My take on RIA-platforms ( Or why Flex is not that bad )

For some time now I’ve been doing little bit of Flex coding on the side, just to get to know the framework, actionscript as a language and idioms of that world. To my surprise it seems that Flash-world has developed in giant leaps and programming in Flex feels like working with grownup-tools, compared to the old ways of timeline based scripting.

By no means Flex is perfect, but it sure seems to beat fighting with numerous different javascript and css engine problems, while developing RIA-applications. It also seems to have the required critical mass of developers and ubiquitousness of Flash as runtime environment to make it a serious development platform instead of neat framework for hacking and testing out new bleeding edge features of languages, browsers and programming paradigms.

No doubt that HTML5 will be game changing and in short time everything people do in Flash can be done with canvas and pure javascript. It will take time before HTML 5 gains more foothold and before there are comparable frameworks – or tool support comparable to Flex. For example Cairngorm MVC framework provides very nice constraints for programmers creating RIA-applications, helping you to make sure that spaghetti code does not ruin your project.

Progress in javascript frameworks like SproutCore or Cappuccino ( Objective-J ) has been impressive and in time they can become really solid frameworks. At the same time WebKit’s new bleeding edge features are – without a better word – cool, and Apple seems to be really powerful driving force for HTML 5 based RIA solutions in the future. iPhone and iPad will not have Flash, so developers need to create either native applications or leverage HTML 5 possibilities to the full.

HTML 5 is the future, but while we wait for it to mature – we can use already mature technology to build stuff that works today. Things you create in Flex in smart MVC-framework like Cairngorm can be remodelled again for HTML 5, when tools and frameworks become more mature and browsers that support HTML 5 more widespread.

I’m not saying current state of javascript frameworks isn’t good enough already, but working with different browsers and css compatibility issues can be a drag. If you have great javascript- and css-ninjas on your payroll – you can easily work around them, just like with potholes in the road you use every day. Or if you have plenty of Java-skills, you could go with the way of Google Web Toolkit or any other programming framework which allows you to create your UIs in pure java, and then compile project into javascript without the need to worry about css or javascript.

With my limited experience so far with Flex I can say that at least in projects where I have so far used it, it has taken a huge monkey off my back and made rich front end development a breeze. There are still numerous places where I would not use Flex, but at the moment I am happy that I have included it in my portfolio of tools and can use it situations where it is a strategic or tactical fit.

So if you are developer or architect still hung up on religious battle against Flash, do yourself a favor and at least check out what Flex can offer. It is possible that tool you thought to ruin the web could actually be of use to you, especially if used sparingly.

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