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Flash to jump beyond the browser

Adobe's Apollo project will seek to blur the line between applications for the Web and for the desktop.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read
Adobe Systems is working on software meant to blur the line between the Web and desktop PCs.

The company is working on a project code-named Apollo, which will let applications written for Adobe's Flash presentation software run without a Web browser, Kevin Lynch, chief software architect and senior vice president of Adobe's platform business unit, told CNET News.com.

The goal of Apollo, which will be available as a free download early next year, is to overcome some of the limitations in today's Web applications, Lynch said. Right now, Flash programs run within a Web browser. Apollo is client-based software that will run Flash applications separately from a browser, whether online or offline, he said.

Competition is heating up among companies seeking to be the preferred supplier of tools and software to run a new generation of Web applications, which feature an interactive user interface and take advantage of broadband networks.

Microsoft and Java specialists are also building slicker Web development tools. But Adobe remains the incumbent when it comes to front-end design, said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at the Burton Group.

"Everyone is rushing in the same direction, which is to reduce the barriers between a Web page, an application and multimedia content," O'Kelly said. "(But) for a lot of people, the de facto most widely deployed Internet client is from Adobe."

Apollo is designed to give developers a way to create applications that can render Flash animations as well as HTML and Acrobat files (PDF). That approach preserves the benefits of the Web but allows room for programs that can't be included now, Lynch said.

Web-native applications, such as Web e-mail, can run on different operating systems but generally don't work when the user is disconnected from the Internet. Apollo will seek to bridge that gap, he said.

"As people start using Web applications more, and they become part of your daily life, they should be first-class citizens on your computer," Lynch said.

Apollo programs will function when a person is offline and automatically update data when the user gets back online. For example, a person could book an airline ticket from a handheld or laptop offline; when the person reconnects to a network, the software will complete the transaction.

In addition, Apollo applications will behave like other desktop programs: They will have a separate icon for launching the program and appear in operating system utilities, like the "Add or Remove Programs" feature in Microsoft Windows, Lynch said.

An early version of the Apollo software is expected to be made available to developers on the Adobe Labs site later this year. Programmers can write applications to run in Apollo using Adobe's current line of tools.

Front-end incursions
Apollo is part of Adobe's strategy to expand its network of third-party programmers, particularly Web developers, who build applications around its Flash and Acrobat technologies.

But developers are being offered a plethora of options, including more robust tools for scripting languages and AJAX-style development for the Web, analysts said.

Lynch said Adobe is seeking to tap into the growing interest in scripting languages. The forthcoming Flash Player 9, the software that runs Flash applications, has been rewritten to run scripts at least 10 times faster, he said. On Tuesday, Adobe joined Open Ajax, an Eclipse-based project for AJAX development.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has its sights set squarely on Adobe's traditional products for designers and illustrators. And it is working on development software, called Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere, which promises to render Windows applications on different operating systems and browsers, as Flash does.

Lynch said that Adobe is seeing more direct competition from Microsoft, even as the companies collaborate in other areas.

"It's good that Microsoft is recognizing the need for Microsoft applications to run everywhere, but it's very hard to achieve--and we have achieved that with Flash," he said.

Microsoft executives said that upcoming Windows Vista development tools will be able to run on non-Microsoft browsers and operating systems, although they will not be as functional as Windows-native applications.

Adobe is also looking to break out beyond its root business among illustrators and designers and appeal to corporate developers.

The San Jose, Calif.-based company is beefing up its development tools by introducing more corporate-oriented features, in an effort to serve both its traditional designer audience and more-mainstream developers.

Its Flex development tool for writing Flash applications works as a plug-in for Eclipse, a development program popular with corporate software writers who use Java. And Adobe has built Flex-based tooling, to make it easier for coders to tap into back-end corporate applications.

Desktop integration or download?
Apollo is a natural evolution to what Adobe already provides, and it will allow the company to package Adobe Reader (for PDF files) and Flash Player in a single product, Burton Group's O'Kelly said. It is also a way for the company to showcase the combination of technologies it gained when it acquired Macromedia, a transaction that closed late last year.

David Temkin, the chief technology officer of Laszlo, said that Apollo does promise some enhancements over Flash for third-party companies. Laszlo has a line of development tools and applications that run in a Web browser, using either Flash or AJAX.

Web application providers are looking for ways to better integrate their wares with desktop operating systems, Temkin said. Macromedia has a product called Macromedia Central, which allows Flash applications to run outside the browser. It hasn't gotten widespread use because it didn't fully integrate with desktops, Temkin noted.

"If I'm an application provider, I want to put my icon directly on the user's desktop without the intervention of someone else's branding. That's not something (Macromedia) Central provided," Temkin said.

Laszlo will investigate whether Apollo makes sense as a way to render applications built with its own development tools, he said. The company's decision will rely, in part, on how widely Apollo is used.

"If the user has to go out and download another thing and install it on their desktop, there will be an uphill battle to making it ubiquitous," Temkin said.

Lynch said that Apollo will be a separate download from its Adobe Reader (for viewing Acrobat PDF files) and from the Flash Player, and that those products will continue to be developed and distributed separately.

Adobe will take some steps to simplify the installation process, such as working with partners to preload Apollo on machines, Lynch said. The Apollo applications themselves will determine whether users download the software as well, he said.

"It's like any new environment, the question is always whether there is enough content for it," Lynch said. "Fortunately, we got a lot of people already using these technologies and capabilities."