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Adobe AIR

Stephen Yagielowicz
There's a new technology available to web developers and some observers feel that it will usher in a revolutionary sea change in the way that web-enabled applications will be built and distributed. While some pundits may consider the technology more evolutionary than revolutionary, one thing is for certain: it will make life much easier for many developers and online applications more stable and fully-featured for consumers.

The technology is the Adobe Integrated Runtime, or AIR, formerly code-named Apollo. The company bills AIR as "a cross-operating system runtime that allows developers to use their existing web development skills to build and deploy rich Internet applications (RIAs) to the desktop."

A variety of specialized tools enable developers to use HTML, JavaScript, Flash, Flex, Ajax and other technologies in the creation of AIR-based applications.

The Adobe AIR technical specifications include a roster of desirable attributes, such as a lightweight (9 MB) runtime that only requires a single installation with the first Adobe AIR application to be run on a user's computer, the inclusion of an OpenSource WebKit engine for HTML and an OpenSource Tamarin VM for Flash.

An ActionScript 3 JIT compiler can provide a 10- fold speed improvement over Adobe Flash Player 8, while binary compatibility allows one Adobe AIR application file to be installed on multiple operating systems.

Although the Adobe AIR beta software currently runs only on Windows and Mac OS X platforms, a Linux version is planned for release once the program is out of beta.

For non-developers, the concept of Adobe AIR may be hard to grasp, but the power of the applications it enables is plain to see.

For example, Buzzword (Buzzword.com), an online, richly featured word processing program, is one of the first platforms to use this robust technology. Looking at this application, the casual observer may wonder how Adobe AIR differs from Adobe Flash Player or even a standard, dynamic web page displayed in a web browser's window.

According to Adobe, Flash player is "a high-performance, lightweight runtime client for delivering RIAs inside of the browser," while the web-browsing software enables users to view and interact with web pages or other online applications. Neither of the technologies will allow web developers to build desktop applications.

What Adobe AIR does allow developers to do is to create responsive and stable web-enabled applications that are locally installed and that have complete control over the user interface, with no dependency on a particular browser or operating system. Tight integration across operating systems allows for task bars, docking, drag and drop, native menus and windowing, as well as access to local file systems and databases.

Compatible with OpenSource Ajax frameworks, Adobe AIR supports embedded, configurable HTML controls and allows calls to ActionScript 3 from JavaScript; providing enhanced video, transparency, animation and more.

Other supported developmental frameworks include a plugin for the Aptana IDE — a free, Ajax-focused environment that supports HTML, CSS and JavaScript; as well as support for Ext JS, Prototype and other web frameworks.

The development and deployment process for Adobe AIR applications is straightforward, allowing developers to write applications using the environment and framework of their choice. The Adobe AIR SDK is then used to create an installer, which is basically a zip file that can be accessed by users via a website using an install badge or link, or another preferred distribution channel.

While some users may have the runtime already installed on their systems, the runtime also can be installed if needed as part of the Adobe AIR installation process when using the online badge install method.

Finally, Adobe AIR automatically installs and configures the application, providing users with the look and feel of a desktop application.

Access to the AIR SDK is enabled through a variety of channels and is included as part of the Adobe AIR Extensions for Dreamweaver CS3, enabling web developers of nearly every skill level to take advantage of this technology.

While Dreamweaver CS3 and Aptana users will enjoy HTML and JavaScript support for building Adobe AIR applications, the tight integration of the Adobe AIR Extension for CS3 eases the design, development and maintenance of standards-based applications and websites, allowing for their extension to the desktop via the Adobe AIR.

For developers building applications using JavaScript, the AIR SDK and documentation provide a comprehensive solution, while HTML and Ajax developers will benefit from the new Adobe AIR Developer Center, which offers technical articles, tutorials, videos, sample applications and other resources.

Developers working with other IDEs or deploying existing HTML and JavaScript applications to Adobe AIR will find that the Adobe AIR SDK offers the tools needed to package those as applications.

Currently in its second beta release, future releases of Adobe AIR are intended to provide increased stability, enhanced desktop integration, tighter integration with development tools and other capabilities in response to user feedback.

This latest beta version supports system-tray notifications, providing updates to users whenever data or news arrives, allowing applications to run unobtrusively and in the background. Synchronous APIs are provided for embedded local databases, as well as improved control of menu and windowing operations and video-content protection.

Enhanced form control along with security model updates are among the HTML handling improvements, while management enhancements to the install process and the capability to provide automatic runtime updates also are included.

While some have compared Microsoft's Silverlight technology to Adobe AIR, it seems to more directly compete with Adobe's Flash player, since they are both browser plugins designed to render vector graphics, enhancing interactivity and improving the quality of audio, video and standard bitmap graphics.

Sun Microsystems JavaFX also is seen as a competitor to Adobe AIR, but the question of widespread adoption of one tool over another may rest on Adobe's integration of the AIR SDK in its industry-leading Dreamweaver software.

Regardless of market share or marketing strategies, developers seeking to bring a new generation of rich, fully-featured applications to users' desktops should check out what Adobe AIR has to offer.

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