Adobe Flex – What is it and how will it benefit me?

According to wikipedia “Adobe Flex is a collection of technologies released by Adobe Systems for the development and deployment of cross-platform rich Internet applications based on the proprietary Adobe Flash platform.” Wow, that kind of makes my head hurt. Maybe I’ll take a little easier approach. I’ll start by making a comparison to Flash. Adobe Flash and Flex are made by the same company. Most of us are familiar with Flash and how it evolved from a simple animation program to a full-featured web design tool. Currently, 99% of all internet users are able to view Flash content (the other 1% are still using the Commodore 64). We can say that it’s pretty safe to use Flash in your website. Basically Flex and Flash are alot alike. They both save in the Shockwave Flash Player format (SWF). Both can build Flash websites and rich internet applications. Flex is really used to build rich internet applications rather than websites.

What are rich internet applications (RIAs)?

The basic meaning: RIAs are web applications that have some of the characteristics of desktop applications. Typical examples of desktop applications are word processors, spreadsheets, media players and database applications. What does this mean? Basically, Flex applications (running through Adobe AIR) can be connected to a back-end web service like Google Maps or a database but run on your desktop as your favorite desktop application. It also can run through the browser just like any other web application. This is helpful if the internet connection is intermittent. Using Flex and AIR – the application is still running even if there is no internet connection. In the near future you will see more companies take advantage of this technology.

(The definition of Adobe AIR from Adobe’s website: AIR enables you to have your favorite web applications with you all the time. Since applications built for Adobe AIR run on your desktop computer without a web browser, they provide all the convenience of a desktop application. Companies like eBay and AOL are using Adobe AIR to create exciting new applications that allow you to use their services on your desktop. In short, Adobe AIR means applications that are easier, more powerful, and more fun to use.)
A few other examples of companies using this technology are American Cancer Society, Discovery Channel, and ESRI. I’ll discuss American Cancer Society in this blog – they are using Flex with AIR to build prototype applications that enable patients to more easily connect with physicians for appointments, advice and additional support services. The compact Adobe AIR application can run on desktops or laptop computers and is not dependent on a constant internet connection. Previously, many Society services were available only via the web, which was problematic for people with intermittent or unreliable internet access. Adam Pellegrini, the Society’s strategic director of online states, “Adobe AIR has the potential to give us the flexibility to offer rich Internet applications both online and offline. We are working on the capability to ‘cache’ data on the desktop so that users have access to commonly searched information without an Internet connection. This could be extremely useful in clinical environments or rural areas”. An added benefit of the desktop Adobe AIR applications is that they can incorporate APIs from other providers, such as Google Maps, and provide a geographical display of the information the Society provides from its database of 65,000 events, local groups and accredited cancer hospitals. This Search AIR application also allows users to click through located resources on the map and go directly to a specific resource’s web site.
I will discuss some of the other examples in a future blog. As we can see, there is tremendous potential with this tool.

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