Adobe's New Tools for Web Apps

Flash Catalyst and Flash Builder aim to simplify the construction of rich Internet applications.

Users can preview two new Adobe products, Flash Catalyst and Flash Builder 4, starting today. Both programs aim to simplify the process of designing Web applications. Catalyst, which has never before been released to the public, is aimed at designers. Built to resemble Illustrator and other Adobe products, Catalyst allows a nonprogrammer to design working interfaces for Web applications. Builder, which updates a previous product called Flex Builder, is aimed at developers. Specifically, it’s a tool for developers building Internet applications, and Adobe says that it has been improved to better handle data and to work easily with Catalyst.

No programming required: Adobe Flash Catalyst allows designers to build a significant amount of a Web application without programming. By selecting from menus and using tools similar to those in other Adobe design programs, a user can define the behavior of, for example, a button (above) without writing any code.

Dave Gruber, group product marketing manager for Adobe, says that both products could make it easier for businesses to build applications that resemble popular consumer Web applications. As users come to expect slick, easy-to-use interfaces, the pressure has been on for businesses to develop internal applications that match the programs employees use recreationally, he says.

Normally, when a designer works on a Web application with a developer, the designer has to create a series of static images, called wireframes, that show how he expects the application to behave, Gruber says. The developer then tries to match those wireframes to the best of her ability. Often, Gruber says, the result is fairly different from what the designer had in mind.

Catalyst lets a designer pull in images from Photoshop or Illustrator as the basis of an application’s interface. The designer can then identify the application’s moving elements, such as scrollbars or buttons. The designer sets how those parts should behave by selecting from menus. Catalyst creates working code in the background.

The system gives the designer a lot of leeway, says Tim Buntel, a senior product manager for Adobe. For example, he says, a designer could create a circus scene, and then select a tightrope and a tightrope walker to serve as a scrollbar and thumb.

When the designer finishes the interface, Catalyst can save it as a Flex project (fxp), a new file format that allows the application to transfer seamlessly into Builder. “Catalyst dramatically changes the development process when designers are actively involved,” says Gruber.

It’s possible to create an application entirely within Catalyst, Gruber says, if it doesn’t need to be connected to any sources of data. If it needs more work, however, a developer can open an application in Builder. Businesses often have data stored in a variety of formats, and the product is designed to automatically connect to a wide variety of these. “We wanted a standard way of dealing with the data regardless of where it came from,” says Buntel.

It’s possible to work within Builder by dragging and dropping elements such as tables, with code generating automatically. However, Buntel says, the system also allows users to view the code and edit at will.

Adobe designed Flash Catalyst to resemble other design tools such as Illustrator and PhotoShop. Catalyst (above) preserves layers and other familiar aspects of those programs, allowing designers to use them to build a Web application’s interface.

Jeffrey Hammond, a principal analyst at Forrester Research covering application development, says that he thinks Catalyst represents “a new class of design tools that bridge the gap between designers and developers.” He thinks that Catalyst will appeal particularly to developers, who “will find Catalyst a much more approachable way to integrate the work of designers into the development process.” Hammond says that he expects to see as many developers using Catalyst as designers.

Catalyst and Builder are well positioned to extend Adobe’s already considerable hold on design software, says Al Hilwa, who is the program director for IDC’s research on application development software. Hilwa believes that it was Microsoft that first identified the gap between designers and developers and moved to fill the hole with its product line Expression Suite. However, Hilwa says, Adobe’s new lineup does a better job of streamlining and building on existing products, leaving Adobe well prepared to compete.

Both Catalyst and Builder are available now as previews, although Builder is in a more mature form than Catalyst. Adobe has not yet said when the products will go on sale.

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