A friend and co-worker posted an article on his blog about Adobe AIR and asked the question: “Why is Adobe pushing the desktop as the future platform for deployment of Rich Internet Applications? We just spent the last ten years forcing the Web application to a point of maturity…”
It’s a strong question and does seem like a step in the wrong direction on the surface, but the real reason (in my opinion) is hidden behind several layers of assumptions that people take for granted about the Internet. To start lets step back a few years. Macromedia spends millions in technology and marketing making the Flash player ubiquitous with anything cool and usable on the Internet. They court developers like a prom date to turn a once “Skip Intro” platform into a tool for building RIAs. It took them a lot of tries to get it right and eventually they even surrendered their IDE (from Flash Studio to Eclipse) and invented a new language MXML that developers would like. The result… Adobe Flex. Flex allowed a developer like myself to build an RIA without even thinking about time-lines and Flash Sprites (whatever they are). Honestly, I think they finally nailed it here. Everything I have seen in Flex has been cool and this is just the stuff that is free to use on the Internet. I can’t even imagine what people have built for internal use. My friend nailed it when he said “Flex solves the dumb and disconnected problem of Web applications by keeping a channel open between client and server”. It also solves some other problems like building in controls for a lot of RIA features; tabs, panels, calendar date selection, sliders, tree selection, etc. etc. Want video or audio in your application? Done via drag-and-drop. Need to sync up users with chat, work collaboration or real-time data push? Add about 10 lines of code and a LiveCycle Data Services server and you got it. Yes, it can be that simple.
Alright, so you have heard the marketing but why AIR?
Ask yourself this question? What if you had photographed a masterpiece, perhaps a beautiful sunset in the mountains, using the most expensive camera and printed it on the most expensive paper? Every time you showed it to someone they said, “Wow. That is exactly what I need in my house.” Now, would you go to Wal*Mart and buy a frame for $4.99 to wrap it in? Probably not. What if their was a company that made most of the frames in the world and it had some flaws that really made your masterpiece seem sub-par? There’s another frame company, but it really doesn’t have an owner and in the grand scheme of things, not too many people would want to hang it on their wall. Both frames seem to really box in your masterpiece anyway and what you really want is for the edges of the photograph to just end right there. Sure it needs to hang on the wall securely and have some protection around it, but that is all you really want, nothing more.
Enter, Adobe AIR. It removes the browser frame from Flex applications. See I think Adobe was tired of being framed in by the browser. Not only are there visual limitations like always living inside a square HTML box, but there are also security limitations of the browser that hindered application functions. Those are just the technical limitations. On the corporate level, Adobe was also at the mercy of Microsoft. Internet Explorer still dominating the browser market chooses to include the Flash player and chooses to make it work well. They don’t have to do that and they also have a new reason not to, Silverlight. By getting outside the browser, Adobe is trying to protect its application delivery method and also remove some of the red tape that any other application you install on your machine doesn’t have.
One point of contention is that there is now this install file that needs to be passed around. It does make you think about exe files and out of date versions of software, but Adobe hit that head on in the first version of this software by including two built-in features of all AIR applications. First, all AIR applications can either bundle the AIR runtime with them or will prompt you to install it when you try to install the application. Second, they are including auto-update features for applications to check and make sure they are the latest version. This will help your users stay up to date. Most of the software running on my Apple MacBook has auto-update built right in and so that should be an easy concept for users.
So this time I am really cheering for Adobe and think they may have a winner here. They have been trying this game for some time now (see:Macromedia Central) and this time, the price (FREE-99) is right.