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Macromedia flexes Flash muscle

The software maker releases Flex, a server tool aimed at creating slick interfaces for Web applications.

Macromedia released on Monday a new server product intended to expand the use of its Flash format for presenting Web applications.

Flex, formerly code-named Royale, allows developers to create scripts in common languages such as Java and .Net and to run them on top of Web applications. Flex breaks them down into a Macromedia dialect of extensible markup language (XML) that can be read by the Flash Player, the widespread Flash client commonly used to spice up Web pages.

Jeff Whatcott, a vice president of product management and marketing for Macromedia, said the main use for Flex will be to create compelling and attractive interfaces for Web applications, an area that often gets overlooked by developers.

"It's focused on enabling enterprise application developers to get involved in creating rich applications," Whatcott said. "Improving the user experience helps ensure the application actually succeeds."

Macromedia is in the midst of a broad effort to expand the Flash format, once mainly used to present blinking ads on Web pages, into a broad platform for delivering Web applications and content. The company has launched a Web conferencing service based on Flash, begun an experiment to run Flash applications outside a Web browser and added video and other multimedia capabilities to the format.

Flex extends the Flash campaign by allowing mainstream developers to take advantage of the format without having to learn Macromedia's Flash development tools, which use a timeline-based interface more familiar to graphics professionals.

"For people who typically program in Java or .Net, the tools didn't quite work the way they work," Whatcott said. "They wanted to be able to use their existing tools to program rich applications, and that's what Flex enables."

Flex works with leading Java application servers, including IBM WebSphere, BEA's WebLogic and Apache Tomcat. It costs $12,000 for each two server CPUs it runs on.

Macromedia is working on its own Flex-based development tool, code-named Brady, but the company expects most programmers will continue to use the scripting tools they're familiar with. "Your development environment can be anything from Notepad (the light-duty word processor built into Windows) to high-end IBM tools," Whatcott said.

The San Francisco software maker is counting on system integrator partners, including IBM Global Services, to help familiarize developers unaccustomed to Macromedia products with the benefits of using Flex to dress up their applications.

"Those partners are critical to us," Whatcott said. "They're very enthusiastic about what we're doing. Flex solves real problems for them."

Several companies have already tackled the challenge of making Flash accessible to mainstream developers, most notably Laszlo Systems, whose Presentation Server converts JavaScript code into Flash on the fly.

Laszlo executives didn't appear to be too worried about the arrival of Flex. "Macromedia has great design tools, but it's the shared belief that they'll be hard-pressed to transition into a category that must meet the essential needs of application developers," Chief Technology Officer David Temkin said.