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Transferring the interactivity that desktop applications have taken for granted onto the web has proved to be a daunting task. For the most part web applications are defined by their simplicity. Google for example is famous for, and proud of, offering their services via a thin user interface. Part of this mentality is simply practicality on the part of web designers and developers. The comparably slow response times that end users faced when constantly refreshing a page has forced a minimalist design. Not to mention the fact that different web browsers have a nasty habit of displaying the same page slightly (or not so slightly) differently.
But for years now Flash developers have bucked that trend and harnessed the consistency and wide market audience that the ubiquitous Flash player has offered to deliver dynamic web content. However many traditional developers found it hard to grasp the methodologies used by Flash. For the most part this has left Flash in the domain of the artists and designers. Adobe Flex removes this barrier by providing a work flow and programming model familiar to anyone who has used languages and technologies like .NET and Java. And it does so while producing an end product that can be run by the very same Flash player that is already installed on some 98% of web browsers.
The benefit for developers is that they can now use their existing knowledge to easily create rich, interactive and visually appealing applications that can be effortlessly distributed online. But it doesn't stop there. Adobe AIR (a free download from Adobe.com) allows those same web applications that used to run in a Flash web browser plugin to run straight from the desktop, without any significant code changes.
The good news for those looking to dip their toes into Flex development is that Adobe allows you to download the Flex SDK for free. With little more than a simple text editor and the SDK you can start creating your own rich Internet applications. However for the serious developer Adobe has also created the Flex Builder: an IDE based on the Eclipse platform which provides all the comforts that developers have come to expect such as code completion, project management, a user interface designer and integrated debugging to name just a few.
Flex brings the desktop to the web (and ironically, using AIR, right back onto the desktop again), and opens up a whole new world for developers who might not have considered creating web based applications. With a solid IDE, an established user base and a familiar programming model Flex can bring your applications to a whole new audience.