FlexBuilder 3 First Impressions

Where we're coming from

So at the beginning of the year I was tasked with evaluating a number of technologies for RIA development for the next evolution of my company's product. Up to this point we had been relying extensively on ASP.NET forms with a traditional post-back model that was responsible for a lot of wasted time and bandwidth. We've leveraged a lot of Ajax in the past few years, starting with simple fixes like trees and list based controls that use load on demand and going all the way up to full fledged single page applications that consumed purely services.

This has worked, but the cost is overwhelming for a development team of our size and makeup. We hire smart generalists for the most part, favoring developers with C++/Java/C# backgrounds. Some of our developers have acquired some deeper skills on the client side, but where possible we attempt to leverage control vendors like Telerik  and ComponentArt  as much as possible. They do an excellent job of hiding some of the complexity involved in cross browser web interfaces, but you will inevitably have to "hit the metal" and get your hands dirty. Relying on third parties also removes a lot of the control needed to do things the way you need them done. Regardless despite being a huge fan of the http://docs.google.com suite of tools, I have witnessed far too much ugliness in our organization with supporting multiple browsers (including having to support IE 6) and pushing the limits of complicated UI in the browser. As the size of the DOM increases and the size of our data sets increase we see wild variance in client performance with respect to things like drag and drop. I know it can be done, I know we are not at the limit yet, but seriously this is not pragmatic for our software and our market and our developers. I am a big fan of the view that JavaScript is becomming the assembly of the web, those who do this shit well, do it well by lifting themselves out of the muck with good abstractions like GWT.

One thing I think should add here in defense of Ajax though; UI design plays a really important role in the effectiveness of the DHTML approach and honestly I believe part of our problem has been designing a far richer interface than we could afford in the technology we were leveraging at the time. Take a close look at Google's lack of decoration, images etc. These things certainly matter.

Next steps... evaluation

Anyway, I'm getting off topic as usual. In the beginning of 2008 my feature matrix analysis really narrowed our options from about a dozen technologies (including XUL, ActiveX, Applets, JavaFX, Silverlight, ClickOnce, Ajax, Flex) down to three. Silverlight, Flex or Ajax. At the time of my evaluation Flex was at version 2, JavaFX was vapourware and Silverlight2 was in Beta. Given that we are a .NET shop and already have the C# programmers, the Silverlight option was looking like it was going to cleanly win out over Flex. Ajax was honestly only at the table still because we needed to justify our position and show we clearly evaluated all our options. Flex was seen as less desirable due to being based on ECMAScript and having to retool and retrain.

For the most part we've seen this as two relatively equivalent technologies with different stories for the developers. While there are important differences between how code is delivered and executed in Flex vs Silverlight, but at a high level we believe technically we can deliver our application in either technology very effectively. We prefer to keep working in C#, but the limited penetration of Silverlight is a serious risk for an application delivered in a SaaS model. That single fact has transformed the whole exercise into largely a business decision.  I don't doubt Microsoft will be able to push their offering significantly, but I would not bet money on where they will be in 1 year. (Windows Media Player STILL doesn't equal flash in penetration)

Tool support however remains something that is extremely important to developers, and is one of those things Microsoft often trots out in arguing the superiority of their platform. We swallowed that line pretty easily at first, knowing that under the hood all the code written for Flex is just a variation of ECMAScript (JavaScript) is enough to scare us off. How can you acheive the refactorability and tool support provided by current and future versions of Visual Studio with a loosely typed language like ActionScript?

Trying it out

This week I downloaded FlexBuilder3 after one of our senior executives setup a call for us with Adobe evangelists to get more details on why to go with Flex. Again the motivation for this coming back to penetration and wanting to ensure we are making the right decision for what will become a million plus dollar iniitiave to re-engineer. I wanted to get some hands on time with the latest version of FlexBuilder (3) that had come out since our initial research.

I was immediately surprised by the leaps Flex had taken since I last really dived in. I'll admit there was some bias here though as I am also a huge fan of Eclipse, so the fact that FlexBuilder is built on Eclipse is in my mind a huge win. (not new btw)

The effort in actually building an application that connected to our existing .NET web services was embarrassingly trivial. FlexBuilder has a simple tool for generating and managing proxy classes to represent your web services. So after literally pasting a url into a wizard I had code for talking to our .NET SOAP based web services. (seemed to only support SOAP 1_0 not 1_2)  I then got started with the Form Designer and had a simple application talking to our backend in under an hour even counting the little things that tripped me up like where to add my event handlers which wasn't immediately apparent. (too reliant on double clicking controls apparently ;-)   hint : <mx:Script> tags and dom style event callouts)

The concept of states in Flex and the ease with which I was able to create a number of them in the designer and bind those to a dropdown for switching between them was pretty eye opening. A state in Flex is defined by the differences between your main UI (or just another state) and the state you wish to have/be in. The IDE allows you to visually manage these states and then visually modify each one to represent application states. I don't have an early sense of whether this actually scales for complex applications, but at first glance it's very cool. (Think hierarchical state machine)  Couple this with the data binding model and you have some very effective UI management tools at your disposal. Maybe this only looks cool coming from our antiquated asp.net approaches, but this stuff is exciting. (Silverlight/WPF have the same capability, maybe even a little more advanced but with more overhead in my opinion) Having your model drive all changes is so much more manageable,  scalable... and just correct than having explicit assignments in page PreRender methods that set visibility based on the state of that model. Barf.

The control toolkit out of the box with Flex is also extremely impressive. Check out this post for a list of all the FlexBuilder 3 Controls included out of the box . For now at least this control set will mean being highly more productive in the early stages of development than if we were either having to roll our own or rely on third party vendors. And of course you can roll your own in both Silverlight and Flex and each can be just about anything imaginable.

So I'm sold, at least sold on the fact that Flex deserves considerably more attention than what we had previously given it. I've bought the "Flex 3 Cookbook", and "Adobe Flex 3 Training From the Source" and I'm intending on spending at least some of this Christmas holiday catching up on just what's possible with that silly little flash technology.