Access and Feeds

Adobe's Flex Challenges Web 2.0's AJAX

By Dick Weisinger

After a year of consolidating Macromedia assets, Adobe is beginning to move forward aggresively with their FLEX product.  Yesterday they announced an updated FLEX 2.0 with a much more attractive pricing model.

As an Adobe Solution Network Developer member, this announcement was of great interest to us at Formtek.  With the global acceptance of Adobe’s PDF file format for document exchange, Adobe is similarly positioning FLEX as the next-generation standard for delivering Internet applications.

Adobe Flex Logo

FLEX is Adobe’s answer to developers for creating high-performance browser-based applications categorized as Web 2.0.  It provides Visual-Basic-like development tools for quick development of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs).

There’s a lot to like about FLEX.  Maybe at the top of the list is its visual appeal.  It is possible to create browser applications with FLEX that are more similar to the look and interactivity of standard thick-client applications than those that are based on HTML and Javascript presentation alone.

What makes FLEX especially attractive is the ubiquity of the Adobe Flash Plugin that FLEX applications are deployed to.  Microsoft is considered to have a monopolistic 85% of browser market share, give or take 5%.  But consider Flash.  Nearly all browsers support the Flash plugin, and almost everyone’s browser already has it installed.  With the near total availability of Flash, there is a single platform that can be developed for that will allow applications to behave and render consistently.

The problem with FLEX has been the fact that it’s proprietary and not free.  With yesterday’s announcement of FLEX 2.0, that still remains true, but it’s more attractive than before.  The FLEX SDK is now available for free.  That’s a good start, but FLEX still comes with costs.  The FLEX IDE plugin for Eclipse run $499 (and $749 with Charting capabilities). 

But it is the middleware component where there is a steep cost.  The FLEX Data Services — FLEX middleware that provides high-performance synchronization of data and handling large data sets — comes free for a single CPU, but when scaled up to multiple CPUs is $20,000 per CPU plus maintenance and support.

Adobe is saying that FLEX complements AJAX technology, but it is more acurately positioned as a competitor.  The market for RIA development has taken off over the last 18 months with Google’s introduction of Google Maps and GMail.  Google’s creative use of Javascript has reignited interest in Javascript and really created the space that everyone has been calling ‘AJAX’.

But a major problem with Javascript AJAX is that browser implementations of the Javascript language aren’t consistent.  The code is brittle.  And testing and developing applications across many browsers and browser versions is a huge task.  AJAX development tools are becoming available to simplify that task, but they too usually come with a partial list of the total subset of possible browsers and versions.

Google has done a great job creating their internet applications based on Javascript AJAX.  And that has really stoked interest in AJAX.  Google even provides a free Web Toolkit for building AJAX applications that allows developers to write and debug client interfaces using Java — the clients are deployed in HTML/Javascript.

FLEX offers a compelling alternative to AJAX RIA development.  Technically it is superior.   It supports a wider range of browsers and browser versions.  The issue remaining for wide-spread acceptance is its proprietary nature and steep middle-tier cost.

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