What to do now?
If you have a Flex based GIS Application right now, there is no need to panic. These will continue to be supported in the current generation of desktop web browsers. I imagine new desktop browser versions such as Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox will continue to support Flex for a while to come. Too many organizations have invested development in Flex based web apps and we are not just talking about GIS. You can find Flex based websites in many industries such as economic development, realty, and financial services. This will help drive a continuing need to support Flex so you do have some time to plan a replacement strategy.
As support for Flex drops over time, you will need to develop a replacement strategy for your Flex application. Do not put it off too long. Support for Flex will start to decline as new technologies such as HTML 5 come online. Have a plan and start working it while you have time and are not in panic mode trying to figure out what you are going to do because the commissioner can no longer get to the data and maps he or she has come to rely on. That is a sure fire way to not have a job in the morning.
First steps will include determining what platforms youwant to support. In this day and age, people expect to be able to access data from multiple devices. They might use a desktop or laptop in the office but then rely on an iPAD when in meetings and an Android Phone while travelling. Do you need or want to support all of these or some of these? That should be one of your first decisions.
The second step will be determining the level of support needed for these various devices. This will partially be driven by what functionality is deemed critical. You might find several out of the box solutions such as Esri’s ArcGIS Online or one of their template applications based on an industry standard data model, such as the Local Government Data Model, will fit your needs. This would remove the need for a lot of custom development which will save you time and money. It can also make future upgrades or transitions easier.
What is the HTML5 I keep hearing about?
HTML 5 is a new markup language use for developing, structuring and presenting website content. It will replace the current HTML 4.01 standard used by most websites. The new HTML 5 specification is still under development. It is supposedly going to be finalized by sometime in 2015. However, several modules are already supported by various browsers
So what is the big deal about HTML 5? Why is it so much better than HTML 4? HTML 5 provides a whole new level of support for graphics, video, audio, user inputs, geolocation and more. Basically it is the next iteration of what has been dubbed Web 2.0. When the final specification for HTML 5 is released, developers will be able to mimic many of the “cool features” that we see in current Flex and Silverlight applications but without the need for an additional plug-in to be installed. This will allow HTML 5 applications to be supported on a wide range of devices and browsers. To find out more about HTML 5 you can go to – http://www.html5rocks.com/en/.
As I mentioned the HTML 5 spec is still under development but many models have been approved and adopted. If you were to start developing an HTML 5 based application and wanted to determine which browsers support what level of functionality you can go to – http://html5test.com/. Here are some current comparisons:
- Chrome 23 on Windows 7 Pro – 448 out of 500 points
- IE 9 on Windows 7 Pro – 138 out of 500 Points
- Firefox 7 on Window 7 Pro – 314 out 500 Points
- Safari 5.1.7 on Mac OS X 10.6.8 – 318 out of 500 Points
- Android Browser on Droid X & Galaxy Tab – 200 out of 500 Points
- Opera Mobile 12.10 on Droid X – 406 out of 500 points
As you can see support for HTML 5 is all over the place depending on which Browser you use. If you are stuck in an organization that has standardized on Internet Explorer you will not be able to use much of the new capabilities HTML 5 brings to the table. Even IE 10 is only reported to get a score of 320 points.
Will this happen again?
Of course it will. This is true of any technology based solution. The only constant you can bet on is change. So how do you deal with it? I would recommend that you have a plan to replace/upgrade existing web and mobile applications on a regular cycle just as you do with you hardware. This can be made easier when you use out of the box solutions such as ArcGIS Online as you can pass off much of the pain of new development along to them. But you still need a plan so everyone in your organization knows what is to come and no one is surprised.
If you are currently using a Flex application, all is not lost. You still have some time to put together a plan to replace it. But don’t wait too long! As HTML 5 is finalized and adopted, support for Flex will drop. You don’t want to be the one everyone is pointing to when it hits the fan because your beautiful flex app no longer works and the boss can’t get what he or she needs at that critical moment.Tripp Corbin, CFM, GISP CEO & Lead Instructor eGIS Associates, Inc. www.egisassociates.com