MAX 2003: A Review

 
Dec 02, 2003
by Brian Meloche, Manager, West Virginia Macromedia Users Group

Monday, November 17: CF Underground V

Many of the reports you have seen about MAX 2003 start with the Wednesday keynote. However, for many of us, the week-long festivities actually began at CF Underground V on Monday, held at Squatter's Pub in downtown Salt Lake City, a few blocks away from the Salt Palace (where MAX 2003 was held). The event was put on by Michael Smith and Teratech. It is not an "official" Macromedia event, but many people that were attending MAX in the ColdFusion community were also at CF Underground.

It was a shame that I missed the first part of the event, due to flight delays, an unexpected layover in Dallas and a baggage issue. The topics I DID get to see were thought provoking. Matt Liotta had a discussion called Dogma and Change, where he talked about overcoming both internal and external resistance to change on developer teams. Substituting for Neil Ross, Matt and Nate Nelson did a presentation/discussion on ColdFusion performance. Then, Shlomy Gantz did a very interesting presentation called: "Whoops! Blunders and Mistakes of CF Developers". I had heard that Shlomy was a great speaker, and he lived up to the hype.

The final session had Matt Liotta and Simon Horwith, along with Paul Mizar, Tim Buntel and Damon Cooper of Macromedia, taking part in a panel that discussed the direction of ColdFusion. Much of what I heard in this panel was positive and lead to what came up later in the week during the keynotes and Sneak Peeks, which are covered below. (The future of ColdFusion will be covered in more detail in this article.)

CF Underground was followed immediately by the MAX Kickoff Party at Squatter's.

Tuesday, November 18: Community College at MAX 2003

Although the conference really began in full gear on Wednesday, many people arrived a day early for full-day sessions that focused on specific elements of ColdFusion, Flash or Dreamweaver. The MAX Community College, a day-long session open exclusively to members of Team Macromedia and to User Group Managers, was enlightening.

It started with Macromedia Executive Vice President Al Ramadan explaining how Macromedia is motivated by the belief that "Experience Matters", and detailing the ways in which its current and upcoming product lines can help developers and designers create great experiences. This was very similar to what he said in the following day's Keynote. Community College then split into two tracks for the rest of the morning: Designer and Developer. I stayed on the Developer side for both sessions.

On the developer track, Senior Evangelist Christophe Coenraets gave us a tour of Macromedia's new product, Flex, formerly code-named Royale. This was the first time that I had gotten a good look at Flex. Before Tuesday morning's presentation, I didn't know what to make of it. I wasn't sure what its purpose was, how it differed from Flash and, especially, what it could do for me. After the presentation, I was PUMPED. I will go into more details about Flex later in this article.

The developer track continued with Tim Buntel, Macromedia's ColdFusion Server Product Manager, and Damon Cooper, Director of Engineering for ColdFusion who talked about CFMX 6.1 and took Q & A from the audience. This page has more information about Tim and Damon said at Community College. This is translated from the original, in Portuguese.

After lunch, the User Group Managers and members of Team Macromedia took part in workshops that were designed to enhance our effectiveness as community leaders.

In the evening, conference attendees gathered in the exhibition hall for the welcome reception. The exhibition hall was the home for breakfasts and lunches at MAX, as well as the tradeshow, store, help center, user group station, workstation area and wireless hub.

The MAX Wednesday Keynote

MAX was my second Macromedia conference. I also attended Devcon last year in Orlando. One thing I have found you can count on: The Day 1 keynote will start late!!! I was concerned I wouldn't be there in time on Wednesday morning... but when I got there, I saw it was not a problem. They didn't even get us inside until long after 8:00am.

The crowd waited in anticipation for what they were about to see. I don't think many were disappointed.

A few highlights of the keynote were:

  • The first public demonstration of Flex: The much hyped XML-based, SWF-generating application server was shown in action. For a mock stock quote application, Christophe Coenraets generated the appropriate MXML, the flavor of XML that the Flex server interprets and then generates into SWF files, and then handed off the code to Heidi Williams (Engineering Manager of Brady, Macromedia's Flex WYSIWYG application tool, which is based on the Dreamweaver platform), who polished off the interface... all within a five minute demonstration! A similar application developed in Flash with Flash Remoting or Web Services would have taken a LOT longer. Note: When I saw Brady, I thought it WAS Dreamweaver!
  • There were major commitments by industry giants to new Macromedia products:
    • Rod Smith, IBM's Vice President of Emerging Technology, and his team demonstrated the company's commitment to Flex and the MXML and ActionScript 2.0 standards the Flex Application Server will be based upon. He presented and demonstrated a financial application written with Flex running on top of WebSphere. IBM is working with Macromedia to have a plug-in available ready for the open source editor, Eclipse, code-named Partridge.
    • Edmund Fish, Senior Vice President and General Manager of AOL Desktop Messaging, announced the SDK for AIM and ICQ in Central. This was a big coup for Macromedia. AOL has never released an SDK for Instant Messaging in any environment until now. AOL has vehemently prevented Trillian and other multi-messaging clients from using AOL instant messaging network in their applications.
    The commitments to Macromedia from such industry heavyweights were very encouraging to the long-term health of Macromedia and the success of Flex (IBM) and Central (AOL).
  • Ben Forta announced the next version of the ColdFusion Server, code-named Blackstone, and highlighted the following features/benefits of the product:
    • One of the key areas of focus in Blackstone is reporting and printed output.
    • Blackstone will give ColdFusion users simpler ways to create compelling and sophisticated user interfaces.
    • There will be productivity gains for both existing users and new developers.
    • There will be new ways to deploy your applications, and the product will include source code protection.
    More of the details of Blackstone were previewed at the Sneak Peek session on Thursday afternoon (see below). You can watch Ben's Wednesday morning keynote demonstration online on video as well.
  • Macromedia Chief Software Architect Kevin Lynch announced the long-awaited release of the Central SDK.
  • Silke Fleischer, Product Solutions Representative for eHelp Corporation, demonstrated the company's RoboDemo and RoboHelp. They aren't new products, but they are welcome additions to the Macromedia family. Macromedia's acquisition of eHelp was made official in an announcement December 19th.

    RoboDemo is a Flash-based screen capture and demonstration application used in sales product demonstrations and eLearning. RoboHelp can generate Flash, HTML and Windows-based Help applications. The acquisition of eHelp solidifies Macromedia's eLearning presence with established brands and these products complement Breeze, Breeze Live, Dreamweaver's CourseBuilder, Authorware and Flash perfectly. eHelp already had an eLearning suite, much of it built on Macromedia technologies like Flash, so there was no point in Macromedia building one. In the future, I look for things like Dreamweaver and Flash components to increase integration with RoboHelp and RoboDemo, and new MX versions of RoboHelp and RoboDemo.

Day 1 Keynote Links:

User Group/Team Macromedia Visibility Event

The User Group Managers and Team Macromedia members had to wear glowing yellow shirts that made us look radioactive (see the pictures here and here) during the visibility event on Wednesday evening. Attendees received a beautiful Macromedia fleece jacket if they were among the first to receive ten stickers from managers and Team members.

Day 2 Keynote

The Thursday Keynote started as it did last year, with Tim Buntel and Eileen Stanley hosting D! Entertainment Tonight.

The Day 2 Keynote was not as jam packed with information as the Day 1. It was more laid back and fun. Most of the content dealt with other Macromedia product lines: The DRKs, Flash Communication Server, Director and Flash on Devices. There was a brief demonstration of the next version of Director. The 2003 MAX Award winners were announced. The audience also got into the skit "Designer Eye for the Developer Guy" and the mock commercial, "Go Away Spray".

Day 2 Keynote Links

http://www.macromedia.com/devnet/max2003/day_two/general_sess02.html

Day 2 Sneak Peek:

Unfortunately, because of technical problems, I missed all but a few minutes of the Sneak Peek!

Ken Azuma posted a video of the Blackstone demonstration here.

Kai also posted a great summary of the Sneak Peek here. This is actually this page translated from German to English.

Dan Short also posted a great summary here.

Flex

One of the key announcements at the conference was the development of Flex. ColdFusion developers should pay attention to Flex. Does it offer anything new that Flash/CF can't do? Perhaps not. It does, however, offer significant capabilities to Rich Internet Application (RIA) development that Flash has never delivered upon. Flex provides a coded solution to RIA that eliminates the hassles of Flash development. Although I have known Flash for years, the problem I always had with it is how much longer it takes to produce the final result as opposed to HTML or CFML. Flex will speed that process up considerably... although don't expect to do Flex animations!!! It can, however, use SVG to create images.
[Editor's Note: For more information about Flex, see our article in issue 130.]

After seeing some of what Flex could do, it impressed me immensely. I am very eager to learn it, and can see a lot of potential in the Flex application server. I am not the typical ColdFusion programmer, as I have had almost as much experience with Flash as as a designer and developer as I have had over the years with ColdFusion, and have done more than one ColdFusion/Flash integration project - and started doing them BEFORE MX, when it was a lot more difficult. That said, although a lot of things are POSSIBLE with Flash Remoting, they can accomplished much easier using Flex.

It is my personal opinion that the eventual cost of Flex Application Server is going to be critical to the adoption of the technology. We ColdFusion developers that want to use Flex will now have to argue the purchase of TWO application servers instead of one.  I'd like to see a "CFMX Enterprise/Flex" package, or the functionalities built into CFMX. There are other developments, such as Microsoft's XAML and the open source XUL from the Mozilla Organization that do similar things.

As a result of what I saw in Community College and the keynote, I applied for the Flex beta, and, in my application, explained that I saw a great opportunity to use it in a symbolic and (possibly) important site in the Macromedia developer community - a portal for user group managers. Like many developers out there, I didn't get in... but I did feel that the rejection message wasn't a rejection of me. In fact, this is the first time I even GOT a rejection letter for a beta that I didn't get into. Even when I was invited to apply for the DW beta last year, I heard nothing. Hopefully, as the Flex beta expands, I will get in.

ColdFusion

The next release of ColdFusion sounds like it's going to be almost as much of an upgrade as MX was from 5. Blackstone looks to be a logical update to CFMX. The features announced in Blackstone added to the CFML language, as described in Kai's summary of the Sneak Peek, will be powerful. Reporting tools, the ability to create a PDF on the fly (CFDOCUMENT), the ability to use Flash-based interface components, much like Java applet-based interface components are being used now, and the ability to create Flash forms (though CFFORM and CFGRID) will make the language even more effective for RAD (rapid application development).

I see Macromedia pushing the J2EE market, which ColdFusion is perfectly suited for. CF/J2EE applications are a match made in heaven!

Is Macromedia committed to ColdFusion? The answer to that is a resounding YES. Some worried that Macromedia was abandoning ColdFusion for Flex. That was unfounded. They will co-exist, even flourish together. Flex works on the presentation layer only, meaning that ColdFusion can serve as an intermediary between Flex and the database layer, controlling business logic and application flow.

Macromedia could have gone through a longer test period to work out some of the serious issues that were present in early iterations of CFMX - Oracle connectivity being the most obvious issue... and applications breaking. That slowed down a lot of companies from purchasing the product. CFMX 6.1 is much better, and I look forward to Blackstone when it becomes available.

Sessions at MAX

Last year, a lot of people commented on how sessions at Devcon were not very advanced, and I think a lot of people stayed away from this year's conference because of the fear that this would be the case again this year.

That wasn't the case. Every session I went to was worth attending. The Java for ColdFusion developers hands-on session was a little simplistic for what I had expected. It was more of "here's a quick way to use a few pre-built Java classes". While not what I expected, it was still interesting and worth attending (considering there's not much Java could you realistically teach in a 90 minute session.) The web services presentation Simon Horwith did was interesting, although he couldn't get through it all (no fault of his own). The workshops were very interesting and useful. I learned a few things from Angela Buraglia's Dreamweaver Killer Tips session. Simon Horwith's Architecting ColdFusion Applications was awesome, as was Simon Slooten's Object Oriented ColdFusion.

I think they learned from last year and had some great presentations. There were a lot of presentations that I DIDN'T get to that I wanted to... I printed off a lot of presentations on Friday, before leaving MAX.

This year, they didn't give us a binder with all the presentations in it. That turned out to be inconvenient. I would rather have the option to take the binder, even if I had to pay a few extra dollars for it.

The "Event", Restaurants, Nightlife and Salt Lake City

I didn't have a lot of expectations for the big event, which took place on Thursday night at the Olympic Oval. I didn't expect I would enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the Devcon event at Universal Studios. The oval gave the attendees a chance to interact more with each other than the rides and all the things at the theme park. I didn't bungee jump, skate or shoot a hockey puck, but I did talk to a lot of people, and I definitely enjoyed myself! You can see many pictures from the event here.

One plus about the Salt Lake City venue was its downtown location. Within a short walk of the Salt Palace were several great restaurants and some great bars! I highly enjoyed the many conversations I had with fellow MAX attendees over several pints of Cutthroat (a local beer) after hours. You can see some of the many pictures here.

Salt Lake City is absolutely beautiful, surrounded by snow capped mountains. The streets are clean and, unlike many large cities, very wide. The strangest things about Salt Lake were that I couldn't find a Walmart or Target (I found out later that you had to travel far into the suburbs) while doing some unexpected shopping for a few things I left behind, and "memberships" being required to drink in bars. I still don't quite get that concept. There were a couple of malls near the venue, including an outside one.

Almost everyone I spoke to that travelled to Salt Lake for MAX had problems with flights. I had an expected overnight layover in Dallas on the way there, which made me delayed for CF Underground. Many had problems to and from the conference. Unfortunately, Salt Lake is not a reasonable drive from many places. Hopefully, it will be possible to drive to next year's event. I am pulling for DC!

Final MAX Thoughts

This conference was somewhat of a new experience for me. Up until now, like when I went to Fusebox 2001 and 2002, Devcon 2002 and CFUN03 conferences, I was pretty much an unknown in the CF and Macromedia communities. In some sections of those communities, I still am. This time, however, my work with the West Virginia Macromedia Users Group, the ColdFusion Developer's Journal article and the things I have done within the user group community, especially leading the user group portal project, has made me well known in certain circles. That changed my perspective a bit, and made the conference not only a learning and social experience, but a political one as well. I spent a lot of time among User Group managers and Team Macromedia members trying to build support for the user group portal initiative. Most of this was done at Community College and at the Kickoff Event, but I ended up getting into discussions about the portal everywhere I went.

Macromedia's direction, although ambitious, is the right way to go. Blackstone looks great, Flex looks awesome, and I am finally starting to see the benefits of Central. Macromedia did the right thing with their acquisition of eHelp - perfect compliments to Breeze and for doing eLearning and product demos. I look forward to getting to use some of their software (after using some of eHelp's competitors in the past).

In the past, Macromedia has been accused of not being very forthright when their products have bugs. The assumption is that Macromedia does not want to admit that they have any problems with their products. That's what made this latest patch to Flash very intersting. Not only was it a patch, it was a very public patch, with news about it being presented in many locations, including the Day 1 Keynote. This impressed me greatly.

Two of the intangibles about going to a conference like this is the social and networking aspects. I met a LOT of people for the first time, and got to know a lot of people that I was acquainted with a lot better. There were a lot of restaurants and nightclubs within walking distance of the conference, and that was a definite improvement over last year. I did miss karaoke this year, though!!! The event... which I thought might suck... didn't. It was a lot of fun! In some ways, it was easier to interact with people at this event than at Universal last year... although Universal WAS awesome!

However, MAX wasn't all rosy!

Complaints

  1. Wireless Connectivity: MY BIGGEST COMPLAINT. I had a lot of wireless problems at MAX. There was wireless available, but I found the coverage nowhere near as good as what Macromedia had at Devcon last year. Some of this may be attributed to my laptop, but I heard a lot of people say that their connectivity ranged from non-existent to fair. I would contend to Macromedia that dependable wireless access, even in the conference rooms, is a necessity. A lot of us cover the conference for websites, blogs, etc., and without a wireless connection, it's next to impossible. I hope next year's conference will not see that problem. That's somewhat of a contraversial request, as many lecturers find that distracting. However, I strongly believe it's needed. I was very hampered in covering this conference for my Blog and Fusion Authority because of it. Next year, I will make sure to stay at a hotel with high-speed internet. I had this while at CFUN03, and I wished that I had paid more for my hotel and gotten this feature.
  2. Workstations: The workstations had trouble doing certain things. A lot of people couldn't access their work e-mail and I couldn't update the blog. We know that they are workstations, but we have to be able to access certain things.
  3. Conference Agenda Builder: The builder accessible from the workstations didn't print out the sessions properly. I just got a bunch of timeslots with empty data. I vaguely recall having the same problem at Devcon, so the problem was never fixed! We need to have access to that from our laptops - what I was able to access from my laptop didn't have the room numbers! I had to correlate that with my pocket session booklet.
  4. No Session Binder: I mentioned this before, but I will explain further. I understand why some people don't like having the session binder, with all of the session presentations in it (you may not want to have sessions you aren't interested in) but I personally thought it was a big hassle to have to print out the sessions. I didn't have the opportunity to print them out pre-MAX, I didn't have a printer with me at MAX (and I honestly don't know how many people WOULD) and there were a lot of people using the workstations the first few days which made printing out the sessions difficult. Also, it would be nice for some of these sessions to be available in PowerPoint or Breeze - there may be some, but I have not found any yet.
  5. Lack of Low-carb: I had this problem at Devcon, too. I am a low-carb dieter, and have lost 130 pounds since February, 2002. It is very important to me. When I filled in my dietetic requirements at registration, I wrote in low-carb. The boxed lunches we got on Friday were definitely NOT low-carb. There wasn't enough low-carb food at the event. What was there was good, but there should have been a lot more. There wasn't any vegetables except with Chinese noodles - completely off limits - and the salad. I think that by this time next year, low-carb will be commonplace, so I hope I will not have this problem, but it was an issue.
  6. Beverages: There were some beverages, but not a lot, and none (that I saw) in the afternoon.
  7. Location/Time of Year: I really liked Salt Lake City a lot. It's a very beautiful place. However, this was not the best time of year to be going to a conference in Utah: Not cold enough for winter sports (which I wouldn't have participated in), and bad enough weather to cause a lot of travel problems. I don't know of many people that DIDN'T have a travel horror story. My arrival was delayed by a half day, and I was stranded in Dallas overnight. In the conference survey, there was a question that hinted that next year's conference would be on the East coast. I am hoping that it will be, and perhaps a little earlier in the fall so that the weather isn't such a factor in travel to and from the conference.

Conclusions

Even with those complaints, I would have to say that this year's conference was a great experience. I would highly recommend attending next year's conference. Find a way to go. Save up for it if you have to. It will be worth every penny. If you have never been to a developer conference of any kind, you don't know what you're missing. You will learn a lot, and meet people you may know from books, articles, websites or various mailing lists, meet new people, and make friendships that will last. I can't recommend it highly enough, and this was BY FAR the best conference I have attended, even with the problems.


Brian Meloche, a Macromedia Advanced Certified Developer in ColdFusion 5.0, is the founder and manager of the West Virginia Macromedia Users Group, which had its first meeting in July, 2003. He is also the leader and visionary behind the MMUG Manager Initiative, an effort to build a resource portal for Macromedia user group managers, including CFUGs. Brian has over seven years web design and development experience, five years ColdFusion experience, three years Flash experience and a total of eleven years IT experience since 1986. He has written for the ColdFusion Developers Journal and is a frequent speaker on web development techniques. A native of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, Brian is currently employed on contract as a Senior ColdFusion Developer working for state government in the Charleston, West Virginia area.

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