Oracle has big ambitions for Application Express

Forthcoming release will be more wizard-drive, easier to use

As Oracle Corp. debuted the latest release of Application Express on Monday, the company was already looking ahead to the next version of the free Web application development tool, which it hopes to make more attractive to nontechnical users.

"We're going to take out the need to understand the database," said Mike Hichwa, vice president of software development at Oracle, talking about Application Express 3.1, which is likely to appear before year-end. The next release of the tool will retain its core functionality but will also be more wizard-driven so it's easier for nonprogrammers to use, he added.

Application Express enables Oracle database users, including those with limited technical skills, to create and manage secure Web applications using only a Web browser. The tool can be used to prototype Web-based applications as well as run those applications supporting tens to thousands of users.

Currently, Oracle estimates that around 100,000 developers are using Application Express on a monthly basis, but the company would like to open up the tool to many more users, Hichwa said. Oracle's particularly interested in those people who are currently using Microsoft Corp.'s Access database or its Excel spreadsheet or IBM Corp.'s Lotus Notes groupware to develop Web-based applications.

One of the new features in Application Express 3.0 released on Monday is migration support from Microsoft's Access. Users can recover the design of their Access-based applications to create Application Express applications, Hichwa said.

Migration from Access was one of the top three features requested by Oracle users. The top request by far was the ability for users to print their reports in the PDF format, functionality that's now available in the tool. The other major most-sought-after new functionality, which also appears in Application Express 3.0, is being able to create charts using Adobe Systems Inc.'s Flash technology. Using Flash allows users to create a wider variety of better-looking charts faster, according to Hichwa. In order to provide the Flash functionality, Oracle licensed AnyChart technology from AnyChart.com, he said.

Application Express 3.0 is the fifth major version of the Web application development tool since its first appearance in February 2004 when it was known as HTML DB.

Any future version of Application Express will be driven by Oracle's customer requests. At the same time, the vendor's interested in adding increased Ajax support in the next release of the tool to improve validation on individual data entries and facilitate more automatic prepopulation of forms so that information only has to be entered once, Hichwa said.

Oracle is careful to refer to the tool formally as either Application Express or more informally as Oracle Apex. Rival on-demand CRM (customer relationship management) software vendor Salesforce.com Inc. has a development platform called Apex and a Java-like programming language known as Apex Code.

"We were the first, but we've chosen not to attempt to trademark Oracle Apex," Hichwa said. He added that Oracle Apex and Salesforce.com's Apex are different tools serving different needs so there's not much confusion about the similarity in the product names.

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