Walking on AIR

2008-05-16 08:36

Alistair Fairweather

Imagine a piece of software that lets you keep track of the things you care most about in the world - your friends, your share portfolio, your photo library - and lets you do it from anywhere in the world, on any device, night or day. That is the dream of convergence.

Sadly, convergence has become one of those irritating buzzwords that always seems to mean another gadget - a phone that scans documents, a microwave that sends e-mail - that few people really need.

True convergence is usually much more subtle.

Take Adobe for instance. Most non-geeks have scarcely heard of them, but if you've ever used the internet, odds are you've used their products. Their Flash technology for instance is installed on over 98% of computers worldwide.

And it's a versatile little beast - Youtube uses it to play all their videos, Popcap uses it for all their online games, Hallmark uses it to animate all their cards, and millions of other sites use it to add pizzazz to their functionality.

What does Adobe get out of it? They sell the only software that lets you make things in Flash.

But Flash has always had one central problem - it needs a web browser (like Internet Explorer or Firefox) to do anything. In computer terms it's the flamboyant tenant who lives above the garage. It's a whole lot of fun to be around but it can't get too uppity or Daddy Microsoft or Mommy Mozilla will evict it smartly. But all that is about to change.

In February this year Adobe quietly launched a new product called AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) which allows goodies developed in Flash, to live on your desktop, independent of your browser. At first that doesn't sound very significant (who cares if you watch Youtube videos from your desktop or your browser?) until you look under the hood.


AIR essentially turns tens of millions of talented Flash fundis into desktop application developers. They could, for argument's sake, use their existing skills to make a free word processor to rival Microsoft Word. And while that's unlikely, a whole range of desktop stock tickers, route planners, music players and other nifty (and free) applications are already available.

But why would companies choose to make software using Flash and AIR? Simple. They work on every kind of computer and (soon) on cellphones too. Apple Mac users have all experienced the frustration of software that doesn't work on their beloved MacBook. For open source geeks using operating systems like Linux, the pain is even more familiar. But AIR takes care of all of that, and means you can develop a product once that will work for everyone, everywhere.

It's not all plain sailing though. For AIR to work consumers need to download a piece of software and install it on their machines. And at ten megabytes it's not tiny.

Then again, in the early '90s many people scoffed at the idea that anyone would bother to download the one-megabyte Flash player - at the time an enormous download - but they did, and now only two percent of internet users don't have it.


It's also not the most original idea. Sun Microsystems tried a very similar strategy way back in 1995 with their Java platform. They have had varying degrees of success, largely losing the battle for the web plug-in (to, surprise surprise, Flash) but getting a strong foothold on cellphones.

South Africa's own MXit, for instance, uses their technology for its phenomenally popular chat application. But Java was always hamstrung by a small and somewhat esoteric customer base - Flash with its millions of cross-discipline devotees has no such limitations.

But Sun aren't their only worry. Last year Microsoft launched Silverlight, essentially their own version of Flash, to compete with Adobe on their own turf. Whether it gets any traction remains to be seen.

So what does this have to do with convergence? In a nutshell, everything. What technologies like AIR do is remove the barriers between people with clever ideas and their potential customers. We've already seen how well this works with online platforms like Facebook, where applications made by third parties attract tens of millions of users overnight.

And it's not necessarily AIR itself that's exciting, but the climate that gave birth to it. For decades software makers and users have struggled to bridge the traditional divides: Mac vs PC, proprietary vs open source, mobile vs desktop.

The fact that AIR even exists shows that bridges can, and will be built.

  • Alistair Fairweather is's Social Networking Product Manager.

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    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.

    • MP3 - 2008-05-16 09:18

      This sounds far more flexible than the 'lovely' MS .Net Framework. Big ups to Sun for for bridging the gap. I'll need a bigger screen though for all those Flash Applications to be visible on my screen though ;)

    • Feedalizr Man - 2008-05-16 09:39

      There is a great AIR app available for download (free), which will allow you to see all the web activities from your friends right here on your desktop. It's awesome.

    • Whatever - 2008-05-16 09:59

      Nice article, the only thing missing is a download link so here it is This is a very handy little product to use.

    • KoosS - 2008-05-16 10:12

      Every couple of years, somebody brings out something that will run on everything. And then when the real implementations start, it becomes more and more hardware/OS dependant, as each hardware/ os vendor tries to lock it into his platform.

    • ElectroMan - 2008-05-16 10:32

      Innovation to the people... yippy!

    • Ub3rG33k - 2008-05-16 10:54

      So what exactly is AIR bring to the show? Firstly, Java already runs on "everything", PC's (Win or Linux), Macs, cellphones pda etc. And all you need is the JVM installed on your device (like AIR). Also, java is free, the best IDE to create java apps with (that would be netbeans) is free and no browser needed. I can run java apps offline, would I be able to do so with AIR? AIR brings nothing new, but overhyping will make people use it. Another sad technology making things worse...

    • CTheB - 2008-05-16 11:05

      Flash developers developing general use applications. Mercy! The goal is noble, but Flash is hardly meant for general development work. Round peg, meet square hole.

    • General C# - 2008-05-16 11:05

      For those of you whom think that AIR is the next big thing should get a reality check! Java can do everything AIR can and more, and it could many, many years ago. It doesn't mean that Flash is popular, so AIR would be popular. For the author: Java is far more pervasive than Flash - pretty much every website in existence today uses it! I hate when people whom don't know what they're talking about have a lot to say.

    • randomjester - 2008-05-16 11:20

      so it will be able to run everywhere, buut will it be aboe to run DOOM!!!

    • Eden - 2008-05-16 11:26

      Please give us more articles like this. It is so refreshing not to have someone humping your leg with racial or negative splurb.You actually added benefit to me. Thanks.

    • Tarns - 2008-05-16 11:27

      So flash in finally jumping on the runtime environment bandwagon. Good grief, Sun has been doing it for years with Java. OS independant applications . . . Java.

    • Tarns - 2008-05-16 11:30

      Flash is not a development technology for desktop application development. It does not support half the required functionality of a true software development language. So for the flash developers who think they are going to write desktop apps with flash . . . this I gotta see.

    • Fresh - 2008-05-16 11:37

      understand. This went way over my head. Damn I must try and catch up with technology. Java, Lino, Flash sounds like kasi guys. Hola magents

    • jane - 2008-05-16 11:41

      Why are there so many people being so unbearably boorish here. You think you all know everything? Or are you just lifting your legs to show your superiority? Probably the crab in a bucket syndrome.

    • General C# - 2008-05-16 11:42

      public string WhatIThink(Article yourArticle) { if (yourArticle.Author == "") return "You seriously have a limited knowledge of technology!"; else return "I'm glad you're not Alistair!"; }

    • Brett - 2008-05-16 12:45

      Tech on news24 - that's scary. Also a little late - the debate raged and peaked months ago on real tech sites.

    • Ub3rG33k - 2008-05-16 13:19

      Can Flash connect to databases, read/write files? Does it have the ability to create arrays, linked lists, vectors or tables, ya know all them usefull objects c++ and java can create with its eyes closed! Can it access system hardware? Those are the kind of technologies real programmers rely on to build real applications. If it can do all that, then I'll give it a try, but other than that, I just don't see the point.

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