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2008: Decision Year for RIAs - October 20-22, 2008 San Jose


How Quickly the Mighty Have Fallen
At least we can’t say we don’t live in interesting times

On November 9, Adobe announced in a blog post[1] that it had decided to cease efforts to develop browser plugins for mobile devices to play Flash, indicating that HTML5 was "the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms." In case that sounds like Adobe abandoned Flash entirely, it should be noted that Adobe indicated their intentions to continue to develop the AIR player for mobile devices, so that the role for Flash on mobile devices would be restricted to native apps, just not browser-based apps.

A few days later in another blog post[2], Adobe also noted that it was releasing the entire Flex SDK (used by the Flash Builder IDE to generate Flash RIA applications) to open source, indicating that "In the long-term, we believe HTML5 will be the best technology for enterprise application development."

What is so surprising about these announcements is just how quickly they came. As recently as January of 2010, HTML5 seemed to be going nowhere fast.[3] Meanwhile, Adobe was finishing up a new version of Adobe Flash Professional that would not only generate Flash, but would generate applications that would run on iOS as well. Everything was looking like Flash would not only rule the Internet, but would start taking on mobile devices as well.

Then in February of 2010, the W3C gave HTML5 I swift kick in the pants (although still targeting 2014 for the release of the standard).[4] Perhaps more important, on April 3 of 2010, Apple released the iPad. Five days later (April 8) Apple revised its Developer License to essentially ban the Flash-to-iPhone compiler feature of Adobe Flash Professional. Finally on April 28 of 2010, Steve Jobs released his "Thoughts on Flash" in which he outlined the reasons why he would never allow the use of Flash on iOS devices and instead backed HTML5.

A year and a half later and Adobe has ‘abandoned the field' so to speak, joining the HTML5 bandwagon and largely limiting the use of Flash to AIR applications on mobile devices. They indicate they will still work on the Flash browser plugin for desktop browsers, but given that plugins seem to be on the way out for desktop browsers, we may end up seeing Flash limited to the AIR player on desktops as well. The speed at which Adobe has capitulated, and somewhat similar moves that Microsoft has made recently, have led one person to suggest that Microsoft will take the same approach with Silverlight, making the soon-to-be-released version the last version. So far, there's been no other indication that might be the case though.

Of course, at this point you may be wondering, "What does this have to do with PowerBuilder?" I think there are a number of observations I would make from these recent events:

  1. If we thought that SAP/Sybase has problems communicating and supporting the product, think how the Flex developers feel right now. At least they got treated better than the "classic" Visual Basic programmers. You have to give SAP/Sybase some credit. PowerBuilder is still rolling, and a lot of the tools that were supposed to have killed it off (classic VB, Flex) have been killed off themselves.
  2. While HTML5 may be the future, the future isn't here yet. The Adobe post on the Flex action indicated that it would probably be 3 to 4 years yet before HTLM5 is in a position to replace Flex applications. With that in light, their decision with regard to Flex seems premature to me. Nonetheless, the lesson we might take away is that HTML5 currently isn't suitable for line of business application development, though it may be in a few years. We probably shouldn't expect to see anything out of SAP/Sybase to support generating line of business applications with HTML5 before then.
  3. With regard to development for mobile devices, apparently Adobe sees enough potential there to continue to support development of native applications for them. That is certainly an area where PowerBuilder could play as well. Of course, SAP/Sybase has been there before with PocketBuilder. Perhaps the main issue there was the dependence on one particular mobile operating system. In order to play in this market, PowerBuilder would need to be able to generate native applications for both Android and iOS at a minimum. The Developer Agreement changes referred to earlier were reversed by Apple, so cross-compiling applications to work on iOS is acceptable once more.
  4. Change happens. A year and a half from now we may all be wondering what all the hype regarding HTML5 was about as we are all excited about some new technology. Given that it takes approximately a year and a half for SAP/Sybase to release a new version of PowerBuilder, it's perhaps wise for them to not rely on one particular technological approach to solve a particular issue. I would like to see PowerBuilder 15 include HTML5 generation capabilities. I'm also thinking that for a number of reasons (immaturity of HTML5, less than 100% adoption of HTML5 capable browsers, inconsistencies of implementation of HTML5 between browser vendors) that PowerBuilder may need another non-HTML5 method of supporting web application development. Perhaps HTML5 with a fallback to Silverlight, or Silverlight with a fallback to HTML5 might be an option. Even if Microsoft does decide that 5 is the last version of Silverlight, it offers a viable alternative method of generating web-based line of business applications until HTML5 fully matures and the adoption rate for HTML5 capable browsers improves.

Those are my thoughts anyway. At least we can't say we don't live in interesting times.

About Bruce Armstrong
Bruce Armstrong is a development lead with Integrated Data Services (www.get-integrated.com). A charter member of TeamSybase, he has been using PowerBuilder since version 1.0.B. He was a contributing author to SYS-CON's PowerBuilder 4.0 Secrets of the Masters and the editor of SAMs' PowerBuilder 9: Advanced Client/Server Development.

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