Adobe Engage 2008 and Why AIR

engage08-banner.gifAdobe Systems yesterday hosted “Engage 2008”, an event somewhere between a press presentation and a customer feedback session. As I posted yesterday, AIR and Flex 3 were officially launched the same day. Adobe also unveiled opensource.adobe.com, a Web portal for the company’s open source activities both as a producer (Flex SDK, Tamarin, BlazeDS) and an implementer (WebKit, Open SQL) of open source software.

Ryan Stewart has a good overview of the announcements on his ZDNet blog, The Universal Desktop, and has a list of those tracking the Engage 08 event on his Digital Backcountry blog. I published my own Flickr photostream of the event.

The most significant news of the day is the release of AIR 1.0, Adobe’s development platform and runtime environment for cross-OS “hybrid” applications that, in the words of Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen, “combine the power of the desktop with the connectivity of the web.” A number of key partners demonstrated applications built on the AIR platform including eBay, Nasdaq, and Yahoo! among others.

For Adobe, AIR is a big bet. In his opening presentation, CEO Narayen described AIR as Adobe’s “fourth platform,” positioning it as the next step in the sequence that begins with PostScript, PDF, and Flash. The first three created disruptive paradigm shifts in their respective fields — typesetting and document printing, electronic document interchange, and Web interactivity — and all generated a great deal of revenue for Adobe. Adobe certainly hopes AIR will follow suit.

One the challenges Adobe faces is answering the question, “Why AIR?” AIR’s ability to span the gap between the Web and the desktop — arguably its greatest strength — also makes it difficult to communicate the value proposition of the platform. If you focus on any single feature, it’s not clear why the current options wouldn’t suffice. Want cross-platform Win/Mac/Linux support? Write a browser-based app. Need local file access? Create a traditional desktop application. Want rich interactivity online? Use Ajax or Flex or (perhaps in the near future) Silverlight 2. And so on.

Of course, if you need several of these features bundled together in a single app, AIR becomes much more compelling. And while the question of “Why AIR?” wasn’t an explicit topic for any of the presentations at Engage 2008, a number of reasons for selecting the platform emerged throughout the day.

Several of the presenters emphasized the ease of development of AIR applications, particularly for developers coming from a Web background. Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch showed how you can drag and drop content between different AIR applications — something you can’t do with most browser apps or desktop apps today.

Alan Lewis from eBay showed eBay Desktop (formerly known as San Dimas), which officially launched the night before. Lewis emphasized that eBay used AIR not merely to provide offline support for a Web application but, rather, to create a user experience that is difficult to achieve inside the browser. Lewis showed how locally caching the data on eBay’s thousands of product categories allows the program to be highly responsive as the user browses quickly through the categories. When a set of items is returned from an online search query, eBay Desktop uses the PC’s local processing power to scan through the data and dynamically build a list of keyword groupings for further selection. And Lewis stressed that building a AIR-based application let his group create an application that worked “outside the browser paradigm.”

These points underscore why AIR makes sense as a platform for Web-based applications. To some extent, the notion of a “browser-based software application” is an oxymoron. And not just because of all the complications and inconsistencies of cross-browser scripting. The browser’s paradigm of moving forward and backward through scrollable pages is great for delivering online information, but is poorly adapted to creating a software application. It’s amazing how much we have done by stretching (or simply ignoring) the browser paradigm. Outlook Web Access provides many of the features of the Outlook client, but it never feels quite right. Zimbra’s use of Ajax comes a bit closer, but it’s still an imitation of a desktop client. Adobe’s own Flex lets you build true Web-based applications hosted in the browser, but at this point browser — with its scroll bars, Next and Prev buttons, and superfluous menus — is a vestigial appendage encasing the “real” software program. It’s time to take the next step.

AIR doesn’t mean the death of the browser. We’ll still use Web browsers for what they do best: displaying Web content a page at a time. But AIR may finally move Web-based applications out the browser to combine the capabilities of the Web and your personal computer into a single, seamless experience.

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