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Adobe's AIR: Niche or the future of desktop development?

Adobe Integrated Runtime, which makes Web-native applications operate like desktop programs, is still in beta, but many developers are already building apps on it.

CHICAGO--The crux of Adobe Systems' platform strategy is in AIR.

AIR, or Adobe Integrated Runtime, is a download that lets Web applications run on a desktop. With AIR applications, people can work offline and drag and drop items like graphics or text between Web and desktop applications.

AIR is still in beta, but Adobe and many other software developers are already building applications on it. For Adobe's platform business, AIR gives the company a way to extend its investments in Web documents and Web development tools onto desktops across different operating systems.

Rather than compete head-on against Microsoft and Java vendors for developer interest, Adobe's focus is on Web technologies and services, chief software architect Kevin Lynch said Monday at the company's Max conference here.

"Microsoft is trying to bring the .Net community to the Web. We are really focused on bringing the larger Web community to the desktop. It's two different approaches. It's not a head-on thing--it's just two groups of developers," Lynch said. "Our bet is on the Web."

So far, that's an approach that seems to have some appeal. Although it's still in beta, there are already hundreds of AIR applications--with many more likely to follow.

This Disney travel application lets agents keep customer lists, a scratch pad and regularly updated offers in one screen.

eBay was one of the first to commit to building an AIR application that lets people sell and buy goods on eBay from a person's desktop.

At the conference on Monday, Disney showed off an application developed with Frog Design for travel agents to book vacations to Disney theme parks.

The business applications world is also showing some interest.

Business Objects announced that it is building a dashboard application on AIR. And SAP showed off a prototype of a presentation application that connects to its business intelligence server.

Adobe executives said Monday that they expect the first wave of applications to be consumer-facing media apps. The company built its Adobe Media Player, which allows people to view videos on a desktop machine, with the hopes of getting content that will entice people to download AIR.

But the company has been surprised with the speed in which enterprise application developers have picked it up, Adobe Chief Operating Officer Shantanu Narayen said Monday. (For a list of the AIR applications being shown at Max 2007, click here.)

This SAP application lets people drag columns from Excel onto a dashboard Flash Web page.

The first version of AIR, set for release in the first half of next year, will have integration with computers' file systems, notifications, and automatic network connection when people get back online.

That covers a lot of what a developer needs to build applications, said Josh Bloom, a design technologist at Frog Design, which helped design and write the Disney travel application.

In this case, he picked Flex Builder, Adobe's development tool, to write the application and used Flash as well. Frog Design takes advantage of Microsoft user interface tools, which he said are more complete.

"You can be a full Web developer and have access to the desktop (with AIR) which you didn't have access to before," Bloom said.

Technical advances are helping make Web applications more functional. Developers can write applications using ActionScript, a JavaScript-compatible scripting language often used in Ajax applications. Hardware is more powerful now, Lynch noted, and more people have broadband.

"Some applications you're going to have to write native code where you need to have the optimization and the horsepower. There is a place for them. But for the mass of applications, it's going to be the Web," he said.