Fri 10 Apr
I was a skeptic of Adobe’s fledgling Air platform when I initially started hearing about it several years ago. At first, Air seemed more of the same of Adobe’s famously insurrectionist tendencies. I’ve long disliked the way the company tries to shoehorn in an entirely new platform onto my computer when I install or upgrade one of their marquee, indispensable software packages. Like most consumers, I see Photoshop, Acrobat, Flash etc. as applications that serve limited purposes — namely my own. But Adobe clearly regards them as beachheads through which they’re working to establish their own, Adobe-centric operating system. The result, invariably, has been bloated software. To put it mildly.
But the more exposure I get to Air, the more impressed I am. Granted, that exposure is somewhat limited, but I’m enjoying a handful of Air-based applications much more than I thought I would, even using some very regularly. Though Air apps are still conspicuously less than fully native to any of the major operating systems, they’re much closer to the ‘fit and finish’ of a true, dyed-in-the-wool Mac OS X application, say, than I had anticipated. Adobe has apparently gone to great lengths to provide a framework in which applications authored for this platform seem comfortable alongside truly native applications. Most casual users won’t be able to tell the difference.
At the head of this pack of surprisingly enjoyable apps is the third-party Twitter client, TweetDeck, which isn’t just a well-executed facsimile of a Mac OS X application. It’s clever on its own merits, too. TweetDeck’s multi-column interface has become, for me, the easiest, most efficient method for keeping track of Twitter peers and communications, standing out among a swelling pack of Twitter clients. I wish Twitter itself would adopt a similar interface at its own Web site.
What’s more, in this week’s v0.25b upgrade to TweetDeck, I spotted my favorite example yet of Air smarts:
Everyone is surely familiar with these entreaties to download and install software patches; it’s virtually impossible to use contemporary software without encountering them. Effective though they may be for keeping a user base up-to-date, this mechanism is one of those modern conveniences that’s so convenient it’s also a pain in the ass. They’re pestering and interruptive; they require a user to halt her current activities and devote attention to accepting, then installing, then restarting her software, if not her computer.
The innovation we see here in this TweetDeck dialog, then, is a complete delight: “Postpone until restart” allows a vigilant user to both submit to the update process and continue his or her session in the software, essentially unimpeded. Instead of requiring the user to consciously interrupt her work (if you can call Twitter work), the slightly modified installation procedure turns updating into a passive action that happens at the user’s convenience. “Install update? Sure, just don’t interfere with anything I’ve got going on right now. Download the patch now so that the next time I start up this application, whenever that is, you can update the software transparently.”
There’s nothing about this very canny and exceedingly simple invention that’s truly specific to the Air platform; any platform could implement a similar idea easily. But this is what’s so notable about it; it shows that the Air team is apparently thinking about what’s good for the user experience, rather than preoccupying themselves solely with demonstrating the prowess of their architecture. What’s on display here is sharp thinking, not sheer power or showy differentiation. That’s a sign that a platform is being driven by insight and creativity, not by brute technological chops and empire-building.