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Machine Learning : Article

Rich Internet Applications - State of the Union

What's your technology choice for implementing RIA?


Even though the Java programming language became popular largely because of applets and the famous dancing Duke (http://java.com/en/download/help/testvm.xml ), applets haven't become Java's main use pattern. The main reason: the large footprint of the required JVM (currently 16MB). And there are other drawbacks. For instance, although Java Swing pushed a platform-independent look-and-feel, absent any good-looking off-the-shelf GUI widgets it was hard selling it to the public. In this regard Flash and Flex creators did a much better job with their eye-candy components. Or take audio and video integration. Today people are used to having streaming audio and video components embedded in Web pages. But the multimedia Java API remains rudimentary, to say the least.
There are some efforts to minimize the size of the JVM used by Web browsers and the Java Browser Edition project now needs "only" about 3MB to run a primitive Hello World applet. But this can't compete with Flash Player 9, which managed to accommodate two virtual machines in a 1.2MB download that can run any RIA however complex.
Another issue with Java applets is that they don't offer a seamless download of the proper version of the JVM along with the applet. Flash Player's express install does precisely that.
Having said that, I must acknowledge that Java Swing is a very mature and robust technology for creating GUI applications delivered either over the Web or installed on the desktop. You can do literally anything with Java Swing - if you can afford it. No, you don't pay licensing fees, but because of the longer development cycle and need to engage expert programmers, industrial-size Swing projects are usually quite expensive to build and maintain.

Adobe Flex 2

Flex 2 applications run cross-platform in a ubiquitous Flash Player 9 that's a lightweight virtual machine. The platform includes:

  • an XML-based language called MXML that supports the declarative programming of GUI components targeting designers;
  • the standard object-oriented programming language, ActionScript 3.0, based on the latest ECMAScript specification;
  • server-side integration via Flex Data Services giving client applications transparent access to the world of J2EE;
  • charting components, access to multimedia controls, etc;
  • and an Eclipse-based full-featured IDE with automated deployment, debugging, and tracing facilities.
The Flex 2 platform is easily extendable and integrates well with server-side Java, ColdFusion, PHP, Ruby, ASP, and the like.
The SWF file format is open, and there are third-party open source products that offer tools for creating RIAs delivered by Flash Player like OpenLaszlo from Laszlo Systems.
This is what comes at no cost with Flex 2:
  • MXML - an XML-based declarative programming language for creating GUI.
  • ActionScript 3.0 - an object-oriented language similar to Java.
  • Flash Player 9 - a virtual machine with a tiny footprint that lives inside a Web browser and runs your compiled bytecode (.SWF).
  • Command-line compilers and debugger.
  • Flex Framework, which includes a library of well-designed GUI component: buttons, tab folders, data grids, tree controls, animated effects, and more.
  • Flex Data Services Express (FDS) - a template Web application deployed in a J2EE server to communicate with ActionScript client application run by Flash Player. FDS Express is limited to a single CPU, which makes it useful only for learning purposes.
The following Flex tools require a purchased license:
  • Flex Builder - the Eclipse-based IDE
  • Charting component
  • Flex Data Services Departmental, 24x7, 100 concurrent users
  • Flex Data Services Enterprise, 24x7, unlimited users
In a nutshell, the process of creating a basic Flex 2 application consists of the following steps:
1. Design application by adding MXML components like this button:
<mx:Button  label="Place Order" click="processOrder(event)"/>
If you use Flex Builder IDE, you can apply drag-and-drop techniques. Alternatively, you can write the MXML as text.
2. Write the code in ActionScript per your functional specification, for example:
private function processOrder (event:Event):void{
//The business logic goes here
3. Compile the code: The Flex compiler automatically converts MXML into ActionScript and creates bytecode output in a form of an SWF file to be run in Flash Player 9 or above. You'll enjoy a fully automatic compilation process if you use the Flex Builder IDE.
4. Deploy the SWF file and the wrapping HTML page in the Web server of your choice. The deployment process and creating the wrapped can be completely transparent if you use the Flex Builder IDE.
More advanced Flex applications can include interaction with the server-side systems through FDS, which provides remote access to server-side Java objects and Java EE components, extensive messaging support (including JMS integration), synchronization with persisted data, and integration with other persistent technologies.


Recently released Microsoft's Windows Foundation Platform, or WPF uses an XML-based declarative programming language called XAML to create GUIs and C# as a general-purpose programming language. WPF is suitable for creating both RIA and desktop applications. XBAP stands for XAML Browser Application and it's a WPF way of creating RIAs that runs in Internet Explorer.
Microsoft has released a Beta version called WPF/E that will run on some non-Windows platforms (this version uses substitutes C# with JavaScript). While living in a sandbox, XBAP will have access to all .NET 3.0 functionality but WPF/E won't. Common Language Runtime (CLR) is the client's WPF engine.
To create WPF applications, developers can use Microsoft's Visual Studio 2005 IDE with installed .NET 3.0 extensions. The next version of this IDE, called Orcas, will include a visual GUI designer. WPF developers use the same code base for writing XBAP and desktop applications: they just enclose the code sections that aren't allowed in XBAP into the ifdef blocks.
Microsoft XAML code looks similar to Adobe's MXML. Even though today's Flex 2 is a lot more mature than WPF, Microsoft has an established developer base, while Adobe traditionally catered to designers, and its main goal today is to convince enterprise developers (particularly the Java camp) that Flex can be a tool of choice for creating business RIAs.

More Stories By Yakov Fain

Yakov Fain is a Java Champion and a co-founder of the IT consultancy Farata Systems and the product company SuranceBay. He wrote a thousand blogs (http://yakovfain.com) and several books about software development. Yakov authored and co-authored such books as "Angular 2 Development with TypeScript", "Java 24-Hour Trainer", and "Enterprise Web Development". His Twitter tag is @yfain

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Most Recent Comments
Ajax_is_a_hack 02/23/08 05:38:33 PM EST

Hey Yakov, check out this:


OpenLaszlo - yeah, it's an *alternative*, but let's be honest--other than it not being backed by a major commercial developer (which many see as a good thing)--it doesn't have Flex beat on much of anything. (Flex is open source too...) I've read some other admittedly less biased comparisons and OpenLaszlo was graded lower I think in every category.

jeff_s 02/11/08 04:22:03 PM EST

This blog is certainly not an unbiased analysis, even though it's pretending to be just that.

The article is basically "Flex rules, everything else drools".

It goes on and on about the good things about Flex, while giving only cursory coverage of Flex drawbacks. Meanwhile, it's just the opposite regarding the other technologies, going on and on about drawbacks, and giving only cursory coverage of advantages.

Case in point, Yakov says that Java Swing development is "hugely expensive". Nonsense. First, NetBeans is completely free, and NetBeans has the wonderful Matisse GUI designer, making the development of great looking Swing UIs a snap. Second, there is JavaFX, which is an XML based declarative scripting language that is used to quickly build rich Swing UIs super easy, and is very similar to MXML/Action Script, as is featured in Yakov's beloved Flex. Third, there is a plethora of third party libraries and controls in the Swing ecosystem, that further extends Swing capabilities, and makes Swing development easier.

Then, Yakov fails to mention how expensive Flex Builder is (which, to be honest, you'll need to be truly productive with Flex), to the tune of $249 (as opposed to Free for NetBeans).

Then Yakov goes on to say one of the drawbacks of Ajax is that it involves JavaScript. Wait a minute - JavaScript is based on EcmaScript, which Flex/Flash's Action is also based on. So Yakov, why does that syntax suck for one technology (Ajax), but it's great for another technology (Flex/ActionScript). C'mon.

Yakov also completely fails to mention how much of a CPU hog Flash can be, especially on older/budget machines (which, let's face it, are quite common in the business world). So if you do a RIA with Flex, which is running in the Flash VM, you're going to get a lot of end users (corporate workers) complaining.

Flex is quite good, and has it's advantages and disadvantages. Same with the other technologies mentioned in this article.

But Yakov's article is completely biased in favor of Flex. That's fine, as Yakov has long been singing Flex praises. But he's presenting this article as a fair analysis, when it's anything but.

Thus, anyone reading this article should take it with a grain of salt.

Yakov Fain 02/19/07 07:49:38 AM EST

Sebastien, not only I've mentioned OpenLaszlo in the article, but I also published my interview with the creator of OpenLaszlo:

Am I cleared now or should remain ashamed?

Sébastien Arbogast 02/18/07 05:43:34 PM EST

It's such a shame that you don't even mention OpenLaszlo as an alternative for Adobe Flex...

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