For improving the look and feel of browser-based applications, AJAX technologies work wonders, but RIAs (rich Internet applications) take the browser to a whole new level. RIAs deliver a consistently richer user experience, with functionality and data access more closely approximating native desktop apps.
Adobe Flex Builder 3.0 is an Eclipse-based IDE for building RIAs on Adobe's Flash platform and the open source Flex SDK. Although you could use any text editor to cobble ActionScript and MXML into a Flex app, Flex Builder 3.0 delivers a streamlined experience for RIA development and Flex project code management.
Flex Builder provides easy graphical tools for laying out rich Web GUIs, generating the underlying MXML code. It shines for creating real-time dashboards, thanks to graphing and charting widgets. Plus, you'll find plenty of community demos at Adobe Developer Connection to help jump-start your efforts.
I'm very impressed with the additions in this release. The highlights include better visual layout tools and more control over CSS, new wizards for WSDL introspection and back-end data connectivity, and plug-ins that augment workflow between developers and design teams running Adobe Creative Suite 3 applications (such as Flash, Photoshop, Illustrator, and Fireworks). The WSDL introspection wizard makes it easy to pull together ActionScript and Web services inside Flex, while the CS3 plug-ins provide MXML-savvy templates that allow CS3 users to create Flex controls with familiar tools, versus learning to design directly in Flex.
In the Professional edition, which is the version I tested, additional goodies include performance and memory profiling tools -- great for troubleshooting bottlenecks and memory leaks -- and a plug-in for HP/Mercury QuickTest Professional that facilitates automated unit testing.
In all, these new features go a long way toward getting higher-quality applications into production faster. Other improvements, such as real-time charting and advanced data grids, help give your Web apps more dimensions and additional polish.
One of the most notable additions is support for Adobe AIR 1.0. The new Web-to-desktop runtime lets developers package a host of Web technologies, ranging from HTML and CSS to AJAX and Flash, into an application that can run right on the user's desktop -- sans browser -- and look and behave like local apps, even functioning when offline.