It has now been a little over a week since Adobe revealed its plans for the mobile Flash player and the Flex SDK. Now that the dust has started to settle and some additional information has been made available, I wanted to give my candid impression of what these announcements mean.

I'll begin by stating the obvious: Adobe did a very poor job of coordinating and delivering these announcements. Anything I say at this point will simply be beating a dead horse. This was a PR disaster and one can only hope they learn something (ideally, many somethings) from sifting through the wreckage. I won't dwell any further on this since we have no control over what happened and I'm interested in looking at what these announcements mean going forward.

I suspect that the news that Adobe was stopping work on the mobile Flash player didn't actually surprise very many people. Further, I doubt many people actually care much. Yes, it's nice to be able to view Flash content on my Android tablet. And yes, its easy to forget that the existing 11.1 player will continue to work for a long time and allow people to keep viewing the vast majority of Flash content. But no one was building browser-based mobile Flash sites. Why? Because you still had to create a non-Flash version of it if you wanted to target all mobile devices. Once the sting of all the "Steve Jobs Won" gloating wears off, I believe most people will see the wisdom of this decision. Some people appear to have a problem with this choice, but no one I know really cared at all about this part of Adobe's recent announcements.

So now we move on to the other big news: Adobe announcing that the Flex SDK would become an Apache project and would go forward under non-Adobe governance. This took a lot of people by surprise, to put it mildly.

First off, let me say that I don't have an issue with the idea of Flex going fully open-source. Yes, Flex was already "open-source", but we all know it really wasn't. You could view the code, but Adobe still exerted complete control over what changes were made. Anyone who ever tried to submit a patch or improvement can attest to this. Those restrictions are now gone. I firmly believe that if this announcement had been made at MAX, rather than in the middle of this PR breakdown, the cheering from the audience would have brought the roof down.

I know a number of the people on the Spoon project, many of whom will probably be part of the group which will govern the ongoing work on the Flex SDK. They're all very bright people and I have little doubt that the SDK will actually see some nice benefits from this move. So from a purely technical standpoint, I think this can and probably will be a good thing.

However, regardless of what you think about the SDK move, another portion of Adobe's announcement overshadowed even this news. In a post that will probably live in infamy, some of the Flex management stated "In the long-term, we believe HTML5 will be the best technology for enterprise application development."

How Adobe failed to predict the resulting uproar I have no idea. But apparently they didn't. As a result, we saw an explosion of questions and concerns that essentially boiled down to: Is Adobe saying Flex is dead?

I'll admit I wondered this myself. Given this statement, what was I supposed to tell the clients to whom I've evangalized Flex? Is my investment in Flex now ashes? I was angry and confused. Then I tried to detach myself from my emotional reaction and consider the situation objectively. I want to share a few of my thoughts and conclusions about this.

First, one has to consider the harsh reality that Adobe never really figured out how to make any money on Flex. Their only real revenue came from Flash Builder, and it seems highly unlikely to me that sales of FB offset the money they've spent on Flex. And even that revenue is further reduced by the presence of competing tools like FlashDevelop and IntelliJ IDEA. Considered in this light, Adobe's decision to reduce the amount of resources it dedicates to Flex does make some sense, even if we don't necessarily like it. Offloading part of that cost onto the community is one way they can try to make those numbers even out.

Next, I'm not sure about everyone else, but I for one always believed that eventually we'd be able to build Flex-like apps in HTML. Some of this can be done already, but it is disjointed, using a mishmash of libraries, and painful. Building RIAs in JavaScript is agonizing compared to Flex and AS3. But that's slowly changing as the tools get better and the libraries become more refined and standardized. My guess is that in two or three years we'll start seeing real parity with Flex on both features and tooling. I knew this before Adobe's announcement, so does it really change much? Or did the announcement, as poorly as it was delivered, serve as a stark reminder that Flex is in some ways a bridge between now and this eventual HTML-based future?

I think this may be where some of the pain is coming from. No one wants to be told that the platform they're heavily invested in is probably going to be supplanted in the coming years. But can anyone really look at the current situation and draw another conclusion? Adobe seems to have two options here: keep pouring resources into Flex and delay the switchover a bit, or start changing direction and begin the task of improving HTML tooling from a RIA perspective. It's clear which way they've chosen to go.

So where does that leave us? Like many folks, I poked around the web last week just to get an idea of the current state of HTML RIA development. It wasn't pretty. I found dozens of libraries, frameworks, UI components, tools, and workarounds to mimic proper OO features in JavaScript. To put it bluntly, it's total chaos.

We're a long way from being able to drop Flex and start building enterprise RIAs in HTML. Which is fine with me. The projects I'm currently involved in are multi-year efforts built with Flex, and these aren't going away. I'll be building and maintaining apps with Flex for quite a while.

On the other hand, the writing seems to be on the wall. This isn't going to last forever. Developers who have been around the block a few times know it is always a bad idea to put all of your eggs in one basket. So I'll be keeping my eye on the HTML RIA space, trying things out as that platform coalesces. GWT looks interesting, especially paired with Groovy and SmartGWT. So does brunch.io. Trying out new technologies is one of the things I love about programming, and that's certainly not about to stop.

Will this change on the horizon amount to a career and knowledge "reset"? Is everything we've worked so hard to learn going to be thrown out the window? From my point of view, absolutely not. Looking around at the HTML/JS world, I see a lot of people trying to solve problems that we've already gone through. Solid OO design? Rich client models? Real-time messaging? Persistent client state? Separation of UI from client-side logic? Large-scale event-driven applications? Architecting and managing huge RIA codebases?

Sound familiar? They should, because they're probably problems you've already dealt with a number of times. The programming language might change, and the UI component APIs may shift, but these fundamental problems aren't going anywhere. And I think experienced Flex developers are going to be very well suited to helping businesses and clients solve those problems, both now and in the future. Even if the platform eventually shifts to HTML5. As they say, the only constant is change. And honestly, life would be pretty boring any other way.

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Comments

  • # Posted By Tom McNeer | 11/22/11 12:25 PM

    Brian,

    Thanks for a very thoughtful - and thorough - discussion of the issues. I'm not sure why no one else seems to have pointed out that Flex is bound to have been a revenue issue for Adobe from the beginning. This alone should help people understand why the company is unwilling to commit large resources to Flex in the future. Adobe is, after all, a business.

    In a way, I think the bigger issue for Adobe is Flash itself, since the Flash IDE _has_ been a significant revenue producer.

    But as far as your assessment of the current state of HTML RIA - and where it's likely headed - your observations seem spot on. As many advantages as Flex may still have over the javascript frameworks, who in their right mind wouldn't say, "If we can do what we want without a browser plug-in, why wouldn't we?" And of course, at a point in the probably-not-too-distant future, we will be able to.

    I, like many others, am dealing with clients to whom I've recommended Flex, and who, for the size of their businesses, have invested considerably in it. Fortunately, they're smart enough and reasonable enough to understand that, while they don't like the fact that they've invested in a technology that will eventually go away, that's the nature of technology itself.

    Thanks once again for treating the subject in the intelligent, considered manner it needed.

  • # Posted By pat | 11/26/11 11:26 AM

    makes perfect sense, technologies can't last forever - but as of date, i think flex still wins hands down because of the ease with which you can build enterprise scale applications - applications having tens of screens, interacting with multiple backend systems.
    i hope they come up with really OO ways of developing in html5.

  • # Posted By michael corbridge | 3/4/12 7:36 AM

    Very well put Brian. First off, I want to thank you, and the Swiz team for developing such an amazing framework. The impact Swiz has had on our complex enterprise projects has been incredible. Without an ounce of exaggeration, these projects would not have been accomplished without the Swiz framework. As I evangelized Swiz throughout our organization, I continually received that same feedback from project managers (and incurred the ire of the javascript crowd).

    Thus I was laid off from an large global technology firm this past Monday (along with 2000 others) because I am an enterprise Flex expert. This decision was described to me as a 'global workforce re-balancing', and 'we now see no future demand for Flex'. Sure, I know there were other factors involved, but having Flex as a major skill set made me a prime candidate.

    Yet I have always remained technology agnostic: I strive to apply that technology which best meets long term client needs, and the developers needs. Thus I have been working with javascript libraries for the past year and evaluating them as a replacement to Flex. Like you, I have found that space to be extremely confusing. I would describe it as, 'walking down a circus midway with carnival barkers exhorting their latest, greatest javascript library.

    For enterprise development, nothing comes close to what Flex can provide. Real application developers know that as fancy as "Parallax Backgrounds" are, we need to be able to provide client interfaces that integrate seamlessly with middle-tier business logic and data. My goal has always been to enhance the user experience by a providing powerful, scalable, maintainable, and intuitive product that can provide a measurable ROI.

    So, thank you Flex, and thank you Swiz!

  • # Posted By David Wolpe | 3/19/13 2:46 PM

    There is another possibility. And that is that HTML 5 will never take off -- that it will be bypassed by the executable web. That is, basically, apps. When I read the New York Times on my tablet or iPad, I'm not doing it in a browser. I'm launching the app. This is true of many many apps, including gaming, utility, etc. So it may well be that cross-platforms solutions such as Flex/AIR will see a resurgence. In the large company where I'm working, a decision has recently been made to abandon the HTML 5 version of a project and instead to adapt the already-existing Flex and AIR code to mobile devices.

  • # Posted By Gary | 5/9/13 12:32 PM

    put the year at the top of your pages - the day matters a little - the year matters a lot


    Flex? Flash?

    Imagine this:

    5,903,403,094,900,004,000 mobile apps to install and organize in your pocket.

    5 websites since nobody uses them any more.