James Ward: Sexier Software with Java and Flex

On Friday 11th July, I attended a talk by James Ward at Adobe’s Regents Park
offices in London. Free beer, soft drinks and pizza were provided and this
ensured that there was a fairly healthy turnout.

James started by showing two example Flex applications. The first was a demo
to an insurance company to show how Flex could allow claim information to be
entered more easily with the need for long textual descriptions replaced by
annotated diagrams - for example detailing how the accident occurred involved
dragging cars into position on an outline of the road, adjusting lines showing
their trajectories and indicating where the collision occurred.

The second example application ran using AIR and appeared to the user like an
ordinary desktop application. James showed how an interface chart in the
application could be dragged into MS Word (where it became a static image) and
similarly how tables could be dragged from the application and dropped into
excel. Both applications looked very slick - I asked James later how long they
had taken to build and he said about a couple of weeks.

James then moved to showing us how to build Flex applications. The Flex SDK is
free to download and Flex applications can be build using only this and a text
editor; however during the talk James used Adobe’s commercial FlexBuilder
eclipse plugin.

A document written in MXML describes the
application - James showed us variations on an application that would download
photos from flickr tagged with “orange” and display them first using a widget
like Apple’s “cover flow” and then as a simple list. The MXML code consisted
of about 5 lines of which 2 were boilerplate and the rest served to define the
data source, define the display widget, instruct the display to watch the data
source for updates and start the search when the application was complely

The MXML for the examples were very similar for both the web and desktop
versions but unfortunately not identical since different elements are used for
the application top level tag. James did mention though that “library
projects” could be created to contain code common to both the web and desktop
versions of a Flex application and then separate web and desktop projects
could reference the common code and contain only the code specific to their

Individual components are written in Actionscript - this is very close to
Javascript except that there seemed to be some proprietary extensions to, for
example, indicate that variables can be used as data sources or sinks. James
stated that statically defining types for variables was options but that
adding types would tend to give better performance. Using static types also
apparently allows FlexBuilder to provide code-completion and other useful

The combination of MXML and Actionscript components are compiled to a SWF file
for web deployment meaning that Flex applications can run on a normal Flash

Web targetted Flex applications run in the browser and can make use of normal
browser facilities (such as support for HTTPS connections). AIR applications
run on the desktop - the AIR runtime includes Webkit to handle HTML rendering
and also includes additional APIs to provide additional services such as
access to the local filesystem.

James then moved on to some examples showing how a Flex user interface could
be integrated with a Java backend. James stressed that Flex is a UI technology
and so is not in competition with Java technologies used on the server side
(Spring, EJB, hibernate etc). For this part of the talk James used an
application that queried a Java servlet and displayed the results in a table
using Flex. Flex supports a number of data transfer formats including JSON,
XML and the binary AMF
format. James showed how using AMF increased performance relative to using
XML. If I understand it correctly AMF is a binary format close to the
Flex/Flash in-memory representation of objects - this means that very little
processing is required to handle a AMF data stream on the client side. James
said that AMF performs better than XML since there is no need for
serialisation and deserialisation - I felt this was somewhat misleading since
obviously the Java backend will need to serialise the objects to AMF format
even if deserialisation is not required on the client (since the objects can
be presumably directly loaded into memory).

AMF is a proprietary Adobe protocol and was originally part of the commercial
Lifecycle Data Services product. Adobe have now open sourced the code for AMF
as the Blaze DS

Lifecycle Data Services remains a commercial product though and includes
additional features such as the ability to keep multiple clients synchronised
as a data source changes whether the data is changed by the server or by a
client. James demonstrated three Flex applications running at once - one in a
web browser, one embedded into a PDF document and the other running as a
desktop application - each client displayed an editable table and updates to
each table were propagated to the server and other clients without the
application developer having to write code to handle this.

Although he did not describe it, James mentioned that there is an API for
handling conflicts caused by multiple clients modifying the same data.

I felt James’s talk was an excellent introduction to Flex and some of the
possibilities it provides. I hadn’t really considered using Flex before but
now I definitely intend to give it try.

Some photos from the meetup can be found