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Gorilla's Geek on Flex, Java & Life After Sun

We reported last week the release of a new version of a free and open source testing tool for iOS apps called FoneMonkey from a company called Gorilla Logic. The Broomfield, CO-based company was founded by a group of former Sun Microsystems execs in 2002 as a software services firm specializing in rich Internet applications (RIAs) and enterprise app development with Java, Adobe Flex and mobile platforms.

I had a chance last week to chat with Stu Stern, the company's president and CEO.

"We're not focused on any particular vertical," Stern told me. "We're a bunch of hard-core geeks here, so the real focus is the technology."

That bunch includes Stern, who ran the Sun Java Center, Sun's global Java professional services organization; VP of engineering Ed Schwarz, who founded the global e-Business consulting organization at Sun; and CFO Hank Harris, who directed Sun's Professional Services group, which was responsible for telecom accounts in North America.

It's not surprising that the company was initially very Java focused. But tracking trends in the industry over the last eight years led the operation into RIA development in general and Flex development in particular, for both enterprise and mobile markets. (The Flex SDK was designed for developing and deploying cross-platform RIAs based on the Flash platform.)

"One of the big deficiencies we've seen in the RIA space is automated testing support," Stern said. "We're pretty serious about Agile around here, and we believe that automated testing is critical to Agile development -- we don't see how you can do refactoring of an application if you don't have an automated test to back you up."

FlexMonkey was the company's first response to these observations. It's a free Adobe AIR application designed to record, playback, and verify Flex UI interactions. The tool also generates ActionScript-based testing scripts that can be included within a continuous integration environment.

Last year "the Gorillas" turned their attention to the iPhone, where, Stern said, the need was even more acute. "In the Flex space most of the tools were oriented toward QA specifically, and weren't well suited to the type of testing that developers do," he said. "That's what drove the development of that tool. FoneMonkey follows that same philosophy of tools that can certainly be used by QA, but are very, very well-suited to developers."

Stern is the creator of FlexMonkey and FoneMonkey, as well as a tool called Fexmonkium, a free plugin for the Selenium integrated development environment that adds FlexMonkey recording and playback functionality.

"Even though we have these testing tools, we're not a testing company, per se," Stern said. "We're very much an app development firm. The majority of the work we do is just building things for people. And the tools have come out of our needs doing that work. And we're not just a Flex and iPhone shop. We do Android, and of course, lots of Java. We're pretty much right-tool-for-the-job kinds of guys. We're not religious about any particular technology."

Stern is scheduled to lead a session at the 360 Flex Conference, underway this week at the Marriott Denver South in Colorado (April 10-11). As the name implies, the event is for Adobe Flex developers, (rumors of the death of which have been greatly exaggerated). Stern's session is called "Automating Functional Testing." He plans to talk about how a "core suite of automated functional tests" provides a solid foundation for rapidly iterating product releases "by ensuring [that] the introduction of each new feature doesn't inadvertently break pre-existing functionality," the website promo states.

I'm guessing FlexMonkey will come up in the discussion.

Given his company's investment in Flex tools, I wondered whether Stern was concerned about the apparent rise of HTML5 over Flash.

"We're not worried, first, because we're not betting the company on it," he said. "I do think Steve Jobs did a great job of spreading FUD when he wrote the infamous letter [declaring that Apple would not support Flash in Apple's mobile products]. After that letter went out, people started asking us about HTML5. But HTML5 is not really an answer to Flex. At this point in time it's an answer to Flash video -- you've got good H.265 video support in HTML5 -- but it's not a development platform for RIAs."

"We still love Flex," he added. "We just think Adobe/Macromedia nailed it in most respects in terms of making it easy to build a rich Internet application. And frankly, it doesn't seem like Apple is focused on the developer; some people around here believe that the company has downright disdain for developers. But ultimately, as hard core geeks, we don't really care. Confusion and complexity drive consulting."

And I had to ask about the future of Java under Oracle.

"Look, it's not like the future of Java is really in jeopardy at this point," Stern said. "Sun clearly dropped the ball on the user interface side (ironically, since that's where it all started), but Java still owns the backend. We are seeing some significant PHP back there, but for most hard-core back-end dev, it's still Java. And the tool support for Java is so so mature. It's an incredibly productive development platform. We think the preference for scripting languages we're all hearing about is overblown. We just don't see the leverage you get with something like Ruby."

Posted by John K. Waters on April 11, 2011