Running on AIR: Great Office Apps You Can Get Now

The release of Adobe's AIR runtime platform was supposed to inspire the development of sophisticated business applications to take advantage of its media-rich capabilities.

AIR is a tool to build rich Internet applications that can be connected to your desktop and use Adobe's Flash player. Some six months after the release of AIR 1.0, what little there are of these applications -- we're talking things you can really use to help your productivity -- remain mostly limited to simple widgets or work-in-progress prototypes.

Keep reading, though, because we've found some good ones. Almost all are free or free to try before buying.

But why aren't there more?

"What's curious is that the mainstream population hasn't fully latched onto the AIR concept quite yet," said Ronald Schmelzer, a senior analyst at ZapThink. "There aren't as many AIR-based enterprise applications as there should be. Perhaps it's just the complexities of introducing a new language, as well as a development paradigm. Adobe has huge in-roads with the creative part, but not as much with enterprise application developers."

James Governor, a principal analyst at RedMonk (of which Adobe is a client), said AIR "will receive a boost through a partnership with SAP Business Objects. Other third parties, such as BMC, are also standardizing some of their console technology on an AIR front end to Business Objects analysis and reporting tools. Some modern health care software players are also building on AIR. The fact that AIR is being bundled in these new markets indicates it can become an ecosystem play, which is always a great way to tackle the enterprise."

Besides partnerships, a compelling application is needed, experts agree. "As long as Adobe keeps pushing the platform, and as long as they continue to show the merit of moving to a new approach for distributed application development, someone will build the 'killer app' that will move this whole industry forward," Schmelzer said. "It might come from the major enterprise app developers -- SAP, Oracle, etc. -- putting forward an AIR version of their UI. Once that happens, things will snowball."

Adobe plans to roll out its own potential killer app: an AIR version of Web-based word processor Buzzword. "Our objective is to develop the Buzzword AIR version so that a user's documents will synchronize between the Web and the desktop without user intervention or management," said Tad Staley, a senior evangelist at Adobe.

Sounds great. When is it coming out? Unfortunately, "we can't say publicly, but we are actively working on it now. It's our highest priority," said Staley.

Nevertheless, here are 10 AIR apps that have the best potential for use in the office that you can download and try now.

No. 1 -- Doomi and MiniTask

These two are simple to-do list apps. But you shouldn't expect either to offer a multitude of ways to organize and prioritize tasks, or other enterprise-level to-do management features. The idea behind both is to allow you to spend more time doing your tasks rather than managing them.

As Felix Raab, one of the developers of MiniTask, sums it up: "MiniTask is an alternative to complex and bloated task management systems; it lets you organize tasks really fast and stays out of your way."

"Doomi is designed to be dead simple, easy to use, and look damn good on your desktop. It doesn't really do much else than what you would expect it to do; I think that's why so many people like it," said Doomi's creator, John Giannakos.

Still, Giannakos plans to add more features. The most intriguing will be syncing Doomi's to-do list data with cloud computing services.

No. 2 -- Klok

Klok is intended for freelancers and consultants who need to track their time spent working outside of the office. Before starting development of Klok, Rob McKeown had evaluated other free time-tracking applications but found them frustrating to use. "I wanted the simplest possible way to indicate what I work on throughout the day and have it automatically translate that into a time sheet, without any intervention," he said.

He decided to build Klok using AIR because he wanted an application that didn't need an Internet connection to be used. "Many of the time-tracking applications that are freely available are all Web-based," said McKeown. "The fact that [AIR] doesn't require an Internet connection allows anyone to use it at any time."

He plans to expand Klok so it can also be used by small businesses that have multiple consultants working on the same projects. Version 2 will have a pluggable data-access layer that will easily allow synchronization with QuickBase for QuickBooks.

No. 3 -- scripKeepR

This nifty app lets you archive documents to an SQLite database for later search, retrieval and reproduction. ScripKeepR can be handy if you are writing multiple documents and need to organize them in some basic way or need to manage lots of snippets of code.

Anything stored through scripKeepR is reusable. "With its search ability, it allows me personally to find matching database entries or scripts and easily choose them to display or re-create as exact copies of the original files that were dropped to store in the first place," said Chris Seahorn, the creator of this AIR app.

The latest version was made way back when the AIR platform was still in its beta infancy. Seahorn is now updating scripKeepR and will distribute its source code to the public because he would like to see his app improved and added to by others. "It really needs to be opened up to allow users struggling with [accessing] SQLite [through] AIR to use it as food for thought," said Seahorn.

No. 4 -- Portfolio Viewer

One of the most powerful functions of Portfolio Viewer is its ability to import investment transactions in Quicken and Microsoft Money formats. So it's easy to quickly get things set up and running.

"With AIR, the powerful graphical capabilities of Flash produces a greatly enhanced user experience with animated charts and transitions," said Pete Michel, creator of Portfolio Viewer. "Some of this is possible with other technologies, but not with the same lightweight, cross-platform runtime that AIR offers."

With the exception of a few bug fixes and minor enhancements, there has not been a lot of work done on Portfolio Viewer lately. But its user base has been very enthusiastic, and, thus, quite a few feature requests will be implemented in the next release. Look for a new, major release in the next couple of months.

No. 5 -- BI Widgets on AIR

Developed by Business Objects, BI Widgets on AIR pushes business intelligence (BI) information to your computer through various desktop widgets. It serves as a front-end client for leveraging Business Objects' own BI delivery platform.

This is a prototype/concept app that was created based on ideas suggested by customers and partners of Business Objects, and by the company's internal teams. However, there are currently no plans to produce a final, official release of BI Widgets on AIR, but Business Objects said it's considering it. For now, the company encourages users to download and try this app, and provide suggestions for it and other feedback.

No. 6 -- Ora Time and Expense

Ora Time and Expense is a simple AIR app you can use to create and keep track of time sheets, expense reports and invoices. Document formats supported include HTML, Excel, CSV and XML.

The app features a timer that will track the time you spend on a task and then log the duration to a time sheet. Sales receipts can be scanned with a webcam, and they will be automatically attached to expense reports.

No. 7 -- AgileAgenda

This project scheduling manager dynamically adjusts schedules to changing conditions that play out across a project's life cycle: start and end dates for tasks are automatically generated based on information you provide, such as priority and resource availability. Data is in standard XML format, and it can be exported to PDF and shared through the Web.

Presently in beta, AgileAgenda will also include a developer API, allowing third parties to create applications that integrate with the Web services at AgileAgenda.com.

A companion app, AgileTracker, adds time tracking to AgileAgenda.

No. 8 -- Kinetik

This AIR-rified take on an ERP application suite offers access to a variety of tools and information tied to the running of your business, through a series of application modules. The software includes modules to manage billing, accounts receivable, accounts payable and banking accounts. For an extra fee, developer Alivebox will custom-make modules for customers with specialized business management needs.

Alivebox boasts that, because most of the nitty-gritty number-crunching happens on the server, the AIR-based Kinetik client app doesn't require a PC with heavy-duty specs in order to run well.

Kinetik is reaching the final development stage of Version 1.0, with a release expected in a couple of months. Plans are already in place for Version 2.0, which will also handle accounting, production and payroll.

No. 9 -- Pronto

Pronto mashes together e-mail, online collaboration, secure instant messaging, RSS feeds and video communications. "Think about your desktop -- you probably have an e-mail client, an IM client, maybe a VoIP client and then something to play media, like iTunes. We wanted to bring all these things together, and most importantly, we wanted to deliver that to any desktop," said Jon R. Doyle, vice president of business development at CommuniGate Systems. "Pronto brings all forms of communications together with a framework that allows expansion or new applications to snap in."

Pronto 2.5 is due toward the end of the year. It will allow users to create and share video clips, and include an API so third-party developers can build application modules to run within Pronto itself.

No. 10 -- The WagerWidget

Designed for sports fans, fantasy leaguers and sports betters, the WagerWidget obviously doesn't fall under the category of a "serious" business application, but it can be handy for managing your office betting pool. Sports and leagues covered are the NFL, MLB, NCAA Football, NCAA Basketball, NBA and NHL. As odds update, you can spot discrepancies by half-points. An analysis feature built into the widget can also help you find the best odds.

The WagerWidget has been made to run on several platforms (including Facebook and iPhone), with the AIR version being the latest. "We decided that AIR was worth porting to because it gave the WagerWidget's existing code base the ability to run as a native desktop application on Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems, all from the same installer," explains David Steinbrunner, one of the developers of the WagerWidget.

Future versions of the WagerWidget may include odds conversion tools and more sports types.

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