All entries for Tuesday 02 October 2007

October 02, 2007

Adobe Thermo: It's the new VB3!

Well, not really, but the whole “Draw things on the canvas, then flip over to see the source code that represents what you drew” thing is so reminiscent of VB or Delphi.

But it’s cleverer than that; in particular, it understands PhotoShop PSD files and can import them, using the layer information to create objects within Thermo. In a fairly impressive demo, a PSD of a music browser was imported into Thermo, and a layer representing a text field was converted into an actual text field, then a set of images was converted into a list object with behaviours and (extensible) properties associated with the list; our old friend, the event handler dialog box reappears, with some clever graphical representations of things like transitions and effects. There’s also a cute lorem ipsum pseudo-data generator which allows you to pretend that you have a data source even though you don’t at design time.

The “Convert Artwork To…” trickery seems quite smart; Thermo seems to have quite a lot of ability to take bits of graphics from a layer and convert them to a functional control, tying different graphics to different parts of the control (eg. the thumb and the track of a scrollbar). Coders can also design their own controls and their own rules for how graphics should be converted to an instance of their control. You can also visually wire objects together such as a list of objects and a scrollbar so that one of them controls or affects the other. (Didn’t Delphi do that once upon a time?)

Easily the best demo of ths show so far; the crowd went pretty wild for it. Nothing shipping until 2008, though.


Adobe Share

Adobe Share: Like Files.Warwick, but not as good. And when I say “like”, I mean uncannily, spookily, identical:-

  • Virus check files on upload
  • Remember people you’ve shared files with before and offer them in a picklist for future shares
  • REST API for upload, download, share, preview

(Grudgingly, I have to admit that their FlashPaper derived, “preview any document type” feature is pretty cool. And you can provide a URL for the FlashPaper preview so that you or others can embed it on a web page elsewhere. And, perhaps inevitably, there’s an AIR client for Share which looks pretty sweet. I wonder if an AIR client for Files.Warwick might be worth a look. Oh, and they’re going to add “Convert to PDF on upload” soon too.)


Pleasure in the UI

I very much enjoyed the session I attended from the BuzzWord team. It’s an outstandingly good-looking application, and it’s refreshing to hear a design and development team talk explicitly about how making a beautiful interface is one of their goals. I also very much liked their idea of trying to create small moments of pleasure within their interface; they gave four examples:-

  1. In Buzzword’s document sorter screen, when you change the sort order (from, eg. Title to Author), the document names fly around the screen into their new order. It’s immensely visually appealing, but also has the useful effect of conveying something about the underlying model of what’s happening.
  2. Buzzword times out your session if there’s no activity from your client for a while. The dialog box that you see when you return to your PC says “Buzzword fell asleep while you were away” (plus a randomly selected picture of an enormously cute sleeping baby / cat / gorilla), and then “Please click to reactivate”.
  3. Their spell checker dialog box has a checkbox for “Flag mispelled words”. Misspelled is, well, misspelled, with a wavy red underline. This makes everyone who sees it, me included, smile.
  4. The icon for “Document History” is the Venus de Milo.

To me, interface touches like this are the hallmark of a team which really, really cares about their product, and you can see this same attention to detail everywhere within the application and the Buzzword web site. Even their “Visit our support forum” text has this same feel about it:-

Our mice are poised over the Refresh key, waiting for your comments. Head on over to our Forum.


Flashy FormsBuilder

I went to a session where the application being demonstrated was a Flash app which did something very similar to our own FormsBuilder app; it let users create their own forms with checkboxes and radio buttons and forth. The only material difference was that the whole creation process took place on a single screen and took place without any round trips to the server. So you could add a new question anywhere on the form by clicking on the divider/button between two existing questions, a little popup menu let you choose the type of question, you could drag whole questions or elements within questions around to re-order them, and you edited individual questions right there on the same screen which showed you the whole form.

What surprised me is how much slicker this felt in use than our FormsBuilder version, where you go to a separate screen to edit each question, a separate screen for form properties, and a separate screen to re-order questions. I don’t think of FormsBuilder as being especially clunky, and if you’d asked me to predict how much difference doing everything on one screen would make, I would have said not much. But when I came to try it, I found that it was a substantially nicer, slicker experience.

There’s nothing intrinsically Flash-centric about this, of course; single screen interfaces can be done in HTML just as well as in Flash nowadays. Biut it’s interesting how much difference to the (or at least, my) user experience it makes.


Adobe AIR

I went to a session giving an overview of Adobe’s AIR platform for delivering applications that run outside of the browser. Most of it I knew already, but there were a few interesting nuggets:-

  • AIR is available (though still in beta) for Windows and Mac. Linux is expected to follow “soon” (though the definition of soon is at best weak, since Linux support won’t be available until after v1.0 of AIR ships, and no date for that has yet been announced) and mobile devices (phones, presumably) still later after that. As you’d expect, it abstracts away the OS so that you don’t have to care which version of Windows you’re running on, or whether it’s a Mac rather than Windows. You get some access to native functionality – clipboard, drag and drop on to AIR windows, file system access, etc. but there’s no way to extend the functionality, and you can’t make arbitrary calls to the OS.
  • There’s no sandbox. AIR apps are just like EXEs; if you don’t trust the source, don’t download the app. (Some people seemed to think that this was a problem, but it seems sensible to me; AIR apps are meant to be like EXEs, so sandboxing them wouldn’t be necessary or appropriate.
  • There’s some database functionality built into the runtime, but you can’t make private spaces within the DB; all AIR apps can see the whole DB. Again, by analogy with an EXE file being able to see the whole file system, even bits of it belonging to other programs, this doesn’t seem to matter to me.
  • The runtime is intended to weigh in between about 6 and 10MB.
  • You can display PDF documents within the AIR environment, but PDF rendering is not built into the runtime; the user needs the Acrobat Reader on their machine as well. This is to keep the AIR runtime size down.
  • You can write Flash code for it, or HTML plus javascript plus CSS. The HTML rendering engine is WebKit, and the Flash engine is derived from Flash 9, so it’ll support the same things that that version of Flash does – Actionscript 3, filters, blending, H264 video (though that’s not yet in the beta).
  • Interestingly, HTML is rendered on the Flash canvas so Flash effects such as rotate or alpha transparency or blur can be applied to HTML elements, and the HTML elements remain functional post-transform.
  • AIR apps can have an OS-appropriate window with controls, or no window at all and transparency, so you can do odd-shaped apps like Clippy or whatever.
  • Beta 2, out today, adds support for a synchronous DB API, OS-native menus, double-click and scroll wheel support, XSLT support, etc.

Update: Today’s session enumerates a short list of advantages to AIR:-

  1. File system access
  2. Windows & chrome; no browser cruft, make your own, app-specific toolbars and menus
  3. Drag and drop support, into and out of
  4. Better copy and paste; can pass more complex objects such as a range of cells or a video clip or whatever
  5. Offline working
  6. Background processing
  7. Notifications; can display messages to the user better than in a browser
  8. Keyboard shortcuts; don’t have to worry about clashing with the browser’s shortcuts (eg. you can’t use Ctrl-B for Bold in a browser because it’s reserved for “Show bookmarks”, tab and enter already do stuff)

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