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What's New with Flex, ColdFusion, and More

SYS-CON.TV Exclusive: An Interview with Ben Forta

Simon Horwith: Today I'm speaking with Ben Forta, the technical evangelist for Adobe. The first thing I have to ask you is - the acquisition has happened, Adobe is now controlling ColdFusion and has taken over everything that Macromedia was doing, and this is my first chance to really speak with you since that happened - what is going on in the ColdFusion world? How has the acquisition gone for the ColdFusion team and yourself and what's in store for us in the near future?

View this interview on SYS-CON.TV

Ben Forta: Thus far, not a whole lot has changed. Before the acquisition we were hard at work on ColdFusion Scorpio. We first mentioned it over a year ago, the next major version of ColdFusion. That work began pre-acquisition and it's ongoing. We're still working through the specs and futures and what the price should be. Independent of that, also pre-acquisition, we started work on the Mystic bits, which is the update of the ColdFusion 7.01 full Flex integration. That work is still happening. As far as the short-term implications and the data impact of ColdFusion immediately, not a whole lot. It's still pretty much the same team doing exactly what they did before with the same immediate goal and longer-term goal.

Beyond that it starts to get very interesting. You're starting to really see the beginnings of integration between products, so ColdFusion and Flex are obviously extremely important, but once you're beyond that then there are things ColdFusion developers have been asking for awhile that Adobe's in a really great position to help with, such as improving PDF generation and some of the imaging functionality people ask for. These are things that are Adobe's area of expertise and they're definitely the ones to help us build this stuff. Just looking at the future of ColdFusion, there's definitely a lot of Adobe expertise that needs to make its way into ColdFusion.

Beyond that, there are other parts we have to start thinking about integrating with, so some of the lifecycle servers, for example, it might make sense to provide some ColdFusion functionality to them and to expose some of that functionality back to CF. While we are building the next releases of the product, we are looking at the wider array of product offerings now, technologies, and trying to figure out what the right mix is and how we can add value everywhere. The end result is a much better product and a better set of services and solutions for customers.

SH: Can't wait to see that. You mentioned Flex, and I know that currently you're on the road meeting with user groups to talk about Flex 2.0 and Flex Builder 2.0. For the benefit of our viewers who aren't familiar with it, could you briefly describe what the major differences between Flex 2.0 and Flex 1.5 are and maybe even just quickly introduce what Flex is, so if there's anybody out there who hasn't seen this yet...

BF: Oh, wow. You want me to take the full couple hour presentation and turn it into a 30-second sound bite, great.

Let's talk about Flex currently; Flex is like solving a very specific problem. The Flash player, the Flash platform, is a very capable platform for delivering and employing rich, engaging experiences. It's primarily used for design work and has been for a long time, but it's actually capable of a lot more. It's capable of being a front end for applications, for business apps, and for being the client-side of a real application, talking to real back-end data beyond the design-centric applications that you often see in Flash. While the platform is capable of doing that, the experience, the process of building those apps has been complex or difficult for most coders and developers, the way they think about building apps. The Flash IDE is something that designers are far more comfortable with than coders, and while there were changes made in the last few versions of Flash, particularly in Flash 2004, to make Flash a better tool for coders, it still is something that designers are a lot more comfortable with than those who also write code for a living. The tool itself, the way to build apps, how the application is put together, the way code is embedded in the app, this entire process and tooling is something that is a little foreign to coders.

Flex is a whole different way of thinking about building Flash applications. Instead of starting with a stage, a graphical stage that you drop elements on and a timeline that you script around, simply start the code. You have tags, script, and a server. Create these files using a tag-based markup language called MXML and use ActionScript as a script language in conjunction with that, and what you end up creating is a SWF. It's a Flash binary that runs in the player just as if you had created it in the Flash IDE, but the way you get there is totally different. It's all code based. It's designed for a different type of developer, a different type of application, and it's ideally suited for the types of apps that coders would build, although it's entirely possible to still build apps like that in Flash. That's what Flex is right now.

The current shipping version of Flex is Flex 1.5, and the products have been well-publicized successes. Obviously the highest profile one is the Yahoo Maps beta, which is running on Flex, an extremely powerful application and very responsive, a very engaging experience, and is really, as I said, a benchmark for what Flex apps should be.

However, there were some limitations around Flex 1 that made it perhaps less than attractive for some developers, particularly ColdFusion developers. The objections that we primarily hear form three categories. One is pricing; Flex 1 is a server product and it's priced as such. When you look at the demographic of who the ColdFusion developers are, the type of apps they're building, the budgets those apps have, perhaps the price point is too high for them.

Number two is the whole deployment model. When you build an app in Flex 1, you need to deploy the Flex server on a J2EE server, and the majority of ColdFusion developers avoid J2EE servers. Even those who have ColdFusion Enterprise will be exposed to the J2EE server, but they don't use it for the most part, and so they use a simpler deployment model. Number three is the tooling, which is simply an easy way to build the apps in general. All of those are addressed by Flex 2 and there's a lot more to Flex 2 than just that but, at least through the feedback we're getting from ColdFusion developers, what they like about Flex 2 is that these three issues have been addressed. One is the pricing. We haven't released final pricing yet but we have publicly stated that the Flex Builder tool will sell for under a $1,000 per developer seat, so it's priced at a price point that's a lot more appealing to ColdFusion developers.

In addition, you will now be able to build applications with the tool, with the IDE of a Flex Builder, and build the app, compile it, generate a SWF, and then deploy that SWF like any other asset on your server. As you deploy your HTML files and your CFM files and GIFs, JPEGs, and CSS files, you also deploy your SWF files in the server and they get served by the HTTP server like any other pages; you don't need these services running on the server that you did previously so it's a far simpler deployment.

There are additional services, the Flex Enterprise services, and these are covered in detail in the user group presentations. These are additional functionality, messaging, and data services, and many developers will want to leverage that functionality, but for those who want to build basic applications, applications that talk to back ends, perhaps to ColdFusion via Flash remoting or via SOAP, and get the results back again, that would be possible using Flex Builder without needing to deploy services in the server. This makes the whole deployment a lot easier as well. Third is the new tool. Flex Builder is a tool that is really designed for coders. It's built on Eclipse, which has proven itself as a coder's platform, a coder's IDE, and so the combination of these three things really make Flex 2 very compelling to ColdFusion developers, and that's just a small part of what Flex 2 is about. There's a new ActionScript language; there's dramatically improved performance; there are enhancements to all the controls to it, there's a whole lot to it.

SH: You mentioned that Flex can be very appealing to ColdFusion developers. Typically when you go out on the road, which you do almost every year doing a user group tour, it's almost always coinciding with a major release, typically in the ColdFusion product. This tour you're going around and telling everybody about Flex 2.0 and Flex Builder 2. Are ColdFusion developers the target audience for your presentations and for the product itself? Care to talk just a little bit about who the real target audience is here for Flex 2.0?

BF: Flex 2 is not targeted solely at ColdFusion developers. It's being targeted at developers in general. ColdFusion developers are a very important part of that demographic because they're building apps that Flex can help solve real problems for and improve, and the integration between the two is so clean and so seamless that it just becomes another tool that they can work with; the end result is something vastly superior what they have right now. I think the ColdFusion user base is an important part of who Flex is for but it's not only for the ColdFusion developers. We have really ambitious numbers as to how we expect to grow Flex Builder use and that's going to be far bigger than just the ColdFusion audience, so it appeals to Java developers, to .NET developers, to PHP developers, and it should. The products, Flex and ColdFusion, shouldn't be dependent on each other. They have to be independently successful, but when you use the two together, you end up with something better than the sum of their parts. That's Flex in general.

As far as the user groups, yes, most of the prior tools have been around ColdFusion releases and this is a little different in that it's not around a ColdFusion release; it's more around Flex 2, which will have ColdFusion data associated with it, but the intent here is to expose the ColdFusion community to Flex. Many of them saw Flex 1 in the past, and some tried it with varying degrees of success. I really want them to take a look at Flex again, because Flex 2 is radically different from what they're used to and based on responses thus far they're really excited about it. We're now a week into the tour and I'm getting all sorts of feedback and comments that people are already downloading Flex Builder, they're already trying it, they're already building the sample apps and have been very successful with it, which was a little harder for them to do in the Flex 1 era. The initial feedback from the ColdFusion community and those who attended the groups is very good, but you're right, it is also attracting a slightly wider audience. I did a presentation in Philadelphia last night and there were attendees who were Flash developers, who were using Flash in talking to PHP with no ColdFusion experience at all, so it definitely has a wider reach.

More Stories By Simon Horwith

Simon Horwith is the CIO at AboutWeb, LLC, a Washington, DC based company specializing in staff augmentation, consulting, and training. Simon is a Macromedia Certified Master Instructor and is a member of Team Macromedia. He has been using ColdFusion since version 1.5 and specializes in ColdFusion application architecture, including architecting applications that integrate with Java, Flash, Flex, and a myriad of other technologies. In addition to presenting at CFUGs and conferences around the world, he has also been a contributing author of several books and technical papers.

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