology into complex Web application development territory, Macromedia isn't the only software firm with aspirations beyond its core market. There is a lot of speculation around the Avalon and Sparkle graphical elements of Microsoft's next incarnation of Windows -- Longhorn -- and whether they could lead to Microsoft and Macromedia going head to head in the battle to win the hearts and minds of Web developers.

With Longhorn not due to ship for at least another two years, and Flex still in beta, trying to ascertain if the products will compete is a real exercise in speculation. But it seems that the Sparkle and Avalon elements of Longhorn could bring the two company's closer to butting heads than ever before.

"Having Microsoft come in and announce they are going to make products in this space only validates the market and makes the market larger and clearer," says Hodgman. But while he admits that there are similarities between the two technologies such as that they both have XML languages (MXML in Flex and XAML in Longhorn) and both use service-orientated architecture to communicate with the rest of the enterprise, there are important differences: "Our model is all around small footprint applications that are cross-platform whereas Microsoft's strategy is around creating a new operating system."

No sparkle till 2010
The fact that Longhorn will require a new generation of hardware to be purchased along with the OS, combined with the fact that it won't be released until 2006, means Macromedia has plenty of time to prepare for any competition, says Hodgman. "It could be 2007 or 2008 before this gets absorbed in any big way and then much longer before it's something that is used on the Web."

Although he admits the idea of Microsoft pushing into Marcromedia's space does make the company nervous, Hodgman claims that fundamentally Microsoft is an operating system company, and he doesn't see the Sparkle elements of Longhorn being an issue for till at least 2010.

"There is some of that [nervousness]. You have to be or people would look at you funny, but fundamentally in my mind this is another operating system play. You have to buy Longhorn to get Avalon and Sparkle, and Longhorn requires new hardware. That is a strategy they can afford to take."

As one of the 12 companies permitted to see new Microsoft developments under the terms of the anti-trust settlement with the US Department of Justice, Macromedia has been able to keep a close eye on any competitive developments in Longhorn, says Ramadan. He claims the relationship will be "very synergistic" but admits there will be some competition issues. "There always is with Microsoft -- it doesn't matter who you are. Whether you're Oracle or SAP, they're everywhere. But we have a fabulous relationship -- they distribute Flash with Internet Explorer -- and it will continue to do so."