Flex Brings Performance Muscle to B2B Sites March 4, 2010
By Jes Lefcourt
The Flex programming language has yet to fully catch on in the B2B world. It should. People shopping on B2B websites increasingly expect the performance and experience they get from the B2C sites they use at home (or when the boss isn’t looking). Websites that incorporate Flex perform like a desktop-resident application. The effect is addictive to users, in the same way that the iPhone is. Exponential improvement in ease of use locks in business users who prize speed and convenience in their online purchasing. As I discuss below from a general business perspective, Flex delivers B2B performance muscle.
Flex enables common, best of industry development practices and methodologies for delivering rich internet applications. A classic problem with the HTML/Ajax applications is they don’t grow very well, due to the lack of an object-oriented, component model designed to support large application development. The projects aren’t very well organized, and it’s difficult for teams to work on them. Flex lets you take a programmatic, object-oriented approach to writing applications that are ultimately delivered via Flash. Delivery over Flash allows for browser-embedded applications with nearly the power of an Applet, without Java’s poor install base or common installation complexity.
We chose Flex because 1) it offers a more professional programming approach and 2) it lets you build a website that is much more cinematic and interactive than the typical website built in Ajax or HTML. Visit verical.com and you’ll see things transition very smoothly. There are no page refreshes. We can perform advanced operations like in-place sort, resize and rearrange table columns, dynamic filtering, auto complete, etc. All of those operations would be time consuming and non-componentized in Ajax, but they’re relatively simple using Flex.
Verical was originally written in OpenLaszlo, another rich Internet application technology that preceded and competes with Flex. Verical migrated to Flex over the past year or so because, among other reasons, Flex is better supported for newer versions of Flash. As a result, we can take advantage of the features in newer versions of Flash, which means that our website runs much, much faster.
Other benefits of Flex? It enforces the separation between the client and server. We’re not creating HTML views that the user then sees. Instead, we have a server application that communicates with the Flex application via open standards. That separation lets us easily create additional applications— e.g., our browser extension—that consume the same information. Likewise, the separation of resource bundles under Flex makes it much easier to do things like internationalize and update site assets compared to HTML. And Flex Builder, Adobe’s IDE, is much nicer to work with than a standard HTML editor.
Finally, but of no small import, as any web developer can attest, delivering an application via Flash/Flex prevents browser differences from interfering with the users’ experience of the web site. Flex eliminates the web development headaches of sites looking different in different browsers, or things working in one browser and not working in another. This translates to significantly reduced development and QA time, and also to a much more stable, consistent experience for our users.
Despite the advantages, a small percentage of businesses still resist Flex. Here are two roots to the argument against. First, building a website in Flex means your users need to run Flash, and business adoption of Flash lags behind the general user community. Second, Flex imposes an initial performance hit to deliver its overall performance gains: Our initial download time may be 1.5x that of a typical HTML page.
It’s also true, however, that businesses lag in Flash adoption by only a few percentage points, maybe 97 or 98 percent (business) vs. 99+ percent (consumers). And the few extra seconds it takes to initially load our site? That time is easily recovered in the first few sorting steps our customers take in search of their parts. Once on the Verical site, our customers blaze through the entire purchase process, doing things immediately that take minutes of page refreshing and waiting on other sites.
Bottom line: The development and user experience benefits of Flex are absolutely a key differentiator for Verical. Our relatively small development team is able to remain agile and responsive to the needs of our customers. And, at the end of the day, the web experience that we offer our customers is unparalleled in the electronic components industry and is among the best of what e-commerce on the web has to offer in general.