Developers vs. designers: Who wins?

Your choice of collaborative platform may determine the outcome

It remains one of the thorniest problems in app dev: How to get the folks in the blue shirts, khakis, and glasses to make nice with their black-shirted, skinny-jeaned, faux-hawked neighbors down the hall? Like as not, your own answer largely depends on which side of the building you sit.

Particularly for RIAs (rich Internet applications), where form and function share equal billing, team dynamics can make or break a project. Little wonder, then, that Adobe, Microsoft, and Sun are all racing to market with new tools and platforms aimed at helping developers and designers meet each other halfway. Unfortunately, though well intentioned, these wonder products aren't likely to solve anything.

Adobe was arguably first to tackle the issue. Having cornered the tools market for graphics professionals, Flex Builder was its olive branch to developers. The AIR platform further legitimized Adobe's efforts, demonstrating that HTML, Flash, and ActionScript could be just as useful on the desktop as on the Web. More recently, the Open Screen Project aims to broaden the scope of the technologies to include mobile phones, set-top boxes, and other devices.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft entered the fray with Silverlight, its rival to Flash. Where AIR brought the Web to the desktop, Silverlight applies ideas from Windows Presentation Foundation to the Web. Rounding out the package, Microsoft's Expression suite of code-friendly graphics applications helps to smooth the gaps between program and presentation, leaving developers to fill in the details in Visual Studio.

Sun's JavaFX is the latecomer. Currently in beta, it aims to take the pain out of UI development in Java by adding a new, simplified scripting language and an accompanying media file format. In demos at JavaOne, Sun employees showed how designers could export JavaFX-compatible assets using plug-ins for Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, then quickly add behaviors using JavaFX Script. The process is not unlike working with JavaScript/CSS -- or Microsoft's XAML. Sun is also planning updates to its NetBeans IDE to help facilitate the process.

But while all of these platforms bring valuable, time-saving features for the RIA development process, when it comes to workflow they're just as likely to reinforce the old rifts as to heal them. The problem is that each is its own complete ecosystem; you can't easily mix and match.

Adobe's ActionScript brings a lot of power to Flash, but skilled developers are likely to balk at the idea of using it for serious application coding. It simply was never designed for that. Furthermore, while AIR may be designer-friendly, it lacks hooks into the OS that would qualify AIR apps as genuine first-class desktop software. The Adobe tools are best suited for projects where attractive data display is the primary concern.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has done an admirable job of building a UI presentation platform from scratch, but it suffers from the same old problem: If you buy in, you have to do things the Microsoft way. The design tools may run on Macs, but the application foundation has its roots in Windows and .Net. That makes it a nonstarter for many organizations.

JavaFX, on the other hand, has all the earmarks of a new technology from Sun. It sounds great, it's cross-platform and interoperable, it offers all the professional features you'd need, and it's engineered to exacting, well-conceived specifications. It just doesn't exist yet. What's more, version 1.0 will likely be rough around the edges from the designer's perspective, and its end-to-end focus on Java won't win any converts from developers who aren't already squarely in Sun's camp.

In other words, which of these three technologies you choose is going to rest squarely on who wears the pants in your organization. Web design firms whose clients want slick advertising and marketing will value presentation foremost and go with Adobe. Hard-core Microsoft shops will cross their fingers and pepper Monster.com with openings for Silverlight-savvy designers. And staunch Java developers will rush headlong to JavaFX and hope that the Photoshop plug-ins work as advertised.

Developers and designers can meet halfway, all right. It's who takes the first step that makes all the difference.

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