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March 19, 2008 / Ben Chun

Flex Builder Free!

A quick backgrounder for those not caught up in the niche of web application software development: Let’s start with Flash. It’s that thing made by Macromedia (now owned by Adobe) that first gave you interactive animation in web browsers. Back in the day when this was starting to get popular (1999ish), I was just finishing college, and got excited about the idea of being able to write little programs that were very visual and could easily be used/watched by lots of people without much hassle. These days, I might be into Processing, but at the time Flash was the best thing going for those kinds of little experiments.

I got a job right out of college working for Macromedia on the next version of Flash.

A year or two later, Macromedia bought Allaire (makers of Cold Fusion and JRun) and immediately the idea emerged to build a server to produce Flash movies from code instead of from a timeline-based authoring tool. Actually, it probably wasn’t the first time the idea had been floated, considering that Macromedia was alway trying (and failing) to produce server products. After all, why sell software for $500 a copy when you can sell it for $5,000 or $50,000 a copy? That was the thought anyway.

At the time, I was a complete skeptic when it came to server-generated Flash. The idea of using declarative code to produce these interactive experiences seemed silly to me. It seemed like it was making things harder. I lived in a happy word where the Flash development environment (authoring tool) let me draw, animate, script, and even do object-oriented application development. My job (after I lost interest in working on the authoring tool) was to create “components” which were little pre-packaged UI elements combining code and a skin, intended to be dropped into the development environment. Of course, components could also be used by a server to assemble a interactive application strictly from code that referenced them. But typing out a bunch of MXML seemed like an awful lot of work to get a result I could crank out very quickly using the authoring tool I had worked on writing and knew inside and out. It was frustrating because the server stuff occupied a lot of time. I couldn’t see far enough into the future, and I wanted to work on the “cool stuff” today.

So while I still don’t see a huge value in having a server compile this code and generate the Flash movie in real-time, I do see that it’s very valuable to have a programmatic way of generating Flash output. Or perhaps a better way to look at it would be to say this: It’s great to have Flash in web browsers as an easy deployment target for an application that a software engineer can write without needing to crack open a tool that looks like Photoshop-meets-Final Cut. If we think of our web applications as real software, it’s nice to be able to write and manage that code in a familiar way. The latest of these tools is called Flex — it’s implemented as an Eclipse plugin and there’s even a free SDK.

Since Macromedia was acquired by Adobe, I have been continually impressed with their ability to look into the future of the web. With competition from Microsoft in the form of Silverlight, this is necessary for survival. But I’m happy to see that they’re holding their own. And I’m also happy to see that Macromedia is bringing some of their spirit of supporting education into Adobe, where it is meeting up with the larger philanthropy mission. Adobe announced reasonably-priced K-12 educational site-licenses for the first time this year.

And now, to come to the point of this rambling post, Flex Builder 3 is free for educational users. All you need is a scan of your current school ID card. I just signed up and it will be interesting to see if there’s a way to use this in the classroom.

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