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Flex 2 Overview

June 28th 2006 | Jens C Brynildsen



Flex 2 Overview

Flex has been around for a few years already, but this time everybody is talking about how cool it is. Why is Flex 2 different and better? Read our overview to find out.

by Jens C. Brynildsen Let's get one thing out of the way - Flex 2 is not a replacement for Flash. Flash 9 will hopefully arrive some time near christmas and a preview was released on Labs today. Flex was the first to to leverage the possibilties of the new Flash Player 9 but if you download the AS3 extension from Labs you can code AS3 in Flash 8 today. Flex is a tool for building applications. It has no Timeline, no Library, no drawing tools. It is primarily a tool to create applications based on a set of easy extendable components that connects to data services on the web. It may be used by designers to lay out the forms in an application, but it is created with Programmers in mind.

A little Flex background
Flex 2 marks a significant change. It is the first program from Adobe/Macromedia that is made just for Programmers. The two former versions (Flex 1 and 1.5) were never targeting a broad audience and required that the SWF be generated on a server. Both these versions were based around a specialized version of Dreamweaver that was slightly sluggish and you (more or less) had to use it together with Flash. The learning curve was steep and so were the prices. This caused a very limited uptake and there were next to none that knew how to program it.

Fast forward to 2006. Flex 2 is priced a fraction of the former price, but it is more advanced and approachable. Adobe aims for a million developers in a short timeframe, the Builder tool is based on Open Source software and the strategy is to offer the basic SDK for free. Quite a change!

Your new Toolkit
Macromedia did a lot of thinking around Flex 2 before the Adobe merger and Adobe has done a great job moving this forward. The goal has been set for one million Flex developers in a short time and with todays announcement, we have no doubts that they will reach this. The announced price is actually what surprised us the most. Flex 2 Builder is very aggressively priced.

Flex 2 consists of 4 pieces of software:
- Flex SDK and Framework
- Flex Builder
- Flex Data Services
- Flash Player 9

Flex SDK
The SDK is the compiler executable and all the required classes to build applications (Framework). The SDK is not Open Source, but it is downloadable for free. If you know your way around a command line, this can probably get you some way but that is not the intention. When asked about Adobes policy concerning integrating the SDK with other software (such as Open Source IDE's), Dave Gruber of Macromedia says "That's exactly what we want". Using the SDK, others will be able to create alternative authoring tools that compete directly with Flex Builder, but they will not be able to distribute the SDK itself. Adobe alone can do that. This way, Adobe will know the approximate number of installed Flex 2 compilers and they will be in control of the distribution much like with the Flash Player itself.
Price: free!

Flex Builder
The Flex Builder is a great authoring environment for creating Flex applications. Using drag and drop, you place components on stage in a WYSIWYG environment. You size and position the components as you would like the application to look in its various stages, just like with other Form-based application builders. You then switch to code view and tie the components together with data sources. This bit is super smooth! Compared to how this was done in Flash, it's easier, faster and has more possibilities. All the components are rewritten from scratch. They are easier to skin, customize, extend and connect to data sources. This comes at a price - all the possibilities may seem daunting at first. After some time, you'll get used to that just like you have on former upgrades.

If you develop client side applications, Flex Builder 2 is a perfect match. If you use charts in those applications, Adobe has a set of these available in a bundle or separately. Our full review of Flex Builder will be online later today. Price: $499 ($749 with the charting components)

Flex Data Services
Want to connect your Flash applications to other data sources than public webservices? Flex Data Services is the solution. It consists of:
- Flex Message Service
- RPC services
- Flex Data Management Service.

The Messaging Service is a great and simple way to exchange messages between clients and servers. The RPC Services will allow you to connect to existing data services using adapters and plugins. The Data Management Service (DMS) does not focus on method invocations (as RPC does) but is centered on data and objects. Both RPC and DMS are built on top of the Messaging Service so this makes it really easy to push data out to clients no matter how you connect to your data.

The Messaging Service is the only one of these we have looked at thus far. This will allow more than just messaging and chat. People can build realtime push services such as collaborative software with content synchronized in real time and when your great new "Web 2.0" (O'Reilly TM) application takes off, there's a simple way to scale it as well. Just go from the free version to a per CPU version and add that to your server cluster. When developers understand the real power of this, we can expect a whole new series of web applications. Tools that offer some of these possibilities have already been created by third parties, so Adobe is sort of stepping on toes here when they offer such software for free but it will certainly expand the market for such services. You can expect a full review of Flex Data Services as well as tutorials over summer.

Flex Data Services is the bit of Flex that is still priced on a Enterprise level, but for those who need Enterprise quality it is well worth it. The really interesting bit is that there is also a full version of the software available for free. It is limited to only one CPU and does not come with the same level of support, but using this you can do everything you can with the enterprise version except scaling (more CPUs).
Price: $20.000 per CPU

Flash Player 9
We have already written a lot about the new features of the new Flash Player 9 such as AS3, up to 10 times the speed of the Flash Player 8, the display API and the new sound objects. Flex 2 is not limited to applications and it's really easy to set up an empty project in Flex Builder and add a Script-tag. Anything you type inside that tag will work just as if you put it in frame 1 of the Flash IDE. Just add an included .as file and you can type away in your favorite editor. That said - Flex 2 Builder is a much better editor than the Flash IDE ever was so Adobe may win back some hearts here. Flash Player 9 will be available for Windows and OSX (on PowerPC procesors). There are no official details on OSX Universal and Linux versions.
Price: free


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