Refactoring plug-in for Flex Builder

Monday, December 14, 2009 3 comments
While working on our OSGi inspired framework for Flex, the team at ElementRiver quickly realized we wanted more out of our Actionscript IDE. FlexBuilder is a good IDE but is missing some of the tools we've come to love with the Eclipse Java tooling.

So we created SourceMate. SourceMate adds refactoring, code generation, code snippets, even a very cool code review tool.

Our beta program begins this week. If you're a Flex developer give SourceMate a try:

www.elementriver.com/sourcemate

The Problem with Portlets

Thursday, October 01, 2009 1 comments
Great quote from this article on JPMorgan's use of Flex:


It has the look and feel of a portal with several portlets, but Cassar stresses that it is in fact so much more. "It's a set of very tightly integrated applications in a container," he says. "The problem with the portal technology is that usually the interaction between the portlets isn't there-they each kind of stand alone. They have to run in their own browser sandbox, whereas this really allows for the more tightly coupled interaction."


Ain't that the truth. There are some architects that go around telling people that their applications, in fact all applications, should be portlets or mashups or gadgets or whatever term we're using now. This started in the Java world and seems to be gaining traction in the AJAX world as well. Count me out.

Eclipse and Potomac applications are better examples. They're made up discrete components that can truely integrate together.

I'm currently working on enabling untrusted, cross-domain bundles in Potomac. My primary goal is to ensure that untrusted bundles can integrate deeply with the main application. We have to move away from iframe-like integration - what I like to call integration via rectangle. Flash's security model is essentially the same iframe-like model. In Potomac, we hope to enable better/deeper integration, while still being secure and easy to code.

p.s. I wonder if those JPMorgan guys have looked at Potomac? ;)

Potomac Framework is live - OSGi, RCP for Flex

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 3 comments
I'm happy to announce that we've made Potomac live to the public. You can find its new home at www.potomacframework.org.

Potomac tries to take the modularity in OSGi and the UI composition from the Eclipse RCP and bring it to Flex. It isn't an easy task - we've had to write a fair bit of tooling on top of FlexBuilder to help accomplish it.



One of the most exciting features of Potomac is its metadata support (Flex metadata ~= Java annotation). All extensions and extension points are defined in code via metadata. Its been great to see this feature come together. Contributions to the UI are handled via [Page], [Folder], and [Part] tags but also other features like [Inject] are also based on extension points. After seeing the results, it might have been better to rename the feature to more generic since its become more like a generic metadata processor.

You can see more in the Potomac 5 Minute Tour.

Potomac - OSGi-inspired Flex framework

Monday, August 24, 2009 18 comments
Before I post my next 'Extending FlexBuilder' post, I figure I should talk about why I'm doing such a thing. Truth is, I'm working on a Flex framework. Cue the collective groans from the Flex community. Do we really need another framework? .. Well this framework is a bit different. The primary focus is on modularity. Specifically, the Potomac framework (the name we're using) will be an OSGi-inspired modular UI composition platform. For the last few years I've been working in the Eclipse Rich Client Platform (RCP). Essentially, Potomac takes the principles and goals of OSGi and the Eclipse RCP and brings them to Flex.

Why not just use the normal Flex module system? A couple of reason. First, the IDE support for Flex modules is very simplistic. Modules are defined inside application projects. This makes large, enterprise-level development difficult. When you have multiple teams working together to produce one large application, you want each team to be working on their pieces in their own projects. Also, having the modules inside the application project prevents them from being reusable in other projects. Once we start thinking about modules being reusable, we can quickly count off many reasons why the current module system is lacking. Thats not to say we should throw it away. In fact, Potomac 'bundles' are built and delivered as Flex modules (just with a lot of stuff thrown in).

Potomac will be:
  • New module system for Flex including new FlexBuilder 'bundle' support
  • Extension mechanism inspired by, but quite different than, Eclipse extension points
  • UI Composition and templating framework

Stay Tuned. We'll be releasing Potomac in a few weeks.

Notes on Extending FlexBuilder (Part 1: Metadata Processing)

Thursday, August 13, 2009 0 comments
For the last couple of weeks I've been hard at work mucking with FlexBuilder internals. I'm building an Eclipse/FB plugin to provide features in support of an upcoming framework. So far the results have been positive but there have been a few gotchas.

Much of the work has been on metadata (i.e. annotations in the Java world) processing. Java has extensive annotation processing support but not so much with Flex. There is some promising stuff on generic compiler extensions in Flex4 but ultimately I entered a new bug to ask for real IDE support. If/when Adobe gets around to this it will be great, but in the meantime I've gone ahead and forged my own route. The Eclipse plugin is essentially a new Eclpse project builder that uses the readily available FlexBuilder code model API. Initial results are good:



As you can see, the plugin can identify metadata tags and provide validation and error markers. But there have been a few gotchas. Of course, things tend to crop up when you're using an API in a new unexpected way. First issue: the documented public API doesn't provide a way to get the full list of tag attributes on metadata tag. If you know the attribute name you can call IMetaTag#getValue(name) but if you don't know what the potential attributes are you'll need to cast down to an internal type. If you cast IMetaTag to BasicMetaTagNode you'll find getAdaptableChildren() which will return you an array of the attributes.

The second issue is similar. There's no public documented way to determine from an IMetaTag where in the .as or .mxml file it came from. This is critical to allow us to put error markers associated with the correct line numbers. Fortunately if we cast down again to BasicMetaTagNode we can call getStart() and getEnd() to return the file offsets. Still that only works when the metadata tag includes attributes (i.e. [MyMetadata(attribute="value")] ). When you include a metadata tag with no attributes (i.e. [MyMetadata] ) the code model doesn't seem to store the start and end values (they're always -1). This is probably the most annoying problem. As a workaround the plugin will drop down to the tag's associated node and show the problem there. This doesn't look great but at least the user sees an error.



Notice how the error icon and the red squigglies are associated with the class and not the metatag itself :(

The final issue seems like a straight-forward bug. The FB code model throws an ArrayStoreException when you try to retrieve metadata associated with a getter/setter function (see bug). This has meant the plugin can't parse any metadata associated with accessor functions. Thats unfortunate and hopefully Adobe will fix this one (go vote on it!).

On HTML5

Thursday, May 28, 2009 1 comments
There's been alot of recent buzz around HTML5 due to Google's recent endorsement. I'm, without a doubt, an open source advocate. Yet I'm not at all excited. Here are some facts.

  • IE 8 doesn't include any meaningful HTML5 support.

  • IE's general market share is still around 70%.

  • IE's corporate market share is much higher (probably at least 85%).

  • Microsoft has dragged its heels on implementing HTML5 in IE.

  • IE 8 was just released.

  • IE 9 would be the first version to contain the HTML5 feature set (or some meaningful number of HTML5 features).

  • IE 9 is likely at least 1.5 years away.

  • Corporations don't upgrade their browsers very quickly (some are still on IE 6).

  • Corporations who currently use IE are unlikely to switch browsers for fear of incompatible applications.

  • As developers, we can only target a browser feature if our users have a browser that supports it. In other words, HTML5 will have to reach a certain critical mass or threshold until developers can write apps that use HTML5 features.

So, for business applications that have to support IE (i.e. almost all of them), when can we expect to be able to deliver an HTML5 web application? Let me take a shot at an optimistic timeline.



This is a very optimistic timeline. It relies on MS releasing IE 9 much faster than they released IE 8. It relies on IE 8 including meaningful HTML5 support (video and canvas tags). It relies on corporations adopting IE relatively fast. So an optimistic timeline means we can start delivering HTML5 apps in 2013. Pessimistically... 2014 or later. In that time, how much further will Flash and Silverlight have come? Three years ago Silverlight didn't even exist. At Microsoft's rate of investment, imagine what Silverlight will be able to do in 2013.

What could change this? Perhaps corporations will start to deploy multiple browsers (say both IE and FF). Perhaps Microsoft jumps wholeheartedly into HTML5. Neither seems very likely. Is there something else that will spur corporate adoption of a HTML5 compliant browser?

Java in the Flash Player

Sunday, April 26, 2009 0 comments
Adoption of Flex accelerated after Flex 3 was released. A big part of that acceleration came from Java developers who were now comfortable coding ActionScript using classes and object oriented techniques. Adobe should go one step further and add Java to the Flash Player itself.

I know some developers will cringe at the idea. After all, Java has become quite bloated with various APIs and features. But Adobe should look at what Google has done with the App Engine. Don't bring over the entire JDK. Just bring over what APIs make sense for the Flash platform. Perhaps even just the core language and core features as spec-ed out in the Java Foundation Profile.

Why would Adobe even bother? Well certainly it would encourage even more Java developers to adopt Flex. Some Java libraries and open source projects would be reusable in Flash. More exciting - the various languages that have been ported to the JVM would come along for free (i.e. Groovy, JRuby). Arguably the most appealing benefit would be the new synergy between Flash and J2EE servers. Microsoft enjoys this with Silverlight and .NET and it’s a huge competitive advantage. This synergy goes further than just client-server communication too. When building Flex apps, developers typically use a variety of tools that were originally written for Java (Ant, Maven, etc). In fact, building an enterprise Flex app today practically assumes the knowledge of Java.

But adding Java to the standard Flash player could increase its size significantly (even if they limited it to the Foundation Profile). Instead, Adobe should simultaneously create an extension model for the Flash player so that new additions don't have to be placed in the default player. Rather they could be downloaded on demand when a Flash app requires them. The existing Runtime Shared Library (RSL) feature in Flex might suffice but I don't think so. Either way, Adobe doesn't want to increase the size of the player and most users don't mind an extra on-demand download as long as it’s done quickly and quietly (no scary dialogs).

This might be an interesting time to start doing this. Oracle just bought Sun and there are various theories on what Oracle will do with JavaFX. Many sources seem to think Oracle will likely cut, starve, or kill it. Oracle might be interested in collaborating with Adobe on bringing Java to Flash (while also dropping JavaFX). If Adobe did make this happen - the payoffs could be massive.

RIAs = badly designed apps?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 0 comments
A few weeks ago InfoQ posted an interview with Tim Bray on the future the web. He comes out pretty strongly against RIAs. His reasoning, in part, is that RIAs lead to more complex UIs and browser apps lead to simpler UIs:

"When the web came along people shriked with glee and universally abandoned all those rich immersive responsive pre-internet applications and ran into the arms of the web. I can remember like yesterday content management conference that was held sometimes in the middle late nineties and it was a woman from a large manufacturing company talking about the content management for the technical documentation, which was a pretty big project, and she said "Oh it was so great when the vendors all brought in the web interfaces because it forced them to get rid of all these weird cascading menus and options that nobody ever used, and brutally simplified everything down" and at the end of the day the interface the browser presents is something that people are comfortable with."

I have to say I agree with the sentiment but not with the specific point that RIAs = bad UIs. So why did we see a general simplification when we've moved to the web? Three reason:


The file menu


The toolbar


MDI


For a long period of time these 3 controls/patterns were considered the defacto UI for a well-designed desktop application. But in reality they really fit only a small cross section of applications. To illustrate, lets examine them one by one.

The FileMenu
The file menu is one of the worst offenders. With a little (very little) categorization, we could throw all of our commands and options in one place. Some of these options may open a new dialog or a new window. Some may work against the current window. Some may work against the current selection in the current window. Finding a new command meant meandering through the menu until you came upon what you're looking for. Also, the file menu is only well-suited when your UI revolves around one open document. Ultimately it was used in applications that opened and managed many different types of objects. In some apps, when a user logged in he was presented with an empty screen and a file menu, certainly a daunting experience. Thankfully, even Microsoft is abandoning the old file menu in favor of the Ribbon. You can read about the Ribbon and the problems of the file menu from its main designer Jensen Harris. He does a great job at debunking the effectiveness of the file menu and describing the thoughts behind the Ribbon.

When we moved applications to the web, we didn't have a file menu control to use. That forced application developers to rethink how to layout their functionality for the better. That generally meant commands were put closer to the objects they were acting on.

The Toolbar
Toolbars aren't all bad. But toolbars that only have 16x16 pixel images with no text are. There are very few features that can be adequately represented in such a small image w/o any description. Many times, users are forced to hover over each button to review its tooltip before knowing what it does. Thankfully the web didn't have toolbars either and instead pushed developers towards hyperlinks. All of the sudden users didn't have to understand cryptic images, they had real text! And that text wasn't buried in some cascading menu. It was probably on the screen next to the object it was working against.

MDI
MDI stands for Multiple Document Interface. MDI is still a staple of UI design. Users need the ability to open multiple objects at once rather than strictly working sequentially. Yet, the original MDI pattern is lacking. Users generally maximized their MDI child windows so they could have the maximum real estate for their current task. But then they ran into the biggest problem with this paradigm, which was that there was no easy way to see what you had open. Today, this MDI pattern is rarely used. Tabbed MDI, where tabs are used to represent documents, is common. With tabbed MDI, sometimes called TDI, users have a visible list of their open documents at all times (i.e. the list of tabs).

Users struggled mightily when all three (File menu, Toolbar, MDI) were used together. But, back to Tim Bray's original point, are we on the path to repeat these same mistakes? I don't think so. As evidenced by the Ribbon, even desktop applications are abandoning these controls. Yet, we should be careful. RIA platforms like Flex make it easy to fall back into the old patterns. As SpiderMan's uncle once said "With great power, comes great responsibility."

Intro

Monday, April 13, 2009 0 comments
After a few aborted attempts, I'm finally getting serious about blogging. So before I get going I should probably introduce myself...

I'm a Development Manager at IBM. Until recently I managed UI Frameworks within the Information Platform and Solutions Division. Now I'm managing a new product (yet to be announced so I can't give any more details). I'm also an avid Eclipse user and developer. I'm an expert on SWT including custom component development which led me to create the Eclipse Nebula project. The custom Grid component (among others) is 98% my sweat and tears. I've since moved on and don't participate much in Nebula anymore.

Today my work includes forays into AJAX (Dojo) and RIAs including Flex. This blog will focus on those topics mostly and the battle for developer hearts and minds among AJAX, the Open Web, RIAs, Flex, Microsoft, et al.