Adobe AIR Enters Rich Internet Application Fray

Slated for its official release before the end of the year, AIR is Adobe's attempt to tie together its collection of media formatting technologies and extend its reach beyond the Web deeper into the desktop. AIR is a cross-platform application runtime that allows developers to integrate technologies including HTML, JavaScript, Flash and PDF.

Adobe's AIR is one of a number of new tool sets and runtimes this year targeting the "rich Internet applications" market. Microsoft hopes to shake Adobe's Web dominance with its forthcoming Flash rival Silverlight, while Sun is in the early stages of development on a new line of multi-device rich application tools, dubbed JavaFX.

AIR's distinguishing point is its emphasis on harmonizing online and offline application development. Technologies like AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language) crept on the scene several years ago and allowed developers to create Web applications with the responsiveness and elegant interfaces of offline desktop applications, but the online and offline development realms have remained distinct. AIR enables developers to mingle the two, adding online functionality to desktop applications and vice versa.

"[Adobe's] vision all along has been 'the Web on the desktop,'" said Sean Christmann, experience architect with Adobe partner EffectiveUI, a Denver-based design and development services firm. "Through this process of working with AIR, we're starting to understand what Adobe was getting at -- applications connected online that have the benefit of the desktop."

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EffectiveUI designed one of AIR's highest-profile prototypes, an experimental eBay desktop application that enables offline action management and desktop alert notifications, among other functionality. Code-named "San Dimas," the eBay application is about to launch a public beta and is on track for release around the time AIR's 1.0 version ships.

ITunes is the canonical example of a blended online/offline application. Before AIR, building such an application was a fraught undertaking requiring expertise in a number of areas. AIR simplifies the process and significantly cuts development time, Christmann said.

Under development for more than a year, AIR first emerged in alpha form in March. Today's beta release, while still not complete, fills in functionality such as an embedded database, PDF support, and deeper integration with Adobe's Flex development framework.

"The beta is much closer to having the full feature set available," said Mike Downey, Adobe's group manager of platform evangelism.

Adobe also released a beta version of Flex 3 on Monday, the first open-source version of its development framework. Tailored for AIR development, Flex 3's development will play out pubicly, with nightly builds and a bug database posted on Adobe's Labs Web site.