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7/23/2007
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Giving Enterprise 2.0 Products Offline and Desktop Capabilities

Lately I have spent some time using Adobe’s Beta release of Flex 3 and Air, previously known as Apollo.  Flex 3 allows developers and business analysts to easily create cross-platform user-friendly applications that mimic desktop functionality on the browser.  I was able to create an interface for a document management system with Flex in a short amount of time just by dragging and dropping buttons, scroll bars, input boxes, and check boxes. 

Flex 3 includes several components: (1) The Flex 3 SDK: (Free) Allows developers to write programs in Flex. The SDK is open source under the Mozilla Public License. (2) Adobe Flex Builder: (Flex Builder 2.0 is $499, No pricing available for vs 3) A rich GUI drag and drop development environment similar to Dreamweaver, but designed to build Rich Internet Applications (RIA).  (3) Flex’s Charting Add-on: ($299 for SDK, $749 for Flex Builder) Add-on module used to create graphs and charts. 

From a business analyst perspective, I found Flex Builder easy to use and found this development environment to give Flex an edge over Ajax.  Flex Builder allowed me to feel like I had more control in building Ajax-like applications without depending on developers.

Another cool function of Flex, which is similar to Ajax, is Flex’s ability to update specific fields on a page without updating the whole page.  This becomes very useful for stock market quotes, news feeds, and other applications that require real-time reporting and data monitoring.  Adobe has created a Flex showcase to show off some of the already created Flex applications.   http://www.flex.org/showcase/

From a developer's perspective, Flex’s open source SDK allows many of the benefits that Ajax provides without having to pay for Flex.  Developers will also like the fact that Flex uses the Eclipse framework that provides developers with a familiar development environment.  

Adobe is working hard to position Flex as not only an enterprise development tool but as a tool that small to medium businesses can also use and leverage. Several start-up companies have already started to build their Collaboration applications using Flex and Flash. Some of these companies include Glide ( http://www.glide.com/) and CommuniGate System’s Pronto (www.stalker.com/pronto/).

Another big benefit of Flex is Adobe Air. Air complements Flex 3 and allows developers to take a Flex based application and add desktop functionality such as drag and drop into the application, file system integration, and a desktop icon. The big advantage of Air is that it allows users to get access to their application while they are offline. Currently, Air only supports Mac and Window operating systems, but Linux support is on Air’s roadmap.  Air makes developing in Flex very accommodating since developers can re-purpose the same code they used in their web applications for desktop applications.

A drawback I found with Flex and Air is that it is hard to find Flex and Air developers, and when you do find them, they are very expensive.  Flex and Air developers are action script developers, and after making some calls, I found out that US based developers charge anywhere from $100 to $200 dollars an hour for Flex development and most of them are very busy.  Another drawback is that Flex builder is not free, and if you want a Flex Server, which Adobe required for Flex 2, but not for Flex 3, it is very expensive. 

As you are tasked to build new applications for your business or looking to purchase an email or content management system, make sure to not only evaluate purchasing an existing application, but look into the costs of  building the application using Flex and Air.  A cost/benefit analysis may suggest that building your own application may be more beneficial.  Also, you will be able to give your users a rich user interface with offline capabilities-- something many collaboration vendors do not provide. 

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