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Show Report: A Taste of MAX 2005

Including Mike Chambers' Session on Flash & AJAX

Wow, what a conference! If you couldn't get to MAX this year, you missed out on a great conference. MAX was held in Anaheim, CA, at the Anaheim convention center. It was four days packed with classes, and the grand finale was a fun-filled night at Disneyland/California Adventure.

There was so much information available at MAX that there is no way I can impart everything I learned at the conference in this article. However, I will do is give a flavor of the classes, a few tips, and provide an overall feel for where Macromedia technology is going.

I'll start with a taste of the classes, give some brief touch points from the General Sessions (Keynotes), and give you the lowdown on the Sneak Peek session (the in-the-works products).

A Taste of the Classes
Most of the classes I attended were about presentation and code design. The classes often had examples of good and bad designs and some tips on how to architect good designs, which stands to reason because, aside from ColdFusion, Macromedia is all about the interface between the person and the computer.

The classes I attended fell roughly into four categories: RIAs (Rich Internet Application) and Flex Builder 2, ActionScript 3, ColdFusion MX, and Flash and AJAX.

RIAs and Flex Builder 2 (aka Zorn)
Macromedia coined the term RIA to describe the new type of Web application with a Flash-based user interface. Initially, it was used only for Flash-based applications, but now it's been adopted to mean AJAX-based (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) applications as well.

RIAs look cool and have a great wow factor. However, the real benefit of an RIA is that the person using the RIA-based application is more productive, and has increased concentration. One of the classes I sat in on, "RIA Design - Best Practices," pointed out that making an application flow correctly and look pleasing engages the user and makes the application more usable. In the end, a more usable UI allows for a more productive user.

A tip for good UI design with RIAs is avoiding the use of excessive Chrome. Chrome in this context means excessive eye candy, animation, music, etc. Chrome can distract from the usability and the point of the application. In fact, it's easy to make your application completely unusable and confusing for your clients by using Chrome for Chrome's sake.

To avoid Chrome overload, try to only use transitions or sounds that orient the user when the UI is changing, for example, when a modal menu appears from the side and obscures the user's original view. This kind of transition is a good time to use a bit of animation to let the client know what just happened. Keeping the client engaged, in control, and oriented was a key theme in many of the UI/RIA classes.

The tools to build RIAs are evolving. Flex Builder 2, the IDE previously known as Zorn, was quite a highlight in the RIA track. Flex Builder 2 is the follow up to Flex 1.5 with a bit of a twist. For the uninitiated, Flex 1.5 is the Flex presentation server. Its purpose is to take MXML files, compile them into SWF files, and serve them to the client - it's the core of enterprise-level RIAs. Flex 1.5 needs to run in a J2EE server and its price can be as high as $15,000. The need for a server and the price point tend to turn off smaller shops from creating RIAs.

Flex 2.0 and Flex Builder 2, however, fix both these issues by allowing you to create SWFs based on MXML and deploy them without the server. You'll still be able to exchange data with Web services and raw XML, but instead of deploying them into a specialized presentation server, you can use your current Web server. Using Flex Builder 2 you get the power of rapid application development of RIAs using MXML with the price tag under $1,000 per developer.

Flex Builder 2, from a developer standpoint, is going to turn some heads too. The design view is very nice. It behaves like Dreamweaver or any graphical GUI designing tool. You can drag-and-drop your way to a beautiful-looking UI in seconds.

The IDE runs on Eclipse, which means it will play nicely with source control solutions like CVS, SVN, and VSS by adding the proper third-party plug-in. It has color coding and intellisence in both the MXML blocks and the ActionScript blocks, and allows you to run and test your Flex application with a single click.

The Flex Builder 2 debugger looks incredible. If you've done any Java programming before, it's just as powerful as the Java debugger in Eclipse. It has watches, breakpoints, and variable inspection. It's a very impressive piece of software and should help keep those late night bug hunting sessions to a minimum when developing RIAs.

To find out more about Flex Builder 2 and Flex 2.0 see Macromedia Labs (http://labs.macromedia.com/wiki/index.php/Flex_Framework and http://labs.macromedia.com/wiki/index.php/Flex_Builder).

ActionScript 3
Along with Flex 2.0, Macromedia is introducing ActionScript 3. I heard a quite a few people at the conference say something to the effect, "ActionScript is becoming a real programming language." It does indeed feel that way when looking at AS3, as they move the language to more closely conform with the ECMA standard.

ActionScript 3 looks and feels a more like C# and Java 5.0 than it does JavaScript. There is a new wrapping block around classes much like the namespace in C#, and there are quite a few new function modifiers like overrides - a keyword that might sound familiar to old VB.NET programmers.

Personally, I think the language looks cool. If you know C# or Java 5.0 you'll get ActionScript 3 easily. If you know JavaScript or ActionScript 2 well, you'll have a somewhat easy time picking up the changes. However, if you've never done object-oriented programming, you're probably going to have to crack open a book or two.

For an example of the language difference, here is a basic class definition in AS2 and the same definition in AS3:

AS2:
import my.classes;
class my.pack.TestClass
{
    ...
}

AS3:
namespace my.pack
{
    import my.classes;
    class TestClass
    {
      ...
    }
}

If you've done C# programming (another ECMA-based language), the new version should look familiar. The new keywords and when to use them, however, will be where most new study will be required. A good reference for the transition from ActionScript 2 to ActionScript 3 is available on Macromedia Labs (http://labs.macromedia.com/wiki/index.php/ ActionScript_3:Learning_Tips).

More Stories By Rob Rohan

Rob Rohan has been a developer and architect for over seven years. Rob is a YellowBadger.com consultant from the Bay Area and founder of the CFEclipse, Treebeard, and Neuromancer open source projects. He teaches Macromedia products through Shcoonertech, and flies through the air with the greatest of ease.

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