Developers have high hopes for Adobe's newly named AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) software, but reservations remain about the technology's cross-platform capability and learning curve.

Formerly called Apollo, AIR is described by the company as a cross-OS runtime enabling developers to use existing Web development skills to build Internet applications that can run on the desktop. Currently available in a beta release, it is due to ship by the end of the year.

"I would say that [AIR] creates kind of a new breed of applications that are somewhere between traditional desktop applications and Web applications," said Lee Brimelow, senior design technologist at early AIR user Frog Design.

"It kind of opens up a new world to Web developers. It enables Web developers to enter the desktop space," Brimelow said. "It allows you, for example, to take an online e-mail account like Yahoo Mail [and] you could have an offline app that allows you to read your mail and compose mails," he added. "One of the major [benefits] of AIR is that it is cross-platform so we don't have to worry about 'Is it a Mac thing, is it a PC thing?' "

AIR everywhere

AIR is more or less a wrapper for Flash, said Gabor Vida, president of Teknision, a rich media application developer. But it is not tied to the operating system, he said. "We just deploy an AIR file, and it's the exact same file whether on a PC or on a Mac," with Linux support due soon, Vida said.

AIR, however, is not as powerful as Microsoft's Windows Presentation Foundation or Apple's Cocoa development technologies, Brimelow said. With those, developers have fuller access to the user's hard drive and OS capabilities, he said. But WPF is only for Windows, Brimelow noted.

One developer who said he has not tried AIR nonetheless was interested in it. AIR could be an improvement compared with third-party solutions for running the Flash projector offline, such as FlashJester, said Kurt Suchomel, founder of the Vermont Flash User Group and a developer at Draftfcb, an ad agency that also develops Web sites.

"It's exciting to me to hear that there's a possible product that's something similar to that," but could offer more versatility, Suchomel said. But he expressed concerns about how effective AIR will be on different operating systems, wondering if there will be "possible gotchas on each platform." AIR is supposed to be identical on the Mac and on the PC, Suchomel said. "I would just hope that it is truly that way," he said. "It will "be interesting to see what the bugs are.

"My natural concern is the learning curve for developing with Apollo, even though it does support all the major Web technologies [HTML, JavaScript, CSS, XHTML, and Flash]," Suchomel said. "I am looking forward to developing in Apollo since it gives me a way to create one rich Internet application and run [it] on multiple operating systems."

Bringing Web and desktop together

Another developer who also had not experimented with AIR expressed similar curiosity.

"It just seems like it's going to be really cool," said Steve Farwell, marketing director at Traveland USA, which sells recreational vehicles. He also is host of the Orange County Flash User Group in Southern California, or OCFlash.
Farwell said he liked the idea of combining Web applications with desktop applications that can work with the local file system. AIR could have benefits in applications such as hospital systems, where a physician has intermittent connectivity to the network, he said.

Self-employed developer and AIR beta user Robert Hall, manager of the Philadelphia Flash Platform Adobe User Group, reiterated what Adobe said about the project. "It makes it really easy to take your existing Web apps and all the skills you have ... and repurpose them for desktop apps," he said.

"For me, the big benefit is I'm able to leverage my existing skills that I've been working on for years," Hall said. As the product still in a beta form, the feature set is not complete, Hall cautioned.

AIR "fills a major, major niche," said Gordon Clarke, manager of FlexUserGroup.org. Developers can move to the desktop and create client-server applications without having to learn a new language, he said.

Sometimes-connected applications offer advantages, Clarke said. "If you want to have rich media, it's better to have a lot of it coming from your desktop than having to download it off the Web," he said.

Clarke likened AIR to the iPod, where music can be downloaded or heard on the Web, and Microsoft Outlook, which lets users browse e-mail offline.

Front-end design

At effectiveUI, which developed the eBay Desktop shopping application using AIR, the president of the company said AIR could supplement or displace Java in different instances. AIR could be used to help build GUIs (a weakness for Java), while Java could reside on the back-end server, said effectiveUI President Anthony Franco.

"One of the things that Java developers struggle with is developing interfaces," Franco said. "[AIR] could replace Java in the GUI development of an application."

Adobe's Flex and Flash are part of the Apollo, or AIR, framework, Franco said. But AIR differs from Microsoft's new Silverlight technology, in that Silverlight is more of a competitor to the Flash Player, he said.
AIR has enabled effectiveUI to develop the type of application sought by clients and to do so within budget, Franco said.

The advent of AIR also will mean development of office suites running on AIR, said Chris Charlton, group manager of the Los Angeles Flash Users Group and a Web architect at Adobe solution provider Almer/Blank. Packaged software, chat applications, and business tools will result, he said.

AIR applications are going to pull some market share from existing applications that have been on a single platform only, Charlton said.

Adobe's new technology represents perhaps the next evolution of how people engage with the Internet, providing functions of the browser without all the overhead, said Michael Lebowitz, CEO of Web design firm Big Spaceship. The firm is using AIR to build a media center application for energy drink company Red Bull.

"The browser right now is sort of monolithic. It's a one-stop shop for anything you might do on the Web," Lebowitz said. "The problem with that is that's not always effective."