Adobe's Flex grabs top project slot at Apache

Shrinking future ahoy


Adobe’s Flash-friendly Flex application development framework is now a grown-up Apache Software Foundation (ASF) project.

Flex has been granted Top-Level Project (TLP) status by the ASF open-source group, "signifying that the Project's community and products have been well-governed under the ASF's meritocratic process and principles".

The Apache Way means, among other things, that decisions about Flex’s development will be taken publicly - and that Flex will be developed in public.

Adobe has used the opportunity to flag up Flex 4.9, which was released last month. Headline changes are that the SDK now works with Flash Player versions versions 10.2 though to the most recent 11.5 and that there's support for Oracle’s Java 7.

The message from ASF: Flex is alive and flourishing. But is it?

Flex arrived inauspiciously at ASF in November 2011. Created by Adobe in 2004, Flex was offloaded at the same time that Adobe said there’d be no new versions of Flash for mobile. Flex came from a time before the iPhone and iPad, and was Adobe’s attempt to cement Flash as the app runtime for a new era of devices beyond the PC – a market that it had already saturated. Flex allowed you to develop applications for Adobe’s Flash runtime using XML and ActionScript code.

But Apple’s Steve Jobs destroyed this stately strategy, rejecting Flash for both the iPhone and iPad as part of his ban on native apps, despite buying in on Flash for the Mac. He did so supposedly because of its poor performance and security. Apple's co-founder later declared HTML5 and CSS to be the future of web-based rich internet experiences, declaring Flash the "number one reason Macs crash".

In the past, there has been a tendency for companies to release products under an open source licence or to an open-source project as soon as it sniffs that support for the project is dwindling.

Certainly the ASF has a history of success: it is home to 150 open-source projects including some big headliners such as Apache HTTP Web Server, the NoSQL database Cassandra (used by Netflix), the Lucene text-search engine and distributed computing architecture Hadoop - plus several sub-projects, including Hbase and Pig. Adobe's list of Flex customers, meanwhile, includes BBC iPlayer and Yahoo! Messenger in addition to a number of enterprise organizations.

But mobile development does appear to be going native. Big app authors write for iOS first, to the teeth-gnashing frustration of those on Android - the world’s most popular smartphone operating system. Google has even unplugged YouTube for mobile from Flash and gone with an HTML5 version for the official mobile app.

The likelihood is that Flex at ASF will be driven by those with a vested interest in it, despite being an open-source project open to all comers. In effect, that will mean existing rather than new customers - which include among their number Adobe itself. A number of Adobe sites run on Flex and it has a large Flash-based install base to support.

When it said Flex was going out of house in 2011, Adobe promised it would:

Continue to support applications built with Flex, as well as all future versions of the SDK running in PC browsers with Adobe Flash Player and as mobile apps with Adobe AIR indefinitely on Apple iOS, Google Android and RIM BlackBerry Tablet OS.

Adobe's Flex and Flash have lost the consumer web but there is a glimmer of hope: the enterprise and business web, organisations which built the dashboards and interfaces of their apps on Adobe or whose creatives served video or ads using flash.

However, it was this very crowd, which had all bought into the software maker's roadmap, that were left swinging when Adobe U-turned on Flash and Flex in 2011. As HTML5 matures, acquiring the capabilities that Flash has led on for years, and with large web estate owners like Facebook puckering up to native, it’s hard to see how Flex can hold onto even its "old faithfuls". ®


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