Wednesday, October 31, 2007

You Too, Can be an AIR Developer!

Mozilla recently announced Prism, a tool for bringing web applications to the desktop. One of their first comments is comparing it to Adobe AIR and Silverlight, in an almost ignorant fashion:

"Unlike Adobe AIR and Microsoft Silverlight, we’re not building a proprietary platform to replace the web. We think the web is a powerful and open platform for this sort of innovation, so our goal is to identify and facilitate the development of enhancements that bring the advantages of desktop apps to the web platform."

It's a cool idea, clearly they see the need and are jumping on the bandwagon. But I think they, like many others, really misunderstand AIR. I'm surprised how many times I've seen Adobe AIR called a "proprietary" or closed technology platform lately, and how tightly its reputation is coupled to Flex and Flash. So many standardista/open source fanboys & girls are chasing alternatives because they think that AIR requires an investment in Flex and that you have to maintain a separate code base between AIR applications and "regular" web applications. Many confused developers think they need to learn something new to build apps for AIR. That is simply not the case! So I would like to point out a few facts:

  • AIR development does not require a specialized IDE or cost a thing to get started
    (download the free SDK)
  • AIR development can be done with any combination of static HTML, JavaScript, AJAX, dynamic HTML (IE server back end such as ColdFusion, ASP, PHP, Ruby...) AND Flash and Flex
    (About AIR)
  • Creating an AIR application out of an existing applications (or a new one) only requires configuration of a simple XML file. There are plugins for Dreamweaver and FlexBuilder to make it even easier.
    (getting started)
  • The FlexBuilder IDE which has a super simple AIR app wizard is available as a free public beta, and is also free for educational use
    (the education announcement)
  • The Flex SDK is STILL FREE if you want to develop for AIR in Flex and for some reason can't use FlexBuilder
    (download the free SDK)
  • Over and over, Adobe makes the point that they have designed AIR in such a way that developers can use their existing skills to develop desktop applications.
    (right on the AIR home page)
  • Prism does have the unique and interesting feature to give the user the choice to move an app to their desktop (IE Gmail), but does not yet include the first-class desktop presence or local data storage that AIR does. AIR, although in Beta, is really much farther along that Prism.

There you have it. There are no excuses to not learn AIR and start using it today. Adobe is not some evil mega-software company, they are creating kick-a** tools for developers that will become (or already are) incredibly valuable in our daily jobs.

Other web-to-desktop platforms sweating AIR's style:

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Practical Implementation of User Centered Design and Customer Focused Business

Last week I attended Adobe MAX in Chicago, which was by and large an excellent conference. You can see some of the many "wrap up" posts online for the good, bad and the ugly so I won't get into that. But I will talk about a few things that stuck out to me while I was there.

There was a track called "Inspire," which were several sessions given by gurus of various disciplines, speaking at a loftier, more theoretical level than most, designed to do as their name suggests. That and the inspire sessions had extra big projection screens and color changing stage lights (I kid you not). Actually, two of the Inspire sessions I attended left me feeling they were the best sessions of the conference, because I did come away inspired - and when you've seen it all from the technical sessions, inspiration is the best thing you can hope to get at these events. Along with a couple of these sessions I attended, there seemed to be a strong movement at the conference and among the people I spent time with there towards User Centered Design, and its marketing cousin Customer Focused Business.

You may say this is nothing new, but I have seen a deeper level of understanding and a higher level of awareness come to a predominantly developer audience than in previous years. And this is not limited to MAX, I'm seeing it everywhere. Every blog-reading, conference-attending, best-practicing, self-respecting web developer/designer knows that the purpose of design is not merely to "make it pretty" but rather to "make it usable", moreso than ever before. And this is great. But what bothers me is that if you ask most of these people for examples, or try to get into a deeper discussion with them, the conversation turns to the worn out examples of the iPod and the Wii, and also about how none of their bosses or project managers understand these things or will allow them time to accomplish them, and how they know how it should be done but it's somehow not happening in their job. What's more, I know from personally seeing the vast amount of crap on the web, that most of these designer-developers are not practicing the theory they are so passionate about.

When this really hit me was reflecting on my own work and attempting to measure to what extent I was practicing these principles I found so inspiring (yet not at all new). I somberly realized that I was probably not doing as good a job at this as I believe I have the capability to do. And why? I have a lot of the same excuses: I create a design that's centered around my understanding of what the users want, but when a boss comes along and says "I think we need to give more attention to this element" with no user-centered grounds for doing so (it's always a company objective), I diligently make the change and rarely argue. Usually under the guise of picking my battles. But what would really give me the confidence to argue against such a change is more experience, more practical knowledge and more history under my belt with such design.
And that's where I meander to my point. There is a plethora of information in this industry about the importance of user centered design and customer focused business, but so little information about the practical implementation of it!

Designers have all the forces of traditional businesses and non-web-savvy clients pushing them in the opposite direction, and it's going to be years until most businesses catch up with Apple and Target and Nintendo and Land's End. We need to be told step by step how to start such a movement from our lowly production positions and how to make it work, proving results, so that it can continue.

In parts 2 and 3, I will discuss my experience and thoughts on the practical aspects of User Centered Design and Customer Focused Business (because it so often ties into design).