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Beta versions of Flash Catalyst and Flex on Labs

Beta versions of Flash Catalyst and Flex on Labs

Tonight Adobe released new beta versions of the new Catalyst interaction design tool as well as the recently renamed Flash Builder (formerly Flex Builder). Both tools have been in closed beta for quite some time, but today everyone can check them out.

Read on to learn more about the new software or click here to go straight to the downloads for Flash Catalyst or Flex Flash Builder.

Flash Catalyst

A lot of anticipation have been building up over this new tool. Initially it was presented as "the tool that will bridge design and code" for Flex developers. Now it's clear that it is not really there yet. In it's first version, it's a one-way workflow that will allow designers to easily make prototypes of data driven websites. It is well suited for event driven projects like applications or portfolio websites. Catalyst will solve most of the "simple scripting cases" for Designers so they don't need to write any code to make prototypes.

The programmers can then take the source code and the created component skins and keep working on that. You won't be able to go back and forth between Catalyst and Builder in this release, but this is being worked on for future versions. Catalyst does however offer a smooth cut and paste workflow between other Adobe applications, so anyone using the Adobe Suite of products should get a very nice performance boost from using Flash Catalyst instead of Flash Authoring.

Many standard tasks are super easy in Catalyst: applying behaviors, creating custom skinned components (such as buttons, sliders and lists) from static images, creating and moving between application states.

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Catalyst still has some rough edges and it's very much still in development despite the public beta. Designers will have to learn how to structure their Illustrator and Photoshop Design Comps for Catalyst to "like them" and the app also offers yet another kind of timeline for the designers to learn. Developers will be disappointed that they can't toggle from Design to Code mode and edit stuff there. Sure you can add items to your sample data via the Catalyst UI - it's just so much faster to do it directly in the code. Another thing - developers - don't make a New Project from Design Comp and look at the source. It'll just scare you. Just accept that this is a tool for the designers, that it's beta and a first take on a complex problem.

The many that use Flex for creating mockups and wireframes, should take a close look at Catalyst. It comes with a set of simple looking Wireframing controls that will make it a breeze to create mockups. A problem many Flex developers have is that their application prototypes look "too complete" so the client thinks their app is finished since it already looks nice and can connect to data. By using these wireframe controls rather than the standard Flex ones, a client will easier understand that what they are seeing is just a prototype.

Flash Builder (formerly named Flex Builder)

There's been a little fuzz in the community over the decision to rename Flex Builder to Flash Builder. Flex is now the framework and only that, so there should no longer be any confusion about what Flex really is. Flex is the framework and Flash Builder is the tool. The result is still a SWF file and you can still have Flex Developer on your business card. It really makes sense and it should have happened sooner.

Flash Builder is still the same editor as in former versions, but it has gotten some really powerful features that'll make your day much easier. The three main themes for the Builder team has been Skinning, Productivity and Workflow in this release.

Skinning

Behaviors are now separated from appearance and you set skins by pointing your component to MXML skin files. The new skinning model is based on MXML code and if you've worked with Degrafa, you will recognize the concepts. You simply draw rich graphics using MXML tags. This will make your MXML files quite verbose and the output generated from Flash Catalyst is a good example. It's all however nicely separated so it should still be easy to work with.

Productivity

The new Data Centric Development tool really impress us. This is what we've wanted since we started using Flex Builder 2 and some of this actually existed in versions prior to that. The Data services panel will allow you to connect to a HTTP or SOAP service and then poll it to see and analyze return data. Wizards will then help you connect the service to your controls and it's very easy to configure what part of the returned data you want to use in your data source.

 

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There's also a wizard to create input/output forms forms for any service that'll save you hours alone, especially at the prototyping stage. There's a heap of other productivity boosters as well such as automatically generated ValueObject classes and automatic generation of getters/setters! Flex has also gotten a simplistic Network Monitor that can inspect your network activity, but I think I'll keep using Charles for most cases.

Workflow

The last part is the Developer/Designer workflow that is enabled through the new FXP (FleX Project) format. FXP is nothing fancy. It's a way to easily transport Flex projects between Catalyst and Builder. Flex Builder is now feature complete and we were really curious as to what had been done to improve the compiler. Adobe's Steven Heintz said that compiler optimizations has been a very big part of this development cycle. Adobe claims to have made pretty significant headway for this beta and says "You should see improvements". It won't however be fully optimized until the tool goes out of Beta, so let's hope this one holds up as promised.

 

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Note the additions to inline Help - Language/player version required just as for any other good reference!

To read more about Flex 4, check out this high level article by InfoQ or Sean Moore's article on InsideRIA.

Go out and play!

New tools always require some learning, but you really cannot afford to miss the productivity boost that these two tools offer. Here we've only mentioned a few of the productivity boosters. There's even more to discover if you download the beta's. Click here to download Flash Catalyst Beta or Flash Builder Beta.

Note about Serial Numbers: In order to activate the Flash Catalyst beta and use the product beyond the default 30-day trial, you will need the appropriate serial number:

 

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