Will (Or Should) Adobe open-source Flex?

I have been building AJAX applications for a while now and absolutely love AJAX and the improvements it can offer in user-interface design, making applications easy and fun to use. But AJAX does have limitations and I, like many others have come to the realization that while AJAX is great for most things, it is not the silver bullet. For data-intensive application, specifically that involve dynamic charting with vector graphics and mining, AJAX falls short.

There are a couple of alternatives out there that fill that niche that AJAX still hasn’t successfully filled and Adobe’s Flex 2 framework is definitely one of the them. Adobe Flex 2 software is a rich Internet application framework based on Adobe Flash that will enable you to create applications that are cross-platform and browser independent as they run inside the Flash VM. Flash has fulfilled the promise that Java applets never delivered for a variety of reasons. The Flex programming model is fairly simple where developers write MXML and ActionScript source code and the source code is then compiled into bytecode by the Flex compiler, resulting in a binary file with the *.swf extension. Developers use MXML to declaratively define the application user interface elements and use ActionScript for client logic and procedural control. MXML provides declarative abstractions for client-tier logic and bindings between the user interface and application data. ActionScript 3.0 is an implementation of ECMAScript, and it provides support for strong typing, interfaces, delegation, namespaces, error handling, and ECMAScript for XML (E4X).

Adobe gives away the Flex 2 SDK for free and so anyone can create Flex 2 application and compile them into SWF bytecode files. Adobe sells Flex Builder, which is the Eclipse based IDE for Flex development and Flex Data Services, which is a J2EE component deployed inside a container. It provides adapters to connect to EJB’s, JMS queues, backend data stores, etc.

One of the barriers to wider Flex adoption is the proprietary nature of the technology. Flex is closed technology and Adobe controls every aspect of it. There’s nothing wrong with that but I and I am guessing a lot of people prefer open architecture, open systems and open platforms for application development to prevent vendor lock-in. Adobe has taken some positive steps by releasing the Flex-Ajax Bridge (FABridge) library, which automatically exposes the public data and methods within a Flex application to the JavaScript engine and vice versa. This enables developers to easily integrate Flex applications with existing sites as well as to deliver new applications that combine Ajax with applications created in Flex. A great example of the Flex-AJAX interaction is the charting application on Google Finance. It was interesting to see that Yahoo also decided to use Flash for charting when they deployed the new version of the Yahoo Finance portal.

Open sourcing Flex would certainly lead to wider adoption of Flex as an application development framework. So why doesn’t Adobe do it? It seems to fit the Adobe business model – If you take a look at Acrobat or Flash or really any of the other Adobe products. They give away the client for free and monetize the creation part of process. Take a look at PDF and Acrobat – Adobe gives away the reader for free but makes money by selling Adobe Distiller. Why couldn’t that model work for Flex? Open-source Flex and continue making money on Flex Builder, Flex Data Services, training, consulting, support and custom components. I’m sure there is already a fairly robust marketplace for Flex components but Adobe can take that to the next level. I know Adobe has spent significant amount of time, money in terms of engineering effort to create Flex but the proprietary nature of it will always be a limiting factor and never let Flex be the premier platform for RIA’s. If Adobe waits too long, the browsers will get better and fully support SVG, CSS3, JavaScript JIT compilers and the advantage Flex offers will narrow. The next generation of AJAX frameworks are also just around the corner and they will compete with Flex. OpenLaszlo is another dark-horse in this race that may eat Flex’s lunch. OpenLaszlo is everything I want Flex to be – OpenLaszlo programs are written in XML and JavaScript and transparently compiled to Flash. The OpenLaszlo APIs provide animation, layout, data binding, server communication, and declarative UI. And what sets it apart from Flex is that OpenLaszlo is an open source platform. Adobe – Are you listening?

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