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Adobe gives Flash a programming boost

New betas of Flash Builder 4, Flash Catalyst, and Flash's open-source Flex underpinnings give Adobe a better response to Web apps and Microsoft's Silverlight.

Adobe Systems released on Monday beta versions of three programming projects for producing online applications that run in its Flash Player, software that's widely used but also under competitive threat from other Web technologies.

First is a beta version of Flash Catalyst, a programming tool that's meant for the designer crowd rather than the coding crowd. Catalyst lets designers create a Flash application's user interface in Adobe's Photoshop and Illustrator applications, import the files, attach a variety of actions to user interface elements, then produce the Flash application for production or for handing off to more serious programmers.

Second is the beta of Flash Builder 4, the harder-core programming tool previously called Flex Builder. This tool, based on the Eclipse programming software, employs Adobe's open-source Flex framework for building advanced Flash applications and is for the serious programming set who works in an integrated development environment (IDE). For example, it can be used to link Flash applications with a variety of back-end data sources for advanced features.

Third is the beta of Flex 4 framework that provides underpinnings for Flash applications, including everything from user interface components to animation technology. Flex 4, code-named Gumbo, is an open-source project.

Flash got its start as a way to produce animations on Web sites, leading to gripes that its timeline-based view of the world was alien to programmers. For the animation-oriented set, Adobe still offers its Flash Professional software, but for others, Adobe has the Flex-based approach for producing Flash applications.

Adobe offers a variety of tools in an attempt to appeal to a variety of programming styles. A single project can bounce among different people using the different tools, said Steven Heintz, principal product manager of the Adobe Platform business.

"We've really made all these tools work together," Heintz said. "For pieces of the same project, you can use the tools best for the job. We believe this is better than jamming all this together into one massive tool that's totally inappropriate."

Flash faces a number of challengers. Most directly is Microsoft's Silverlight, version 3 of which is set to be launched July 10. But Google, Yahoo, and browser makers also are advancing what can be done directly in Web browsers without relying on plug-ins such as Flash or Silverlight.

And HTML 5, an still-in-progress revision of the Hypertext Markup Language used to describe Web pages, comes with a variety of features such as the ability to run multiple tasks at the same time and to play video and audio as easily as browsers can display images today, and Google, Apple, Opera, and Firefox developer Mozilla are pushing what can be done with the JavaScript language for programming Web pages.

Adobe argues that it's got consistency on its side with Flash, though. Web users tend to upgrade to the newest Flash player relatively rapidly, and Flash works consistently regardless of which browser it's plugged into or which operating system it's running on. For programmers in the HTML camp, Adobe offers its DreamWeaver development software.

In contrast HTML and JavaScript--including advanced JavaScript applications built with technology called Ajax--varies from browser to browser, said Shafath Syed, a product marketing manager with the Adobe Platform group.

"We've come full circle" in the browser market to the mid-1990s browser wars, with different interpretations of standards and new features and differing support for that technology, Syed said. "That's always a challenge."

Another challenge both camps face is spreading to the increasingly important realm of mobile phones. Flash, for example, doesn't run on Apple's iPhone and is still under development for phones based on Google's Android operating system. Those devices support JavaScript and some HTML 5 features, though, they, of course, lack much of the processing power and memory to make full use of it.

The Adobe programming tools also can be used in the production of applications that run on AIR, the Adobe Integrated Runtime that lets Flash applications run on their own outside a browser.