Clash Over Flash Is Heating Up

Macromedia hopes to beat Microsoft to the punch with its new Flash-based app.

Macromedia Inc. is set to deliver the beta of a new Flash-based server and presentation-tier framework for building rich Internet applications, getting a leg up on Microsoft Corp., which is working on its own "Flash killer," according to sources.

San Francisco-based Macromedia will announce the technology, known as Flex (formerly code-named Royale), at its developer conference this week in Salt Lake City, officials said.

Flex is a Flash-based declarative programming framework for creating Web applications, including intelligent user interfaces, while leveraging existing tools, infrastructure and developer skill sets, said David Mendels, senior vice president at Macromedia.

Flex brings the capabilities of Flash design and development to the masses, including business application developers and corporate developers, by using an XML-based language known as MXML—Macromedias own technology that stands for Maximum Experience Markup Language—Mendels said.

Sources said Flex closely resembles the Flash killer code-named Sparkle, which is being worked on at Microsoft. However, Jeremy Allaire, technologist-in-residence at General Catalyst Partners, in Cambridge, Mass., and founder emeritus of Macromedia, said he believes Sparkle is more akin to Macromedias Flash MX application server than to Flex.

Sparkle technology is expected to be rolled out to developers writing applications for Microsofts forthcoming "Longhorn" wave of technologies, sources said. Sparkle will automate development for Avalon, the presentation layer of Longhorn, they said.

At its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles last month, Microsoft introduced its own XML variant to support its strategy, a language known as XAML (XML Application Markup Language). Developers will be able to write to Avalon using XAML, and Sparkle will automate XAML development. Although the initial version of Macromedias Flex will be J2EE (Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition)-based, the company plans to follow with a .Net version, pitting the company in direct competition with Microsoft.

Mendels said Macromedia welcomes the competition from Microsoft, especially because Macromedia plans to release Flex commercially in the first half of next year, and Longhorn is not slated to ship before 2006.

"Its no fun to go into a market that Microsoft is in, but its even worse to go into a market they arent in," Mendels said. "Were not really focused on competition here. Their technology will come out in 2006, so theres a period of three or four years" in which Macromedia will have a head start on Microsoft," he said.

However, sources close to Microsoft said the company is planning to release a development tool for XAML applications in the first beta of its "Whidbey" release of Visual Studio .Net, which is expected next year.

And Mendels did acknowledge that MXML and XAML are similar. "From a language perspective, itll be like learning two different dialects," he said.

Asked if Macromedia would provide some kind of translator between the two languages, Mendels said that although he would make no comments about specific implementations, "Macromedia has always made an attempt to be cross-platform, and as Microsoft evolves the OS to Longhorn, we expect to be there."

Potential customers are optimistic about the Flex technology.

"Because the Flash player is already on so many desktops, its the best front-end client for RIAs [rich Internet applications] out there," said James Burke, a partner and co-founder of Mindseye Inc., a Boston-based consulting company.

"At Mindseye, weve seen customers get tremendous ROI [return on investment] from RIAs weve created for them [with Flash]," Burke said. "And now Flex provides a familiar, standards-based way for organizations to programmatically build those applications. So what really stands out is a new approach, for a new community that can be achieved by wrapping and reusing. So well leverage our skills and our clients existing applications, data and systems."