16 August 2010
When we realized that the interdisciplinary competition sponsored by Adobe and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at University of Missouri encouraged development of innovative tools to engage the public in journalism, we knew that this was the perfect opportunity to build on a concept we had been exploring. We had been thinking about a social news aggregator project for six months, though we never seemed to have the time to do more than talk. We wanted to build a tool that would allow users to share news content with their contacts in all their social networks. Further, we had seen beta AIR applications before and were intrigued with the possibilities. The $10,000 competition prize provided the motivation to pursue our own independent development project.
The competition encouraged interdisciplinary collaboration so we formed a team of four students (including ourselves) that gave us expertise from the Information Technology, Computer Science, Journalism and Business departments. We had various classes together and had collaborated before developing applications for class assignments or for clients, so we had a great advantage in assembling a cohesive team. We had five months to develop the idea from concept into a working product prototype.
The four of us all had some experience in developing with Flash and Flex as well as using Ajax for web applications, so using Adobe AIR seemed a natural fit. It also perfectly matched our vision for a desktop application that allowed data to be collected from online sources, and AIRÕs built-in SQLite support enabled us to rely on local data storage, another key feature for us.
Our initial concept was simply to create an application that would allow users to keep tabs on all of their social networking accounts simultaneously. That idea grew into an application we named Wallowr, which would not only provide users news and updates from online sources and other social tools, but would also act as a communication device in itself. It allows users to send personal messages and forward their own preferred stories from local and national news organizations, as well as videos, to their friends completely within the AIR application. It includes one of our favorite features - a custom Flash video player built into the application for viewing videos sent by friends without requiring a trip to the web browser.
We primarily used Flex Builder, which made development very quick and efficient. Using Flex Builder allowed us to run Photoshop while we were coding. We found it most effective to break the project into small parts that individual team members could develop rapidly, and then simply assemble the components as we progressed. The hardest parts to develop were those relating to syncing the client application with our server and ensuring that data was stored properly in the client-side SQLite database for offline use.
At the onset of the project, I don't think we fully realized the potential of the AIR platform. We viewed the AIR runtime as an interesting alternative for viewing information that we would provide via a traditional website.We thought of AIR as a desktop version of Flex, but in the end, the AIR application proved to be more feature-rich than the website. No matter how great a web application is, it works only while users are connected to the Internet, and because our local database holds contact and video information, it is quicker than any Web-based database. Wallowr users can search their database anytime, making it easy for them to keep track of all kinds of information. It can run in the background, no matter what they are doing, keeping them up-to-date whether connected or not.
We submitted our project to the competition for judging in February. We won both the judges' prize and the viewers' choice award, selected by voters on the The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute web site. We hope to develop Wallowr further, adding to its features and expanding its functionality, and expect to release it as a free service this summer. We will be experts in AIR development at that point and hope to do more of it for clients.