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Adobe Woos Web Developers With Apollo Alpha

Adobe Systems on Monday released the first public alpha version of Apollo, giving developers a first look at the fledgling rich-client development platform, which ties together technologies including HTML, Flash and PDF.

Apollo is Adobe's effort to stay at the forefront of Web development and fend of challenges from Microsoft, which is deepening its Web tools offerings, and from new Web 2.0 technologies like AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language), which allows developers to create Web applications with the smooth interface and responsiveness of desktop programs.

Apollo is something of an anti-AJAX: It brings elements of online interaction to a desktop client application. Like Flash, Apollo includes a free runtime that users will need to download to their PCs. Using Adobe's free Apollo development kit, programmers can draw on their Web development skills and build applications incorporating HTML, JavaScript, Flash, PDF and other Web technologies.

Web services protocols and APIs for online applications allow Apollo applications to pull data from online sources. For example, programmers could incorporate photos from Flickr or product information from Amazon.com into an Apollo application.

ISVs and Web developers are eyeing Apollo as a way to deliver functionality that doesn't fit smoothly within a Web browser. Adobe has given a handful of pilot-project developers early access to Apollo.

One of the most widely previewed projects to emerge is from eBay, which worked with Denver-based Web development consultancy EffectiveUI on an application code-named SanDimas that allows buyers and sellers to manage their eBay activities through an elegant multimedia interface.

Another early user, streaming music Web site Finetune.com, is using Apollo to create a custom desktop application that will interact with users' iTunes libraries, store and swap playlists, and extend the Finetune.com experience beyond the service's Web site. It will also solve one of Finetune.com's technical challenges: continuing a music stream after a visitor has surfed away.

"In our current product, we give users an HTML block to put their playlist in their blog or MySpace. You can start listening right away. It's great, and it draws traffic. But as soon as you leave a comment or click away, the stream is interrupted," said Mykel Ruvola, Finetune.com's lead developer. "With Apollo, we can detect that the player is available and transfer control of the playlist to the desktop player. The playback will start up in the desktop application and be persistent."

One potential stumbling block for Apollo is that it requires users to download a runtime -- an approach that's at odds with the current development trend of install-free, browser-centric applications. Ruvola acknowledged that could be a turn-off for some users.

"One of the design decisions we made going into Finetune originally was that we don't want to rely on ActiveX or .Net. We didn't know if people would deal with an installer. So I'm not sure how that's going to play out with Apollo," he said.

On the other hand, Adobe is adept at getting users to accept its add-ons, such as Acrobat and Flash Player. The software maker's market research estimates that 98 percent of Internet-connected PCs are Flash-enabled.

"I've gotten some feedback that the overall install process will be launched from a Web browser," Ruvola said. "If it works as smoothly as installing Flash at the browser level, I'm sure our users will accept it."

Adobe expects to follow today's alpha release with an Apollo beta around the middle of the year. General availability is expected before the end of the year, according to Pam Deziel, director of product marketing for Adobe's platform business. Preview versions will run on Windows and Mac OS X, but a Linux version also is scheduled to be available by the time the final product ships.

Apollo is gestating more publicly than any previous product in Adobe's history, Deziel noted. In addition to the public alpha preview, Adobe has several employees blogging about Apollo development and is soliciting feedback through mailing lists and forums. On Friday, the company held an "ApolloCamp" gathering at its headquarters to introduce Apollo to several hundred Web developers.

Some of that openness is a sign of Macromedia's influence, Deziel said. Adobe acquired Macromedia in late 2005, bringing into its fold an organization noted for its savvy developers.

"This is a hallmark of the merged company. It's about embracing Web technologies and the spirit of openness and community development," Deziel said.

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