The Future of Flash as an Application Development Platform. In My World.

Let me preface this article by stating that I am a pretty big fan of the Flash Platform. Over the last 5 years,  I fell in love with Flash and the Flash Platform. Heck, I've been a comanager of the NorCalFlash User Group for the last 3 years.

But lately, that love affair seems pretty one-sided. I've been pretty wed to the platform for UI development, and even switched my role from an application developer to a front-end developer. I faithfully report SDK bugs, try to promote the various frameworks and practices behind Flex and try to defend it's position as a powerful and relevant platform for application development. Flex, on the other hand, really hasn't been all that committed to me. Instead, it's been out courting the mobile platforms, and has pretty much forgotten about me. So here I sit, pining for what could have been and pondering my future.

Really, most serious Flex developers will agree that Flex 4 was an unfinished product. The Tree control, Advanced DataGrid and several other components have yet to be replaced in the framework, leaving the developers with components that have literally dozens of bugs filed against them. In my project, I am working around serious bugs that have existed for three years or more in the Tree. Other components that were built in Flex 4.5 are still incomplete.

All this would be fine, if the project were truly managed as an open source project. The community could contribute to providing new components, and Adobe could continue to focus on their mobile initiatives. However, even though Flex is touted as an open source project, the community has very little control over what makes it into the product and when.  We are once again at the mercy of Adobe dedicating resources away from the core and into emerging trends. To date, much of this has left many developers with a bad taste in their mouth, and some even have serious angst against the platform and Adobe.

To give credit to the development teams, some amazing functionality came out of both the Builder IDE and the SDK for 4.0 and 4.5 releases in terms of application development for the browser. However, when your days are spent deep in the SDK customizing every little aspect of an existing control, or building deeply complex controls from scratch, not being able to fix serious issues with the SDK that prevent you from delivering a quality product is frustrating and difficult to justifty after a long period of time.

What it's made me realize is that it's not just the Flash Platform. This occurs with EVERY platform I use that is vendor-specific and the source of that platform is controlled by the vendor. No, I'm not going to go all fanatical open source on you, but there's something to be said for being able to fix the bugs in the platform you are using WHEN YOU NEED IT. Not three years later.

Can I see myself using Flex in 4 years for my development platform? That all depends on where Adobe goes with the Flex SDK and the Flash Platform in general over the next year. Listening to the Adobe keynotes, one gets the impression that the web browser application developer is not high on their priority list for the Flash Platform right now. It's looking like I really need to be putting as much focus in the next generation UI platforms as I am the current platforms I am vested in.

Tags: General Thoughts · Flex, Flash & AS3

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Praveen // Oct 5, 2011 at 3:40 AM

    Even I feel the same. What will be my future if I stick as a pure Flex developer in the coming 5 years when seeing the Adobe's changing preference :)
  • 2 Rob // Oct 5, 2011 at 7:39 AM

    Did you see the Flash Platform Roadmap presentation? Updates to Tree and DataGrid are coming. In yesterday's keynote they also talked about changes to the way the community can contribute to the SDK.

    Six months ago, everyone was demanding better mobile support and now that we have it people like yourself are complaining that they shifted their focus to mobile. We can't get everything at the same time. If you have ever been involved with a software project, you know how difficult it is to prioritize features and still make everyone happy.
  • 3 Mark Lapasa // Oct 5, 2011 at 7:44 AM

    Sounds like you guys are late to the party but very few dollars are now spent on greenfield flash/flex projects. The landscape has changed very quickly in a matter of months instead of years. Adobe is fighting an uphill battle on internal and external fronts. Change in this industry is the nature of the beast. Flex quickly going the way of Coldfusion: celebrated by those within the stagnant community, irrelevant to many of those outside of it.
  • 4 Ktu // Oct 5, 2011 at 8:15 AM

    I'm sad to see you feel that way. I do understand the angst caused by Adobe focusing on new features rather than fixing old ones. I never touch Flex (for no good reason) but on the flash side of it, there are plenty of bugs that have not been fixed in years.

    I think what is important here, is to recognize that Flash Player must change. Too many people (*cough*) are pushing web standards to have more functionality so they can replace Flash Player; but for good reason. Our technologies are getting very advanced (compared to old) and there is no reason why html, css, and js can't handle what Flash used to handle 5-8 years ago. Now, since they want to take over that role, Flash must take over a different role or get snuffed out.

    So it seems that Adobe is shifting towards gaming and native cross platform anythings. I am not sure about Flex (never liked it). If you still want to do webby stuff, you'll probably have to stop using flash.

    Personally, I think Adobe should drop Flex and let the community make whatever data heavy platform/framework they want. Everyone will be much happier that way. (wow, that's a bold statement)
  • 5 TJ Downes // Oct 5, 2011 at 10:41 AM

    @Rob, I saw the roadmap, and it speaks volumes. The focus is 3D and mobile. They are working toward finishing up what they started with 4.0, but we wont have it for two years after the 4.0 release. That's far too long to leave current developers sitting waiting for features that should have been in the 4.0 build anyway, while they try to satisfy an entirely different crowd with entirely new features.

    Fact is, Adobe cannot move fast enough. I have no issue with that. I have no issue with the awesome work they've been doing on mobile or 3D. But that stuff does not do anything for me.

    The fix is simple. Open the core SDK to the community. Let us fix the bugs. Open source is useless if you can't truly contribute.

    In terms of Enterprise app dev, did you see anything aside from finishing the components that should be in there, as new features? I really didn't. I did see some cool new tooling, but nothing that I didn't already expect to see in the SDK directly geared towards Enterprise app development.
  • 6 TJ Downes // Oct 5, 2011 at 10:43 AM

    @Mark, I'm not sure where you get that info or viewpoint. As a Flex developer, I'm fully aware of the demand for my skills. I get about 10-15 different opportunities coming across my desk weekly. The clients I work with are committed to the platform. It may not be the gold rush it was 2 years ago, but there's still a high demand for Flex app devs
  • 7 Ben Farrell // Oct 5, 2011 at 5:00 PM

    Not sure if you're aware of the Spoon project - I did sit in on a session this week. Basically, all the issues you bring up they want to address with Spoon and funnel it back into Flex. Looks like they are getting some man-hours from Adobe engineers - and just doing everything they can to move the project fork (but not fork) quickly along. They seem very non-specific about what they actually want to do - but at least there is an effort.

    It truly can't hurt to place bets on both HTML/JS AND Flex though. As a creative developer, I'm glad Flex exists so that I have a good way to work with common UI design patterns. In that regard, I can't see Flex going away anytime soon. However as purely a web enterprisey type of thing, there is definitely a shift. I say embrace both, cause its all just freaking awesome stuff that we're doing with both HTML/JS and Flash.
  • 8 TJ Downes // Oct 5, 2011 at 8:21 PM

    I'll have to check out the Spoon project Ben, thanks for the recommendation. Sounds interesting, for sure.

    I agree on knowing both. Flex has helped me build my skills exponentially, and DHTML has always been one of my strong suits. Applying those skills appropriately is, of course, the reasonable thing to do for as long as possible.

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