Monday, April 09, 2007

Mobile RIAs with FlashLite - Evaluation

Flash Lite is a promising route to RIAs on mobile devices. Adobe has recently strengthened their commitment to reaching mobiles, including strong device support in CS3, and planning for 1 Billion Flash-Enabled Handsets. The chart in that post also suggests 2007 is the year when "Adobe addressable handsets" clearly cross the 50% mark. Commitment to move the mobile platform toward a Flex-capable and ActionScript-3-capable runtime has been announced as well.

Wow. That's great. So how well and how easily does it actually work? I set out to do a quick evaluation of getting an interactive network connected app up and running on Flash Lite.

For my target platform, I picked Flash Lite 2.1, 320x240, on Windows Mobile, for these reasons:

1. Since this spec lies toward the high end of the Flash Lite ecosystem, I knew that if major things failed on FL2.1 and a 200MHz+ processor, they would be very unlikely to work on downversion FL

2. Real HW-level emulators are freely available for Windows Mobile, something that's not true for many mobile phones

3. I own a compatible device, and when working with devices, at a certain point there's just no substitute for the real hardware

For my "application," I wanted to see if I could implement a couple of use cases for a mobile 2.0 site for ordering food. This seemed like a reasonable real-world use for a Flash Lite application outside of entertainment; the use cases involve retrieving an order list from the web site, letting the user choose one, and then retrieving relevant destination restaurants where the order could be sent.

First I sketched out a simple Flash app which used the MX components for the onscreen text boxes, lists, and buttons, as well as for the SOAP web service client. I targeted Flash 7 (FL 2.x is essentially Flash 7), and built. After debugging on the PC, I tried it in the
WM 5 Smartphone emulator
(best enjoyed splashed over this SDK).

No joy. The movie starts to play, but then seizes up and the standalone Flash Lite player gives this error message: "ActionScript stuck" in both the emulator and real device. The culprit seems to be the mx.controls.List class, which is either too complex for the runtime to handle, or else triggers some low-perf detection code meant to ensure movies stop running altogether before they run badly. My web service connection via and SOAP was causing a similar problem.

This wasn't looking good, since those components date back at least to Flash MX 2004, and the hope was that a FlashLite 2.x app could be authored more or less like an MX 2004 app. Googling around, I found that the MX UI components do not, in general, work on Flash Lite 2 (a few do, but the kit as a whole cannot be assumed to work). This leaves the old-school approach of custom writing the UI widgets as part of the movie (not a bad approach for something so small) or finding widgets that would work. Since I wanted to complete this evaluation quickly, I looked for a widget kit for FL, and found Jesse Warden's Shuriken Components (see also his presentation here). For my purposes, this was perfect. Easy to use, and ran without a hitch on FL 2.

Next I needed web service connectivity. By adding this
<add name="HttpGet"/>

to an app's web.config, you can turn on (Lo)RESTful behavior in addition to SOAP. (This switch enables not just GET but a simplified XML response format.) Next I used XML.load in ActionScript and gave it the appropriate URL to GET. This worked great on the emulator and device.

Then I added a couple of lines of "business logic" in AS, to allow additional dynamic interactions, so that I could bang on it without worrying about caching in the Windows Mobile HTTP stack or in Cingular's WAP-gateway-proxied network.

So far, so good. These patterns (movie-based or Shuriken UI + XML.load for web services) should work well on the high end of FlashLite (Windows Mobile devices range from about 166 MHz to 520 MHz; I was using a 220MHz OMAP). The next step will be to find some more constrained implementations that still support a the FlashLite "application" content type (e.g. a Nokia S40 device with FL 2.0) and try it out.


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