Adobe melds desktop, Web apps with AIR

Early adopters have created a wide variety of data-oriented apps

Bridging the gap between desktop and Web applications, Adobe Systems is set to ship today its AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) 1.0 technology for melding applications from both of these realms. Formerly known by its code name Apollo, the free technology already is being used in applications at places such as NASDAQ and AOL.

AIR is a desktop runtime that allows Web applications to be run on the desktop in a disconnected fashion, said Michele Turner, vice president of the Adobe platform business unit. "We really believe the innovation in technology today is … on the Web and that the desktop has stagnated over the last couple of years," she said.

[ Learn how Adobe AIR compares to other rich-media and Web apps tools. ]

Supported on Windows and Macintosh, AIR extends to Web applications desktop capabilities such as drag-and-drop, system notification, and local file system access. Applications using AIR can be written using the same technologies commonly used to build Web applications, including Adobe Flex and Flash, HTML, and JavaScript.

Desktop applications, in turn, update applications automatically and have branding. AIR applications have a Web look and feel. "We're seeing a number of hybrid applications today where developers are writing AIR applications and they also have a Web version of that," Turner said. AIR's capabilities include capturing data, pulling it into an Excel file and then uploading that onto a Web application.

"AIR is a way of packaging up Flex applications," said analyst Michael Cote of Redmonk. "It has more of a [focus] on running on the desktop and integrating more closely with the desktop rather than just being a Web application," he added. Flash content plus HTML and PDF could be packaged into one application, said Adobe's Turner. Or a Flash, Flex, or AJAX developer can take an existing application, and with minor updates, run them on the desktop.

Early adopters create a range of applications
NASDAQ is using AIR in an application that provides "instant replay for the [stock] market," said Claude Courbois, associate vice president in the NASDAQ data products division.

To be officially launched within a couple of weeks, the NASDAQ Market Replay application pulls stock data off the Internet to help ensure that buyers are getting the best price on a stock. [Editor's note: NASDAQ launched the application on Monday] Users can get a realistic replay of trading activity and zoom in and out of pricing details. The application essentially serves as a desktop application that reaches out to where NASDAQ stages data.

"This a powerful tool for going back to a certain point in time in the market and comparing the trade price that prevailed at that point," Courbois said. NASDAQ has been "thrilled" with AIR although it has had challenges like any other development project, Courbois said. These have had to do with complexities of NASDAQ data. Still, NASDAQ plans to build other applications using AIR, Courbois added. "AIR has definitely opened up a door for us in terms of delivery of data."

The New York Times Co. is featuring AIR capabilities in its ShifD Web application for moving content between devices.

"As far as the AIR part it, it's a downloadable version of ShifD that you can keep on your desktop and add content to it but it's then accessible from anywhere," said Nick Bilton, a user interface specialist at the Times. A user, for example, could download a recipe from the Web onto the AIR application and then access it on the mobile device, providing the list of ingredients in hand, Bilton said.

AOL plans to supplement its Xdrive online storage application with AIR. "Today, the Xdrive UI is either a classic Java-based Web application or a C++ desktop application," said Robert Blatt, vice president and general manager of personal media at AOL. "We're basically … building an AIR and Flex application that will either work on your desktop or in a browser," to replace the current UI, he said.

AIR will make it easier for a consumer to use the application via drag-and-drop capabilities, Blatt said. Users get online connectivity of a Web application and the richness and usability of a desktop system, he said.

If a user wants to upload photographs, for example, AIR allows for camera assets to be dragged and dropped into an online folder instead of users having to tackle a cumbersome uploading procedure. "What AIR really does is take the manual upload and make it almost seamless for the consumer," Blatt said.

Salesforce.com, meanwhile, plans to use AIR to supplement Force.com, the company's platform for third parties to develop business applications and run them as a service on Salesforce.com infrastructure. The Force.com Toolkit for Adobe AIR and Flex extends offline capabilities to Force.com applications. Information such as customer data being managed on Force.com can be brought into offline use, said Adam Gross, Salesforce.com's vice president of platform marketing.

The AIR toolkits
Although AIR is offered free of charge, Adobe plans to make money from it by selling development tools for it such as Flex Builder. The company may sell service components as well. Adobe also is building products such as Adobe Media Player for playing video feeds on top of AIR.

As part of that development tool set, Adobe today released an AIR SDK and Flex 3, which is the primary programming language for AIR. The AIR SDK features tools necessary to build AIR applications. Developers can also use Adobe's Flash CS3, Creative Suite 3 Professional, or Flex 3 to build AIR applications. Accompanying the release of Flex 3 is Flex Builder 3.0, an IDE for Flex costing $699.

Among the enhancements in Flex 3 are improved charting and touting testing tools for memory and performance profiling for use in building applications for the Flash Player or AIR. Flex 3 also improves integration with Adobe Flash CS3 and Creative Suite 3. Debugging has been improved as well, Adobe said.

Adobe today also followed through on its open source intentions for Flex first revealed last year. The company is open-sourcing the Flex framework, which features libraries for Flex application development. Developers will be able to extend the language itself. Also, Adobe will open-source the BlazeDS libraries for connecting to back-end data sources from Flex applications for the browser and Adobe AIR.

Open-sourcing Flex capabilities could expand the number of developers able to work with it, noted AOL's Blatt. "The talent pool of people who understand how to build in Flex is not as large as it needs to be," he said.

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