Test Center review: Adobe AIR soars to loftier heights

Version 1.5 of Adobe's cross-platform, desktop-integrated RIA framework bolsters the business case with database encryption and sweetens the deal with Flash and speed improvements

Hot on the heels of Microsoft's Silverlight 2 release, Adobe AIR 1.5 adds impressive new features to the desktop extension of Adobe's Flex RIA (rich Internet application) platform. This is the second update since AIR's debut earlier this year, a testament to Adobe's seriousness about owning a piece of the desktop.

The most noteworthy improvements are found in the tools for managing larger database files and encrypting local data stores. Specifically, AIR developers can now localize entire SQL data tables and protect them with 128-bit AES-CCM key encryption.

[ See the Test Center's reviews of Microsoft Silverlight 2, Adobe AIR 1.0, and Adobe Flex Builder 3.0. See our special report on rich Web development tools. ]

These new methods make easy work of managing password-derived key creation, ensuring password strength, and even salting passwords with randomization modifications to help protect against dictionary-style attacks. By extension, these new features will allow you to manage session identity via secure cookie persistence as well. In testing, I've had no trouble cycling encryption keys, thanks to the included re-encryption method.

Adobe's new encryption measures don't actually lock down in-memory data flows; these are still potentially accessible to prying eyes. But they do a nice job securing data at rest, including any database metadata.

I also appreciate the addition of XML signature validation. The APIs lend assurance of authenticity not only to message data but also to downloaded resources used by your apps. And it's not just for show: Adobe has included the necessary tools to corroborate trust levels, authenticate against signer revocation lists, and reference resource manifests with ease.

The 1.5 release is not all work and no play. Also added is support for new Flash 10 features, including 3-D perspectives, 2-D rotations in 3-D space, and the Pixel Bender. In addition, handling of rich media streams is improved, thanks to bandwidth optimization and QoS (supporting high-definition video up to 1080p). RTMFP (Real Time Media Flow Protocol) can also be used to secure stream transports, although support for the protocol in Adobe Media Server is still pending.

Perhaps the most noticeable speed boost I discovered came from the addition of the SquirrelFish JavaScript VM in the WebKit update. Compared with AIR 1.0, my HTML/JavaScript apps easily ran 25 to 30 percent faster in AIR 1.5.

The most visually stunning improvements come by way of new text layout features -- long overdue for those of us who recall the sketchy text handling of early Flash. Typographical enhancements sharpen text rendering, and text flows now support multicolumn layouts with cut-and-paste editing and flow control around inline images. These features hands-down surpass the text-handling capabilities of Silverlight and bring a new level of crispness to AIR apps.

I'm also impressed by the depth of support for Flex and AIR found throughout the new Adobe CS4 Suite. Illustrator, Flash, and even Dreamweaver are RIA-ready with the ability to save Flex objects in the FXG (Flash XML Graphics) format. This integration offers a superb, designer-tested environment for creating skins and interactive elements; plus, Flex metadata is preserved across Adobe apps. The new Embed metadata, in particular, represents a welcome approach to resolving the subtle compatibility issues that existed.

Adobe AIR has come a long way in a short time, and the momentum among third-party developers (such as the Merapi Project) and the AIR community at large is encouraging. Yet another milestone, AIR for Linux, is due out any day. For developers who want to bridge the gaps between Windows, Mac, and Linux -- and between the desktop and the Web -- now is the time to be working with AIR.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Documentation (15.0%)
Ease of development (30.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Performance (15.0%)
Capability (30.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Adobe AIR 1.5 8.0 10.0 10.0 9.0 9.0 9.3
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