Designers needs are key to new Flex/Flash offerings
In our recent take on Flex 3 and Flexbuilder 3, the environs were found to be catering more towards Developers and being Designer deficient. Adobe at its MAX conference in November made official what has been rumored for many months - some major Designer needs are being met in Flash CS4 (and so far so good), Flex "Gumbo" and a new tool code-named Thermo now designated as Flash Catalyst. This briefing takes a look at both Adobe tools and what effect they will have on the rapidly evolving Web 2/Cloud Computing and RIA/RAIA markets.
The SDK part of Flex Gumbo has been available as an SDK download from Adobe since this summer - however, this does not include the FlexBuilder IDE which was distributed only to MAX attendees. FlexBuilder "Gumbo" shall appear on the Adobe labs in early 2009. However, many users can and do get a lot done with the Flex command line interface - and all the familiar tools are there.
Perhaps just as important, the Gumbo interface documentation, as shown above, is available online. So Flex users anxious try out the new Gumbo features can have at it and try some of the new features.
Here is what Adobe is promising in Flex Gumbo - "Gumbo, the next generation of Flex Builder, delivers a long list of new features and improvements to existing features in three main themes; designer/developer workflow, IDE productivity , and data-centric application development. "
Perhaps the most interesting of these new features is the bulking up of the data access capabilities, the increase in code generation and Flash to Flex interaction/integration. Taking each in order, Flex now has a CDM-Client Data Management data component for managing the client UI to data connection both locally and back to the server.This will simplify CRUD-Create Read Update Delete data transactions. Its data interactions on the server include Cold Fusion, PHP, Web Services and ultimately Adobe Life Cycle ES. Truly bulking up Flex data management.
On the design side one previously could export a user-designed Flash Pro component to Flex but the relationship was static. Now in Gumbo just double click the component in Flex and Flash Pro is fired up with the component ready for edit. When the user is finished changing and debugging the revised component, users press the Done button and the revised component and its runtime files are automatically updated in the appropriate Flex directories. In addition there are improvements in the Design IDE with a new Package Explorer panel, more code generation (see below)and tooltips.
There are a number of new coding features in Gumbo. For example, there added code generators for try getter-setter logic, for controlling event behavior plus template files for MXML, ActionScript and CSS. Meanwhile the debugger adds conditional breakpoints, watchpoints, run to line, and an expression evaluator. There are also Profiler, Network Testing, Refactoring and Flex Unit Testing enhancements. Flex continues to improve as an IDE-Integrated Development Environ.
Finally, Gumbo has been made more Adobe Suite aware. There are more import/export to CS4 programs on tap. Also, GUMBO will be able to import the new Flash Catalyst's projects so now Flex will be more Adobe graphic design stream aware. So this raise the question - what does Thermo/Flash Catalyst bring to the table?
Flash Catalyst is still "many moons away" according to word on the Abobe Labs Forum so what is said here is obviously subject to change. But this reviewer is NOT sanguine about Flash Catalyst as it currently matures.
Here is a look at the Flash Catalyst UI - again subject to change:
This is not an auspicious start. There are only 4 components - a button, horizontal scroll bar, vertical scroll bar and text input. As for tools there are 5 - a pointer tool plus
rectangular, oval, line and polygon drawing tools. The Timeline panel is a little more hopeful because it allows for drawing behaviors and interactions between pages and hopefully components on pages - but I may be speaking/speculating out of turn here. The Pages/States panel seems a bit redundant given the Timeline.
However, the gist of the examples on the Adobe Flash Catalyst Team Blog seems to be a poem on "How do I click thee dear button, let me count the ways". Again this was prepared in September for a November MAX show, so like in the US Presidential elections - a lot more substance may appear closer to delivery time. But if you read the Flash Catalyst Community Forum, a lot of the questions I have raised also appear here. Community participants also had 2 other consistent themes - 1)that major tools like InDesign and Adobe After Effects appeared to be out of the current Flash Catalyst integration and 2)more interface interactions beyond buttons and page changes - like portals, tables, and AJAX-like components would be welcome.
But two longer term problems are also daunting. First, there is the lack of interaction and integration between Adobe tools like Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and After Effects beyond layers(and not in a uniform way). This leaves behind an awful lot in each tool - notably Actions, Smart Objects and Styles in Photoshop; Illustrator's Artboards; pages, vector paths and anchored objects in InDesign; and After Effects' timelines and presets. Second, there does not appear to be a mapping to the new wave of UI objects that have coalesced on both desktop and browser such as accordions, carousels, image sliders, divided panels, portal panels, tabs,etc, etc.
Yes, Adobe has open sourced Flex SDK and has used the open source Eclipse framework for FlexBuilder. But I have yet to find a major (or new or Open Source) 3rd party developer
Meeting the burgeoning needs of designers in the RIA field, is clearly on Adobe's mind with a)the significant designer-oriented improvements in Flash Pro and b)the whole design rationale behind Thermo or Flash catalyst. Yet Flex Gumbo and Flash Catalyst appear to be contrasts in software development. Flash Catalyst is suffering from the prodigious task that is transferring/mapping Adobe Media Software assets onto Flash/Flex development components and apps. In comparison, Flex 4 (or Gumbo) also has fairly ambitious plans but its goals seem a)reachable and b)likely worthy of upgrade from Flex 3 to Flex 4; but judgment is reserved until the upgrades cost on backward compatibility can be assessed. Adobe Flex has shown a penchant to burn a lot of backward compatible bridges each time a new version comes out.
However, there are two key features that will be important. Adobe has so far integrated reasonably well with data sources with improvements on tap for Flex Gumbo. But so far the Adobe's own Acrobat side appears to be "less embraced" than the media design side which gets some small but important hooks in Flex Gumbo and reportedly ambitious plans (yet to be surfaced) in Flash Catalyst.
The second problem is perhaps more serious. So far major graphics third parties have yet to appear en masse in support of either Flex or Flash Catalyst. Again this may be due to the delay in revelations especially around the brand new Flash Catalyst program. And to be sure their is a small but very robust series of freeware offering for Flex featured on Adobe's Exchange site. But the bottom line is this - check with other graphics vendors like Autodesk, Electric Rain, Quark Express, Swishzone, ToonBoom and others there is little happening (see this discussion at a Swishzone forum for example). This "Adobe-will-do-it-all" attitude opens up opportunities for JavaFx, Laszlo, and Silverlight while debasing the Flex/Flash Catalyst offerings when connections to the broader "Flash community" are ignored.
Bottom line, Flex Gumbo looks promising - at the very least it will shore up the component set as AJAX Frameworks rush well ahead; Flash Catalyst and being from Missouri appears to be prudent; and Adobe working well with its "competitors" may be wishful thinking. The shades of Redmond's hardball approach is hardly conducive to making Flash/Flex/AIR a RIA major player let alone de facto standard.