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Change is good

June 28th 2006 | Jens C Brynildsen



Change is good

Flex 2 has arrived and it has received praise from all camps. Still many Flash developers are not sure what to think about it. Why did Adobe make another piece of software to create Flash files, if Flash solves all your current problems?

by Jens C. Brynildsen As many other Flash programmers, I started with Director. As soon as Flash got something resembling a programming language, I did not touch Director unless I had to. Flash was the new wine and best of all - it did not corrupt your source files when it crashed (Director crashed 4-5 times a day at a minimum). With each new version, Flash got new commands and with Flash MX 2004, we got Actionscript 2. AS2 was not a script language. It was more like a real programming language and we could do some pretty interesting things with it. Not only that, now we could organize our code in classes and extend these just like in other languages. This changed how most Flash coders did their job.

Not made for coding
The Flash program was not prepared for this change. The Flash IDE was made for animation. It had a timeline, it used symbols and offered drawing tools. These are all cool, but they are not what programmers with a background from other languages such as Java and C++ are used to. A programmer usually spends his day looking at code in a text editor. Since the beginning, there has always been something resembling a editor in Flash. The last big news about it was in Flash 5. Back then, Macromedia made it possible to change the size of the code window! Nothing much has really improved since that. Sure - The Actionscript panel in Flash has features as line numbering, code formatting, code hints and "Simple mode", but that's nothing compared to what other (free) alternatives offer.

Many in the Flash community started solving this by making their own editors for Actionscript. SCITE Flash and SEPY were among the first. Later, more editors came along such as PrimalScript and expensive plugins for Eclipse. The latest (and maybe greatest) editor is FlashDevelop. FlashDevelop even comes with MTASC, a free Open Source compiler that creates SWF files and uses another utility called SWFMILL to include assets such as fonts and images. Using FD, you no longer need the Flash IDE to create SWF files. Macromedia (and now Adobe) has seen this coming a long time and they started work on the first version of Flex Builder. It was to be a new way of creating SWF files, more suited to how Enterprise developers already work.

Hard to use for the uninitiated
Using Flash, you can mock pretty advanced applications in a fraction of the time required using other programming languages. Flash has always been one of the fastest RAD (Rapid Application Development) tools available but it's animation heritage has worked against it when it comes to attracting new programmers. If you showed Flash's timeline to a Java developer, he simply would not know what to do with it. If you talk about the Library to a C# developer, he'd be thinking about something totally different than a place to organize graphical assets. The Flash IDE just isn't well suited for programming.

To create advanced Flash applications you need people with intimate knowledge of Flash and Actionscript. Skilled Actionscript coders are hard to come by these days. When the internet bubble burst, the amount of people working with Flash was enormous. Since then, sales figures have kept up but many skilled people have left the Flash community for other things. There is always a flow of new people to Flash, but right now there is a serious shortage of skilled Actionscript coders in most parts of the world.

Adobe had to come up with something that could broaden the developer base and the widely accepted Open Source Eclipse framework was a brilliant solution. It is used by developers all over the world for a wide selection of programming languages. Eclipse exists for all the major platforms so in theory that should make it easy to deliver the Flex Builder tool to both OSX and Linux. For now, a Windows version is all we have, but that should change shortly.

Limitations on scale and scope
Another problem has been the nature of the Flash IDE and Compiler. It is great for smaller tasks, but professional web applications tend to become quite large. The amount of classes, components and assets can make the IDE slow and the compile times long. Flash is simply not up to the task of building such applications.

Pressured from both sides
This year, the Flash Player has fallen in a squeeze between AJAX and the new Windows Vista tools for Rich Internet Applications. AJAX is a free Open Source approach to web applications that is very effective. Debugging it and ensuring cross platform support can be a daunting task, but it's very powerful. Microsoft Expression and C# are also are also fighting for the RIA space, but (for now) they are tied to the Windows Platform. Runtimes for Mac and Linux are talked about, but nothing is definitive yet.

Lately, several new initiatives such as Fjax, SwfJax and Adobes Flex 2 AJAX Bridge combine Flash and AJAX to take web applications one step further so this may turn into a long lasting friendship instead of a battle. With the upcoming Apollo Platform, Adobe has positioned themselves for the threat from Microsoft and with Flex 2, they now have the tool to win developers over to their side.


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