This weekend I had some time to work with Adobe AIR and I’ve walked away with a different impression of it than I thought I would. While I wouldn’t say my opinion of it has improved, I would say it’s a different product than I thought it was.

Adobe Air

When AIR was initially announced I was not particularly impressed. It appeared to ape the Java/.NET deployment models and was now apparently competing against these tools which are vastly more powerful and offer a much broader feature set. More importantly, I believed AIR flowed in the wrong direction. For the past 10 years (and especially in the past 2) desktop applications have been slowly getting replaced by web/browser based ones, and I fully expect this trend to continue.

Ultimately, AIR does not bring much to the table that web applications do not already offer. Local file system access is nice, but it is limited and not nearly as flexible as storing data in the cloud. The “sometimes connected” capability of AIR apps is a pointless feature in a world where we expect to always be connected. The “native”-ness of AIR apps is nice, but I would guess that most people are more familiar with web apps like Facebook/MySpace and GMail than they are with most local apps on their computer.

Most of the current uses for AIR have ranged from mediocre ports of existing websites (an AIR version of EBay? Who wants this?) to the kind of dreck usually reserved for widget libraries (skinned clocks? egg timers?). Needless to say, the current set of AIR apps is not doing Adobe any favors in differentiating Adobe AIR as an application delivery framework.

After my recent experiences with AIR, I have to say that I’m not won over, but I do see a glimmer of potential that I didn’t see there before.

If I had to point out Adobe AIR ‘s best feature and the one feature that I think differentiates it from its competitors it’s this: The install process for most AIR apps and the AIR framework is managed through the Flash Player and is fairly seamless.

Now, that may not sound like much to get excited about, but I think it’s the part of AIR that makes it a worthwhile product. If you have not installed an AIR application, I suggest you give it a try. The install process is fairly well done.

Adobe Air Installer

I think it’s a mistake to think of AIR applications as competitors to desktop applications. They are not. AIR apps will never be as powerful or as capable as native applications. On top of this, Adobe has gone a long way towards crippling AIR apps in the name of security; pursuing tight security is a good idea if it helps AIR get deployed in restrictive workplaces, however it remains to be seen if this will pan out.

I think it’s more appropriate to think of AIR apps as enhanced web applications. In this view, Adobe AIR isn’t competing against desktop applications and is not directly competing against local java and .net applications. Instead, I believe AIR is actually competing against web based applications, including those built for the Flash Player. The ease of install makes it relatively painless to run Adobe AIR apps, the tight sandbox makes them somewhat secure like web apps, and the “native”-ness of them can make them more useful in some instances than web apps.

I still don’t have much enthusiasm for Adobe AIR in its current state. However, the easy install process makes Adobe AIR applications accessible to a mass audience in a way that regular downloadable software is not. The question is whether or not this mass audience will have interest in downloading apps which offer very little over their web based cousins. The answer to this question may change over time, but I have a good guess as to what it is now.