Adobe Thermo Turns Up Heat in RIA Wars

The upcoming product will enable designers and developers to better work together.

SAN FRANCISCO-Adobe's "Thermo" will heat up the rich Internet application battles, with the aim to better enable designers and developers to work together.

At the Web 2.0 Expo here April 23, Steven Heintz, senior product manager for the new product under development at Adobe, demonstrated some of the product's capabilities for the first time to an audience outside Adobe's core user base. Adobe last showed Thermo at its annual Max event in October, Heintz said.

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Thermo is an upcoming Adobe product that makes it easy for designers to create rich Internet application user interfaces. Thermo will allow designers to build on familiar workflows to visually create working applications that easily flow into production and development, Adobe officials said.

In an interview with eWEEK, Heintz said Thermo will see its first public beta release later this year, with a general release next year. He said Thermo will likely have a long beta process, similar to Adobe's roll-out of its Adobe Lightroom photography software, which went through a comprehensive beta process to gain maximum feedback from potential users of the technology.

Heintz said the next generation of RIAs will continue to challenge designers and developers with groundbreaking interfaces and creative, engaging experiences. However, these new applications will demand even greater cooperation and iteration between RIA designers and developers, he said.

One challenge is that developers and designers take a very different approach to creating a new RIA experience, Heintz said. Developers start out by dragging components onto a form, whereas designers prefer a more free-form approach-drawing out what the UI and controls should feel like.

In his talk at the show, Heintz gave a sneak-peak of Thermo, including how Thermo enables designers and developers to create working application prototypes starting with static comps created in traditional graphic design tools.

Heintz said Thermo will change the way RIA design occurs by allowing a designer to specify fluid application transitions and motion. In an interview, Heintz discussed how using Thermo, properties and events could be "wired up" in an application design without having to write code. In addition, developers will use Thermo to selectively turn artwork components into functional controls and assign design-time data so interactions and behavior can be visualized when access to final data isn't practical, Heintz said.

Adobe's Thermo is not the first tool to address the issue of designer/developer workflow and helping the two groups work better together. Microsoft has tried to bridge the gap with its Expression Blend solution. That is why "Thermo is a pretty big project at Adobe" that the company has been working on for a couple of years, Heintz said.

The company also has put some of its most senior developers on the Thermo project. "We have people from the Dreamweaver 1.0 team, the Flash 1.0 team and the Flex 1.0 team working on Thermo," Heintz said. "It's a big, strategic project with a lot of senior people on it."

Adobe also has been working with some early customers to map out the overall direction for the tool, he said.

"Thermo is a design tool that allows designers to choreograph the motion of a rich internet application, and it spits out code that can be handed off to a development team," Heintz said. "The genesis of the technology came about because of the growing challenge of developers and designers working on projects. We wish we had more 'devsigners.'"

He said a "devsigner" is an ideal person who is a hybrid of a designer and a developer and who knows things like HTML and X M L, as well as Photoshop and Flash. "They need to be masters of Photoshop as well as vector tools," he said. "It's hard to balance all of these technologies in one person's head."

Typically designers make visual assets and vignettes and throw them over the wall to the developers to translate into code, Heintz said.

"Thermo fits in that middle place between designers and developers," he said. Thermo will be a standalone product that works with all of Adobe's design tools.

"It's intended for interaction design," Heintz said. "That used to be owned by developers, but we're empowering the designer to own more of that."

Although all the players in the RIA space are having to deal with the challenge of helping designers work more efficiently with developers, Microsoft has taken a very developer-centric approach, Heintz, said. "Their pedigree is with developers, Adobe's strength is the designer community. Thermo is much more designer-oriented."

However, "There are a lot of similarities with [Microsoft] Blend's role in creating a Silverlight experience, as Thermo has a similar role in creating a Flash experience," he said.

According to the Adobe Labs page on Thermo, the upcoming technology will: use drawing tools to create original graphics, wireframe an application design, or manipulate artwork imported from Adobe Creative Suite tools; turn artwork from Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, or Fireworks directly into functional components that use the original artwork as a "skin;" define and wire up interactive behavior, such as what to do when a user clicks on something, without having to write code; and easily design UIs that work with dynamic data, such as a list of contacts or product information, without having access to the actual data source. Moreover, design-time sample data can be used as a realistic placeholder when laying out an application, testing interactivity and choreographing motion, the company said.