Up for Air

Adobe Air LogoI 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.


Uninterrupted Twitter Time

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:

TweetDeck Update Dialog Box

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.

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  1. I have also foudn Adobe air growing on me recently, most applications that run off the framwork are excellent pieces of work.
    I hvae noticed that most twitter applications do appear to be runing off Adobe Air.

  2. I agree that this is a great idea, and it’s certainly always wonderful to see Adobe taking even a sporadic interest in the user experience. I do think the language used for that button could be better. I’m not sure if pressing it will install the update when the application restarts or if it requires a full system reboot. Perhaps the term “relaunch” (or “quit” or “next launch” if you really want to be specific) would be more appropriate here. You “relaunch” an application; you “restart” (or “reboot”) a computer. Where I’m from anyway.

    -systemsboy

  3. Hrm. Not sure I agree, Khoi.

    I just downloaded TweetDeck after reading this post. And while, yes, the multi-column view is great, and that is a clever dialog box, I find the rest of the non-native app issues quite annoying.

    I have TweetDeck minimized in my dock. I click on the TweetDeck app icon, and the actual TweetDeck window doesn’t zoom into view like other apps do.

    I want to up-arrow or down-arrow to navigate within a column, but there’s no way to select that column in a way that allows for keyboard interaction.

    I have more columns than are visible, so I want to use the mousepad to scroll horizontally with two fingers, but that’s not possible.

    Plus, the dialog box when you try to get rid of a column is really unnecessarily dire. “Do you really want to delete Replies column? (this action cannot be undone – choose wisely)” The reality is that it’s super-simple to undo it. You just click the little button and it reappears.

    Anyway, I’ll probably keep using it, for the Facebook inclusion alone (though it’d be great if I could see the comment threads on people’s statuses somehow; that’s become a key feature of FB for me).

    But I’ll be using it mostly in spite of the Air platform, not because of it.

  4. systemsboy: I agree, the language could be better. Still, imperfect though it may be, I did understand intuitively and accurately what was implied. It behaved exactly as I expected.

    Peter: I hear you. I felt similarly about TweetDeck when I first started using it. But give it some time; after several months of use, I don’t mind its shortfalls nearly as much as I thought I would. Also, in terms of a rich experience for a Web application, it may be lacking as a true Mac OS X app, but it’s still a huge leap forward from most browser-based apps.

  5. Khoi, I’m interested in what other Air application you’re into. I, too, was a Air skeptic, but it’s been slowly making a good impression on me, so I’m looking for other good-from-a-skeptic’s-view apps to further convert me.

  6. When I first started looking for a desktop Twitter client I was longing for a native Mac one (maybe there weren’t any yet, or I just wasn’t finding them?). Now that there are a bunch of them available I’ve tried a few and actually prefer the AIR based clients instead.

    Something about the Aqua interface doesn’t really work for me on a Twitter client. Maybe it’s just that I prefer the dark interface of Twhirl or TweetDeck (I trade off), but I’m not sure why since I certainly wouldn’t prefer this look in, say, Safari. I think I need it to feel like a widget rather than a full-blown app (this is to assuage my guilt over how much time Twitter eats, perhaps).

    Not to say there aren’t things that bother me though (some of these might be app-specific but I’m projecting them onto all AIR apps?), like closing the window quits the app, can’t change the app icon (I’m not a fan of the Twhirl icon and it has to live in my dock), access to prefs live in the app not in the menu bar, etc.

  7. @Joem — I downloaded Yahoo’s Sideline this weekend http://sideline.yahoo.com/ and appreciated it’s simplicity. I assume the interface style is meant to compliment TweetDeck — so it was immediately comfortable and easy to use.

    Khoi thanks for the post. I’ve been hard to convince on the Desktop Apps front, rarely see the need for em (like the NYTimes silverlight environment — maybe you had some involvement in that? Always love the innovation coming out of the Teams there, but the Desktop app isn’t something I went back to after install). TweetDeck is what converted me, and I’m looking forward to being further convinced with future apps …

  8. I have to disagree with this. AIR is rubbish imo. The apps have a massive footprint compared to native ones and the invariably non-standard UI is a nightmare (I’m looking at you TweetDeck). OS X is such a nice OS, why ruin it with bloated AIR apps with dodgy interfaces?

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