Open Source Flex alternatives require broad industry support
"When a scientist says something is possible, they're probably underestimating how long it will take. But if they say it's impossible, they're probably wrong" --Nobel Prize Winner Richard Smalley.
In this case they're definitely wrong. Four years ago, while working for marchFIRST, I helped build a Flash-XML-Java driven site for building and configuring skinnable rich media blog sites. We built this for Proctor & Gamble's Tremor.com project.
I've not used Flex, specifically because I would like to bring similar products to the Open Source market. The licensing restrictions for the beta versions were a bit draconian, and I'm careful to avoid potential future legal enganglements when intellectual property law and Open Source software is concerned.
At this time, there is no alternative product to Flex or Lazlo that offers a competitive feature set. Such a configurable suite could be assembled with Flash MX and the library of Open Source J2EE and XML technologies available from the Apache Software Foundation & The Codehaus. The problem with running an Open Source project to build a Flash-XML-based UI framework is that very few Open Source developers can afford the Flash MX development suite, and at the moment, I count myself among them. If a framework of this kind is ever to make it to the Open Source marketplace, broad industry support will be required. However much I'd like to personally fund a project to develop this technology, I cannot at this time, and have no desire to go it alone.
Tomcat, Geronimo, Apache, none of these Open Source technologies would exist for us to use if companies like Sun, IBM, HP, Apple, BEA and the ASF weren't willing to cooperatively drive the standards, share ideas and contribute time and energy to providing the necessary development infrastructure. This strategy has proven to be extremely successful and practical.
The reason we don't have Open Source products for developing Shockwave media is not because the shockwave format is top secret. It's not. OpenSWF.org is a good place to start if you're looking for Open Source SWF editors.
But in terms of features, Macromedia has outperformed the competition and achieved a virtual monopoly status in the marketplace with their tool sets. To their credit they did this by delivering better products to the market before their competitors could. But the perception is that now they dictate the standards, can bring their reference implementations to market long before anyone else and in recent years, as one of my readers recently put it, "they've grown haughty".
The world has been content to rest on their laurels while this happened. Now it seems that Macromedia can charge any sum they want for their products, because they're the only game in town. The prices of the MX 2004 product line illustrate this. Back in 1998, a small business could easily afford a handful of licenses for Flash 3. With Macromedia chasing the high end of the market, what are the little guys going to do?
Communities are improved by the presence of strong business, and businesses are improved when they join together into communities. That's what Open Source is all about--it's what separates us from the Free Software crowd. Unfortunately, the talking heads in the technical press usually don't recognize the distinction, and Open Source gets all the bad press that Free Software rightly deserves. If you check out Gluecode's website, you'll see their motto is "Open for business." I've never seen a better phrase to sum up the relationship between Open Source and the marketplace. (Gluecode, by the way, is my pick for "Company most likely to destroy the JBoss Group")
Macromedia's shown us what's possible with the technology, and they've done a fine job addressing the desires of the market. But there's also a gigantic and growing market for affordable alternatives. If we want affordable alternatives to Flex, then we need to generate them. Any successful effort to bring shockwave products to the Open Source market would greatly benefit from Macromedia's leadership and support.
Macromedia is no bogeyman. They've recently broken their MX 2004 suite into two editions, but they still each cost over a thousand dollars. Their older products aren't getting much cheaper, either.
I am going to be at the Microsoft TechEd conference next week in San Diego. Anyone who wants to meet with me there and discuss the possibility of developing Java and XML driven Shockwave technologies for the Open Source market should send me an email. Any help Macromedia can offer will be welcomed with open arms.