Taking a Breath of Adobe AIR

By Scott Nesbitt - Sunday, May 31, 2009

PullQuoteOne of the holy grails of software development has been to write applications that run on just about any operating system. This is called write once, run anywhere. The Java programming language tried, and almost succeeded. Almost. But the true grail is yet to be found. There's nothing worse than being a Windows user who sees a really nifty app for the Mac and finds out that there's no Windows version of it, and that there are no plans for one either.

Web comes close, and a previous TechTip looked at a way of bringing Web apps to your desktop computer. But, let's face it: the Web's not quite the desktop. That's where Adobe AIR comes in.

Air LogoWhat is AIR?

The creation of the folks at Adobe Systems, AIR is short for Adobe Integrated Runtime. A runtime is software that sits between your computer's operating system and an application, and allows the application to run by interpreting the various functions and facilities of the operating system. The concept of the runtime is a key component to making software run on different operating systems without having to create and build (code and compile is techie speak) versions for each operating system.

Applications that are written for AIR are termed Rich Internet Applications. A Rich Internet Application blurs the line between the Web and the desktop. While (as you'll see in a moment) AIR applications aren't as powerful or flexible as most desktop software, they are beefier than many Web apps.

Programs that run using Adobe Air aren't written in the usual programming languages chnologies and languages associated with Web development. Technologies and languages like Flash, AJAX, Flex, and ActionScript.

What's in it for me?

A lot, no matter who you are.

If you're a software or Web developer, you can quickly write AIR applications using the tools and technologies with which you're already familiar. You'll notice that AIR leverages a lot of Adobe's technologies here.

If you're a user, AIR gives you access to literally hundreds of small, potentially useful applications that can make your computing easier. More on these in a moment.

Using Adobe AIR

The first step, obviously, is to download the installer for Adobe AIR runtime. It's free, and is available for Linux, Mac OS, and Windows. Once the installer is on your computer, double click it to start the installation process. If you're using Linux, you may need to go to the command line, change to the directory where you downloaded the installer, and type sudo ./AdobeAirInstaller.bin. You need to use the sudo command because the installer needs to be run as the root user.

The installation process is quick. Once the Adobe AIR software is installed, you can start using applications.
The first step, obviously, is to download a few. Adobe offers a number of interesting applications, and you can download more elsewhere on the Web (more on this later).

AIR applications have the extension .air, which is associated with the AIR software. Just double-click on the .air file, and the installer will start automatically.

If you're a Linux user, that might not always work. Depending on your distribution, links to the AIR software might be installed under your program menu. In Ubuntu, for example, you'd choose Applications > Accessories > Adobe AIR Application Installer to install an AIR application.

Sometimes, though, you can install an AIR application right off the Web. When you click a download link, you might be given the option to save or run the application.

Note that the installer gives you the option to add a shortcut icon to your desktop. It's a good idea to use that option. AIR sometimes doesn't create a Start menu item for the application.

Getting your hands on applications

There are a lot of available applications for AIR, with more being created every week. Depending on your needs, you'll probably find something that's useful to you. Most, if not all, of them are free.

As mentioned earlier, Adobe offers quite a few at its Web site. But they're not the only place you can turn to for AIR applications. Here are a few other places you can find them.

First up, airapps. It's a wiki that contains a list of almost 130 (at the time this TechTip was written) AIR applications. The applications range from photo and social media tools, to photo applications and project trackers. Another site like this is RefreshingApps. The site seems to be a bit more selective, and many of the AIR applications it features seem useful. You might also want to check out this list of over 60 useful AIR apps. It contains a mix of social networking tools, photo viewers, media players, and professional applications.

Of course, you can always turn to your favorite search engine and try to root out what you need.

Some recommended AIR apps

One of the most popular AIR applications around is Twhirl, a microblogging client that works with a number of popular microblogging services. Twhirl is compact and, once you get used to the interface, very easy to use.

Doomi is a useful little To Do list. You type a To Do item, and set a reminder for however

I know more than a few eBay users who love the eBay Desktop. It sits in the background, and watches any items you're bidding on. Instead of waiting for email notifications or having to open or refresh our browser every time you want to buy or find something on the auction site, eBay desktop sits in the background and does all the work for you. It even has a powerful search feature.

The future

Is Adobe AIR a fad or something more? It's hard to say at the moment. It's definitely got potential, although I don't think that it will replace the desktop or Web-based applications. That said, AIR offers a wide range of useful utilities and some great ways in which to interact with popular Web services. And maybe that will be its niche: being a link between the Web and the desktop.

Have you used Adobe AIR? If so, what are your thoughts and what are your favorite applications? Feel free to leave a comment on this TechTip.