Adobe is aligning its Web design and developer tools, including a new one available for testing Monday, under its Flash brand to emphasize the heart of its strategy to give developers everything they need to build RIAs.
Adobe FlexBuilder is being rebranded as Adobe FlashBuilder to alleviate some confusion developers had about the software and to emphasize the importance of the Flash brand and technology, said Adobe group marketing manager David Gruber during a recent meeting in New York. FlashBuilder is a tool that allows developers to work with design code
“There’s been some confusion in the marketplace about the Flex brand,” he said.
This confusion stems from the existence of another offering, the Flex framework, which is free software for building applications for either the Flash player running in a browser or the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) running on a desktop, Gruber said. FlexBuilder, on the other hand, is a commercially sold toolset for building RIAs using Flash and other technologies.
“We’re up-leveling the Flash brand and … trying to get this out in front of people early so people can see what we’re doing,” Gruber said.
On Monday, Adobe will release betas of version 4 of both of those products, as well as the beta for another Flash-centric tool, Adobe Flash Catalyst. Catalyst is a new tool that helps bridge the gap between designers and developers so a rich Internet application as conceived by a designer has the best chance of being developed that way on the back end, Gruber said.
Catalyst previously went by the code name Thermo, but was named in November at Adobe’s developer conference.
Usually, a design team will conceive how it wants an application to look and come up with a set of what are called “wire frames”—similar to still photographs—to show developers how the application should look, he said. The team will also pass over a set of assets — such as photographs, graphics and the like—to developers to incorporate into the final application.
Because these are static images and assets for what will eventually be a dynamic and creative application, this process is flawed; it’s hard for developers to create exactly what the designer had in mind by building an application this way, said Tim Buntel, a senior product manager at Adobe.
“A developer doesn’t find it easy to translate those suggestions to allow a functioning application,” he said.
Catalyst solves this problem by allowing “the designer who came up with the design in the first place to come up with a working application without having to write all that code,” Buntel said.
Indeed, “the real promise of Catalyst is to make it easier to take something a designer locks up and build out an application from it,” said RJ Owen, a senior developer with EffectiveUI in Denver, Colorado, who has worked with Catalyst. EffectiveUI is a 100-person firm that builds RIAs for clients such as eBay and United Airlines.
Adobe’s Web design tools like Dreamweaver, Fireworks and Flash have been enormously popular with Web designers for years, but Adobe has been working for about five years to give people who write code better tools for executing on the plans of the design teams. Developers and designers use inherently different tools and skillsets, and helping them work better together has been a consistent problem.
FlashBuilder is another tool aimed at bridging the gap between the two teams, but it was built more for a developer audience because it allows developers to use programming languages they are familiar with to build RIAs, Owen said. Catalyst is more for the design side of the house, he said.
Meanwhile, competitor Microsoft, which has a loyal following of developers who use its Visual Studio integrated development environment (IDE) to write code, has been filling out its design portfolio with the Expression set of tools. Blend is one of the tools in that suite that is similar to Catalyst, said Jason Fellin, an interface engineer at EffectiveUI.
EffectiveUI also uses Microsoft tools, but Owen said that, in his opinion, Adobe is a bit further along in giving developers tools they can use to work with designers than Microsoft is at providing design tools on par with those from Adobe.
“I would say Adobe is a little farther into the back end than Microsoft is into the front end,” he said.
Adobe has not decided on whether Catalyst will be a part of a future version of its Creative Suite, which includes Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Illustrator, Fireworks, Flash Professional and other tools, depending on the version.
However, EffectiveUI’s Owen said that the interface of the tool is similar to that of other Creative Suite software, so it seems likely Catalyst will end up as part of the suite. “If you open up Catalyst, it feels just like one of the [Creative Suite] apps,” he said.
Companies are still mainly using RIAs for consumer-facing, high-impact Web sites and applications, Owen said. However, there is some work being done with business-line applications, and companies are increasingly interested in how a creative user interface can be used to make enterprise applications more user-friendly, he said.
Adobe’s Gruber said that enterprise software companies like SAP and others are also beginning to understand the impact of a powerful user interface, and are among the early adopters of RIAs as enterprise customers themselves. The work they’re doing should help raise awareness about RIAs among their customers and other businesses, he said.
For instance, SAP recently introduced software from its BusinessObjects acquisition called the SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, which the company boasted had an easy-to-use interface similar to the one in Apple’s iTunes software, to help enterprises search for business analytics data. SAP used Flex, Adobe’s freely available, companion framework to FlashBuilder, to design the interface of that product, Gruber said.
“ISVs are helping the enterprise start to become exposed to how things can be different,” he said.