Dev Trends

First Look: The Popfly Development Environment

For nearly a decade, Macromedia's Flash (now an Adobe product) has been the de facto standard for Web animation. It's in widespread use across the Web. Recently, Microsoft introduced its Silverlight platform, a competitor to Adobe's Flash and a few similar technologies. Microsoft also unveiled a tool called Popfly, which serves as a kind of gateway to Silverlight in some respects because it requires the Silverlight runtime.

Any new development environment has its learning curve. A software development kit is currently available for Silverlight, but a Silverlight extension to Visual Studio 2008 is yet to arrive. In the meantime, for nonprogrammers, Popfly streamlines the process of learning to create Web animations. With Popfly, everyone can create Silverlight widgets (and even whole Web pages) with no prior development experience required.

Popfly is currently in a fairly closed beta at the time of this writing, with limited openings available. I managed to secure a place in the beta (which requires the creation of a Microsoft Live ID). Shortly thereafter, I had my first look at Popfly.

My first thought at seeing Popfly's development environment was that MySpace users would love this technology. Popfly has many preassembled configurable modules available from a list. Most are user contributed, with whimsical or decorative themes. Examples of these modules include:

  • Carousel, which displays pictures in a rotating construct;
  • An SMS message sender;
  • Ransom Note, which lets you make an image banner from simulated newspaper-clipped type; and
  • A module that plays background music (I'd hate to think of what some teenage MySpace dwellers would do with that last one).

In fairness, there are also more practical tools available, such as bar graphs, maps, RSS, etc. All of the difficult coding is done with these modules, so all you have to do to set them up is drag them to where you want them and then fill in the variables.

Popfly's UI is impressive, since it offers a good balance between ease of use and power. The source code of your project is there if you want it. The interface is intuitive enough to learn in your first few seconds with it, which is a far cry from the days where you had to read a book or tutorial before you knew how to do anything at all in Flash. Popfly lets you add your own HTML to your project, which is a definite plus. Once you've added a few modules or contributed code of your own, there is an easy way to preview your work.

While Popfly requires the Silverlight runtime to work, such things are typical and forgivable. For instance, Flash also requires a plug-in to work. The Silverlight runtime features decent Firefox support on Windows, which is surprising since I initially expected it to be an Internet Explorer-exclusive thing.

The animations are equal to those of Flash in terms of quality. However, the Silverlight platform -- and Popfly -- does have one flaw, which is no Linux support. Even Adobe releases its current builds of the Flash runtime to Linux users. Whether Microsoft likes it or not, Linux is here to stay and is a growing force on the desktop thanks to universal-audience distributions such as Ubuntu.

Popfly is a shot in the arm for Silverlight for the purpose of gaining new users quickly, but the platform still has a long way to go. After all, Silverlight is a first-generation platform, whereas Flash has had eight additional software generations to achieve its market penetration.

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