Flex Roadmap – Building a highway, Part 2

The second most interesting notion I got from the MAX was subtle feeling that Adobe is playing completely different game this year. MAX got bigger – that was expected. MAX brought a lot of different kinds of people, and  the previous events did not – also expected. What was less expected was the feeling that Adobe targets Flex to the mass market that was almost not present @ MAX.

I am talking about PHP, Rails and the likes developers, which are being treated as first class citizens in the new Adobe world. There were very few of them in the audience. Most of them work as independents – the cost of the show was prohibitive to many. Nevertheless the sessions were stacked in favor of “lighter” server and protocols integration. New announced Flex pricing also lowers the entrance cost for non-enterprise developers.

That is also evident in the way Flex tooling progresses. New wizards for server binding are “classical” for PHP/old ASP folks that recently moved to AJAX world. They are nowhere close to the enterprise-level DataServices introduced in Flex 2. The communication libraries have been separated recently, with a lot of work being done to make WebServices and other XML-based technologies viable for larger Flex applications and mash-ups.

So far, Flex adopted  was mainly driven by very few groups – Flash programmers and J2EE developers. Resources are scarce, and Adobe marketed Flex as a new generation of Flash – very high risk proposition in this situation. It is common believe that programmers can’t do good design. It is equally harsh on Flash designers to write the programs. There is a limit beyond which art-oriented people find themselves  in a completely foreign territory. Companies that hire Flash developers to lead Flex projects will learn it hard way.

How will it affect Flex adoption and positioning in enterprises and mid-sized businesses? The next year will be interesting one. Finally there is a competition from Microsoft. Keep your flame mails to yourself – it does not matter how much better or worse their product is – it is up to people to choose the tool and build something with it. People go either for easy or familiar first. I do believe that tools will be just as important as the player ubiquity or appeal.

As far as tooling goes, Flex usability is definitely improving. Aside from the performance, Java developers can use Flex 3 almost “naturally”. Great job, Flex Team. Making working environment easier is what Flex really needs in the coming year. The only “deciding” complaint I have heard from Eclipse and MS Visual Studio users was not about framework or integration, but about the environment.

That brings in the third “main” Flex theme of the MAX – going Open Source(OS). Open Source appeals to a lot of people, and Adobe certainly hopes to increase community involvement in their products. With the end of J2EE era, it is expected that companies and individuals who championed OS 5-10 years ago will come aboard. Again, MAX might have been running ahead of their attendants here – not too many showed up at OS gatherings.

There were very few sessions on the open source (the most complete was done by Matt Chotin, need to publish my notes or find link online), and they did not bring large crowds. Interesting news were circulated in form of rumors, which means that we can expect big announcements in this area in 3-4 months.

There are high hopes of the OS movement for Flex. But this time around it might be a different game. Reliance on OS to win enterprise and businesses adoption seems to me the most difficult and risky part of Adobe strategy.

Do not get me wrong. I love open source – it is definitely a relief after 20 years of breaking and fighting “black boxes”. I gladly read and “adopt” open source libraries and contribute the results back. As a company we release significant part of our research and development as open source as a way to insure we can reuse our code for different clients as well as share it with the community. Releasing something as an open source product and driving adoption is the simplest way to protect IP for small companies and insure they keep control of the process.

Businesses grew a bit tired of OS over the time, and going in with OS solution sometimes means more trouble than it is worth.

First thing is the licensing. Relationships between enterprises, developers, distributors, etc are often “interesting”. Quite often the companies require you to not have or use OS software in your product.

Second is the effect of old switch-and-bait game. Open source was at its peak when software industry was in recession; selling support for OS products was the only source of money. Industry moved from software as a product (cheap and working) to software as a service (needs a little push from knowledgeable person, info is scarce) – and the real cost of software for enterprises skyrocketed. Even if the intentions are good this time and we get commercial grade software as OS the perceptions are there.

I am looking forward to get my hands dirty with Flex compiler as soon as it goes OS – we have loads of things we need to expand there or have to keep “external” for now. The goal is to make it usable for our enterprise and business clients. Large applications need better tools for modularity and build process, performance, diagnostics, language extensions, etc. It will be very interesting to see how this last big “problematic” piece is going to sail through the community process.

Sincerely,

Anatole Tartakovsky