Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Flex Builder vs. The Other Guys

So I was attempting to think of good topics within which to blog about. In my current position I'm implementing processes more than writing code sometimes. But writing code is very dear to my heart. So the process of writing code, and writing quality code is something very blogworthy. There are lots of great blogs about this kind of thing. I really enjoy Paul Graham's work. Joel on Software is also fun sometimes.

Another topic is tools. Which tools to use for the job are something that coders get downright nasty about. Because using the wrong tool for the job is possibly the biggest faux pas a coder can make. Coders are, among other things, toolbuilders. Everyone at some point says to themself 'there has got to be a better way to do this mind-numbing repetitive task. Perhaps I can build some sort of machine to do it for me.' And so coders do mental backflips massaging code to create new tools that do these tasks. If you're a coder and you are doing mind-numbingly repetitive tasks, then you're doing something wrong.

Adobe (and when I say Adobe I really mean Macromedia) has done the world a great favor with Flex and Flex Builder. They have built tools that are modular, understandable, fast, and stable. So many props for so many great design decisions:

The choice of java for their sdk gives it portability, reliability, and the headroom to focus on getting it right.
The mxml specification is easy to read, easy to work on, and easy to love.
The framework is great. Well documented. Very consistent. Great usage of constants, interfaces and strongly typed events make the framework a joy to work with. Data binding is fantastic.

I started out writing AS3 in Flex Builder 2. This was ok for a while. I appreciated the crutches that Macromedia created to get you started. The code completion worked fairly well. The automatic compilation is straightforward. Things only became more hairy when I really started to want more control.

So what are the options? Well, Adobe does tout their Flex 2 SDK. Well, how does this measure up to the commercial product? The SDK is simply a command-line compiler, meaning you really need to know about build software and how to use build tools. The natural fit for eclipse for building is Ant. This works quite well for flash too. So what about an editor? jEdit is a fantastic option for development that not only integrates with ant, but has syntax highlighting, and many, many features and customization, including a MUCH better search than Eclipse.

So how smooth is development of projects without Flex Builder? Well, its a give and take. I've found that using ant, jEdit and the Flex Compiler shell has given me a ton of freedom. Its also made setting up the same project on different computers very easy. The real price comes at the loss of code completion and compilation speed.

Flex Builder offers the slick 'Design View', too. This is probably not that useful for most programmers after about 3 weeks of use. I end up coding the final look anyway. Plus the faster compilation means its always compiling, which means I get random errors and popups when I'm typing. The interruptions and the sometimes not-so-responsive user interface is what really made me move on from Flex Builder back to jEdit.

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