Macromedia exec talks Web services

Chief Software Architect Kevin Lynch discusses the blending of design and development

MACROMEDIA IS NOT the first company to embrace Web services but, even still, it sits in an interesting vista atop the world of front-end Web site designers. The San Francisco-based company, with a new round of products coming to market this spring, also is hoping to attract more server-side development with the Java-based server and tools it obtained last year by acquiring Allaire last year. Kevin Lynch, Macromedia's chief software architect, spoke with InfoWorld Senior Editor Tom Sullivan about how Web services can benefit its Web designers, and the coming intersection of Web site design and back-end development.

InfoWorld: What has Macromedia been working on since the Allaire acquisition?

020429hnlynch.gif
Lynch: We've been working for the past year and a half on this new generation of software. We merged with Allaire about a year ago. We've combined their server-side with our tools and client expertise. We've focused on this new generation of software and we're calling it all MX. We're coming out later this year with Dreamweaver MX and ColdFusion MX and some other MX products. These are all oriented around trying to raise the level of user experience on the Web. Basically, we look at the Web today and there is a lot of comfort on it and it's been very successful. There are more than 4 billion pages today, hundreds of millions of people are using it, and that is tremendous. But we think the potential is really still untapped and we think that really revolves around not just browsing on the Web but actually doing things. People are starting to do things more on the Web, such as making reservations, ordering products, and things like that. But the actual experience of doing things, the application experience of doing things on the Web, is pretty hard still. The user experience really isn't good enough. If you try to book a reservation for a hotel, you've got this series of html pages to do that. If you make mistakes, you have to go back, it's just not a very smooth experience.

InfoWorld: What is Macromedia's Web services strategy?

Lynch: It turns out that Web services are perfect for working with rich clients. People are starting to factor out the applications on their servers to make it so other applications can use them. To the developer that means it you build a rich client with, say, Flash technology, you can build into these applications and you can build a rich interface on your desktop PC that runs locally, but can communicate to an application running on a server and the way it communicates with that application is through Web services. They can call functions to, say get a list of work orders or a description of a part, and those are function calls over on the server through a Web services interface that then return the results into the Flash player. It's really fundamental to our infrastructure. It's really built on the Web services model, so that Flash Player works with these things. The ColdFusion server supports Web services natively in ColdFusion MX. And we've got a lot of ease of use functionality around Web services so we can do things like auto-generate the proxies and the WSDL files, the Web Services Description Language files. You can basically create ColdFusion objects with a new technology called ColdFusion Components that lets you create object-oriented code on the server. Then you can declare a Web services with a very simple markup language on the server and it will reveal those services to the world. It works with .Net Web services. It can consume and publish Web services to and from .Net as well as to the Java world.

InfoWorld: How can developers reap rich clients for Web services?

Lynch: There are examples of people using a rich client to reduce the cost of bandwidth. eTrade, for instance, has a site where you can get stock quotes. You type in a ticker symbol and it downloads the information. The page that they had that on previously was about 100K html page and they had lots of other information on it. So when you got a quote, you downloaded the whole 100K page, and it would take maybe 20 seconds over a 56K modem. So that was pretty long. What they did instead, they have an html page still, but they added a little Flash user interface element to the page that allows you to get quotes now. Now, when you type in ticker symbol and press "Get Quote" the page does not blink, it stays right there and the Flash player calls back to the server asks for the quote information, which is less than 1K of information, and updates the new quote right on the page. There is no page refresh. The amount of information sent over the wire is about 1 percent the size. Instead of waiting for 20 seconds, you can get that quote in about 2 seconds. It's a dramatically better experience for people who are using the site, but also for eTrade. It lowers their expenses because the bandwidth costs are directly lowered by using this richer client.

InfoWorld: It sounds like they tailored the whole system to make that possible because they know that's about the only thing people ask for...

Lynch: Yes, they have all kinds of people coming for quotes. Exactly.

InfoWorld: So, they keep the page the same, they just change the quotes. It's better for both sides and everybody's happy. But what about for a Web site where the operators don't necessarily know what people will come and ask?

Lynch: I think when you're building your site, it's a combination of what tasks people have, as in what they want to do. But also how complicated that thing that they're trying to do is. What sort of user interface you're trying to build for your application. The example is a hotel that wants to take reservations. You could design a multipage HTML form, which many of them do today, but if you think about it as a user interface designer, the best way to do that is having an integrated experience that doesn't have multiple pages. There is a hotel now that is doing this in Colorado called the Broadmoor. If you go the Web site, you can look at their reservation system, and they've just redesigned it using Flash for their reservation form. They've combined it into one experience. You can see that it delivers a rich user experience where you can see when you want to stay, which rooms are available, those types of things. You can pick from a calendar on the screen, rather than typing into html. You can also see the cost, and add that immediately as you click multiple days or choose different rooms. That's all done using logic on the client so when you first go the page it downloads this application and it can stream in the information about the rooms, and you interact with it locally. It's an example of a site doing this from the perspective of trying to design an effective interface for a hotel, but you can also look at it in terms of trying to optimize the most frequently used areas of your site. That's the essence of what we're trying to do here. We think HTML, of course, still has a very strong role in the world.

InfoWorld: Looking at all the pieces, you have tools on the back-end server-side as well as the front-end Web designer space. What part of the market are you targeting?

Lynch: Well, we have been and we're still targeting the Web professional audience, the people who are developing these things for most of their time. So, Dreamweaver is the professional product for developing Web sites. ColdFusion also is aimed at that professional kind of audience, but it is aimed at people who are both kind of designer and developer tendency, where they're interested not only in the logic of the applications, but also the user's experience with that application.

InfoWorld: What are the implications to blending the designer and developer roles?

Lynch: We think this really has the potential to transform how people are interacting with Web applications today, as well as reducing how much they are spending on them today. People have wasted a ton of money on Web applications over the past few years. I think Gartner estimated people have spent a billion dollars in the past few years on Web applications.

The intersection of designer and developer is coming from both sides of design and development. From the designer, what we're seeing is that over the past few years, designers have started to add more logic to those designs because the Web is by nature interactive, and so they've started to write Java Script and started to write Action Script. Adding this logic to this design has started to expand their ability in terms of writing code base. That has basically transformed them into developers. So now they are designer-developers. We're now seeing them reach not only from the client but also now wanting to build things that touch into the server. That transition has been happening over the past few years.

From the developer perspective, there has been a lot of focus on the infrastructure of building applications over the past few years. Now we're seeing a real emphasis on usability of these applications, not just the infrastructure plumbing that constructs it, but how effective the apps are for the end-user. Developers are now starting to concern themselves with that issue, and taking a more user-centered approach to designing the applications that they are building. There is more interest now from the developer community in building a usable application. That involves design; you have to think about the design of your app, and the user experience. So there is a growth of both sides, where they are really coming together here. There is a lot of discussion, a lot of energy and an awareness that we see in the Internet community and the Web community about usable design now. We think that really is the intersection of the design and development. You really need to have great design and great development to produce a really usable experience. There are lots of folks like [Web page usability and design guru] Jakob Nielsen and others who are raising the visibility of this discussion. This is where the Internet really needs to brake though the usability barrier to continue its growth and to continue the adoption it has seen because for content across the course of the past five years or so.

InfoWorld: What is coming down the pike beyond these products?

Lynch: The last year-and-a-half or two years have been pretty rough. The economy has been down and a lot of the dotcom companies hit a lull or fell apart. And people are wondering whether the Internet even really matters. I think that there is far more growth ahead of us that we have already seen. I think people are actually looking to get a bit more excited again. It's time to have another breakthrough here. When things got kind of rough, we said 'ok, well people won't be buying much software for a while.' So we took more time to work on these applications than we usually do. We were on a pretty fast pace before, Dreamweaver was coming out every December. Sometimes we released products in less than year. This time, we took about a year and a half on these releases.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to choose a low-code development platform