Adobe to offer new tools for UI development

Adobe previews Flash Catalyst, a workflow system for designers and software developers creating user interfaces, and Flex Builder, its toolset for creating RIAs

Adobe Systems, facing greater competition from Microsoft, is updating its Flash platform with new tools for building user interfaces for Web and enterprise applications.

At its AdobeMax conference in San Francisco on Monday, Adobe will hand out a technical preview of Flash Catalyst, a new tool that aims to be a workflow system for designers and software developers creating user interfaces. Announced earlier this year under the code name Thermo, Catalyst will be released in beta early in 2009, Adobe said on Monday. It still isn't saying when the final product will ship, however.

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Adobe will also give out a preview of the next major release of Flex Builder, its toolset for creating RIAs (rich Internet applications). One goal of the release, code-named Gumbo, is to attract server-side developers who are more familiar with languages like PHP and Cold Fusion. The final product is due in the second half of 2009.

Flex applications run in a browser using Adobe's Flash Player, or on the desktop in its AIR runtime environment. Rivals include Microsoft's Silverlight, VisualStudio, and Windows Presentation Foundation, and Sun Microsystems' JavaFX.

Most Flex development so far has been for the Web, but Adobe is making a push for more enterprise applications that run on the desktop in AIR. On Monday it released Air 1.5, an updated runtime that includes an encrypted database for securing data on the client. SAP will be at the show to announce that developers can use Flash and Flex with SAP's Web Dynpro environment to build better interfaces for SAP applications.

Bridging the gap between developers and designers is a big theme in the new products. With Catalyst, developers will be able to import user interface (UI) elements created by designers in Photoshop, Illustrator, and Fireworks, then convert them into UI components that maintain their original "skin," or look and feel, said David Wadhwani, general manager of Adobe's platform business unit.

Designers will still do most of their work in Adobe's creative products, he said, but will use Catalyst to define how the UI components interact as a users move through an application. The idea is to create an environment where developers and designers can collaborate more easily, instead of having to exchange files via e-mail or sitting together in front of a computer.

Catalyst could be useful addition to the Flash platform, said David Wolf, a vice president with Cynergy Systems, which develops UIs for businesses and ISVs. Getting creative types and software developers together is "like putting a humidifier and a dehumidifier in the same room," he said. "They just don't get along."

The workflow aspect is one of the few areas where Adobe's RIA tools lag behind those of Microsoft, which has done a good job with its design tool Expression Blend, according to Wolf, whose company builds applications with both vendors' products. Microsoft's RIA tools are less mature than Adobe's, he said, but Microsoft was able to learn from Adobe when it created its products, he said.

"Like any first mover, Adobe has a few weaknesses that Microsoft, in their chasing-the-tail-lights approach, was able to jump on," he said.

Still, Adobe Flex, around for about five years, is more "mature and predictable" than Silverlight and Windows Presentation Foundation, Wolf said. Flex is "the defacto choice" for most of Cynergy's clients unless they are already committed Microsoft shops. But he expects Microsoft to catch up.

"Judging from the way our Microsoft practice has been growing, and the innovation Microsoft has been doing, we think they're going to end up being a pretty even duopoly over the next 18 months," he said.

The new version of Flex Builder will be more data-centric to make it more familiar to server-side developers, Adobe's Wadhwani said. "They'll be able to drag a data source out there -- from a BI tool or a database -- and Flex Builder will predict what they want it to look and feel like and then give them the ability to tweak that look and feel, rather than having to implement it from scratch," he said.

Flex could be used instead of Adobe's PDF format to create data-entry forms like those used by hospitals and governments, he said. With PDFs "you're just sticking a paper-based metaphor up on the screen." Flash and Flex can create more user-friendly forms that reduce input errors, and PDF can be used just for the final document output, he said.

The updates also include performance and productivity enhancements. Air 1.5, for example, can boost application performance with WebKit's new SquirrelFish Java interpreter, Wadhwani said. Free to download, Air 1.5 is available today for Windows and the Mac and is due for Linux by the end of the year.

Adobe said in September that Air was installed on about 25 million PCs, making it far less ubiquitous than its Flash Player. But Adobe expects to reach 100 million PCs by February, a year after its initial release, Wadhwani said.

Wolf said he's happy with Adobe's direction but hopes to hear more this week about its long-term strategy.

"I don't know what Adobe's larger vision is, which is always a concern for people. What's next for Flex? Is it just a tools play, is it a platform play, is it going to be fronting document management? That's the one outlier we have -- we don't really know where they are going with it."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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