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Write Flash Files With C# or Visual Basic

Xamlon adds some Flash

PROS
•Application development needs only an IDE that supports C# or VB.Net
•Applications are deployable to all browsers with Flash 6 or later
•First to market with XAML, an emerging standard for specifying interfaces
CONS
•Avalon/Shockwave classes and features aren't familiar or mature
•Sketchy debugging information and documentation
•Data management capabilities lag behind graphics and media handling

Flash envy, anyone? If your business applications are developed with Microsoft tools such as Visual Studio .Net, you've probably craved the spectacular graphics and animation capabilities of Macromedia Flash or wished that deployment of rich Internet applications were as easy as downloading a Shockwave file. Confined until recently to entertainment and advertising, Flash has been applied in a few business applications, especially dashboard monitors and what-if widgets, to enhance the user experience. But most enterprise developers don't have Flash programming skills. With some limitations, Xamlon's Xamlon Pro Flash Edition provides a bridge to Flash while working in the .Net environment so familiar to many business developers. It can't deliver the best of both worlds, but it's an interesting option for adding visual appeal.

The Xamlon pitch is straightforward: Visual Basic.Net (VB.Net) and C# programmers will use their usual languages to create Flash applications, which can be consumed over the Internet and on handheld devices far more readily than .Net apps can. In contrast, running .Net applications requires the .Net Framework, a large chunk of code not widely distributed, especially on handhelds. Moreover, Flash enables dynamic graphics. A pure Microsoft environment can produce similar effects, but not without some laborious prestidigitation.

So why not develop Flash applications with Macromedia tools? Macromedia's development environment is almost as complex and far ranging as Visual Studio.Net. Committing to it is a major step. Xamlon offers the benefits of Flash without committing resources (people and time) to a new programming environment.

Xamlon Pro Flash Edition is designed to work with an IDE that supports C# or Visual Basic.Net. The basic mechanics of working with Flash Edition aren't difficult: You create a Shockwave project in Visual Studio. (During installation Xamlon preloads templates and other development support.) Create a .Net class to contain the code for whatever logic and resources you need. Next, create an XML file to contain the user interface code. Set Visual Studio to use an external compiler. Build the application, which includes running it through the SWFX (Xamlon Flash) compiler. Set the debugging mode to an external process, and run the program.

It took me about an hour to get the hang of the Xamlon SWFX compiler, which can handle any language compatible with the .Net Common Language Runtime (CLR), although currently it's best at supporting C# and VB. Support for other CLR languages is coming, but at the moment there are too many language references (classes, commands) that are not accurately supported. When I ran larger VB.Net test programs through SWFX the result was what you might expect from an external compiler — it's not particularly quick. Xamlon also began showing compiler errors; it turns out the errors were caused by unsupported methods, but weren't labeled as such.

screen capture
Xamlon Pro Flash Edition uses eXtensible Application Markup Language (XAML), set for support in Windows, to define the user interface of rich Internet applications.

Flash developers will find that Xamlon's native Shockwave Flash (SWF) classes cover the range of Flash functionality well, although there is much unfamiliar territory in the SWF classes that map to new Avalon classes. (Avalon is Microsoft's new graphics support package in Longhorn, the next version of Windows.) But then, Xamlon isn't trying to attract Flash developers. Xamlon supports the lion's share of Avalon functionality, but as any translator knows it's important to capture subtleties. Some subtleties not captured, for example, caused some unexpected results when I attempted to use VB.Net graphics and streaming media. Xamlon is in the process of refining its mediation between C#, VB.Net, XAML and Flash MX. However, the needed improvements won't all happen in this first version of the Flash Edition; nor will comprehensive documentation and well-integrated debugging.

XAML Ahead

As the name implies, Xamlon has something to do with XAML (eXtensible Application Markup Language, pronounced 'Zammel'). This XML variant is designed for specifying the user interface, as HTML does, only more precisely. Among other things, XAML will be part of Avalon. Xamlon has developed XAML implementations well ahead of Longhorn's release, and the Flash Edition is one of them.

Xamlon wants to bridge the animation- and graphics-oriented world of Flash with the business transaction world of .Net. Perhaps because of the inherent graphics orientation of Shockwave and the desire to get to market with XAML first, Xamlon Pro Flash Edition is itself heavily graphics and media oriented. Data management is very weakly represented. For example it doesn't support ActiveX Data Objects (ADO.Net). Because data management is roughly 80% of standard business applications, Xamlon Pro Flash Edition doesn't, despite its publicity, represent a credible business transaction alternative.

Although Flash Edition starts in a .Net environment, developers will find a lot of new material to digest (XAML, SWF, Flash clients and Xamlon classes). It's also a compromise between two approaches that won't be comfortable for some programmers. Whether its ease with handling certain dynamic graphics-intensive Web apps is enough to overcome its drawbacks will depend on how strategic your business considers rich Internet applications to be and how much it wants to streamline development of those apps in the .Net environment.

  • Xamlon Pro Flash Edition is available from Xamlon, www.xamlon.com. Price is $499 per developer seat. Requires a development toolset that supports C# or Visual Basic.Net and an application that can produce SWF or SVG files. Deployment requires any browser with Macromedia Flash 6 or later plug-in.

    Nelson King is a 25-year veteran of the coding wars. He has written nine books on application development, and his tool evaluations are widely published.

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