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Oracle's 2.5-Year Effort to Re-engineer APEX Bears Fruit

It's probably the most popular development tool you've only kinda-sorta heard of. Oracle's Application Express (APEX) rapid Web app development tool has been around for more than a decade in one form or another, and it enjoys enormous popularity within the Oracle community. The latest incarnation, APEX 5, was released last month. The company spent two years and seven months re-engineering the tool, and according to its creator, Michael Hichwa, vice president of Oracle's Software Development group, it was time well spent.

"This release took us a lot longer than usual," Hichwa told me. "In fact, it was the longest period between updates in the history of APEX, and it included three beta programs. We had a bigger objective this time, and we wanted to get it right."

Hichwa has been leading the APEX team since he developed the tool in 1999. Back then, it was really just him, but today there's a team of about 18 developers working on the tool, he said, and a community of about 300,000.

That number may not seem that high when compared with the communities of Java or PHP developers, but they are a devoted bunch. "From the beginning, we've been community-based," Hichwa said. "We get our momentum and excitement primarily from the community, not from Oracle. In fact, our best conferences are run by our user communities."

Formerly called HTML DB, APEX comes with all Oracle databases, starting with Oracle 11g, and is installed by default as part of the core database install at no additional cost. It's a browser-based environment "that combines the qualities of a personal database, productivity, ease of use, and flexibility with the qualities of an enterprise database, security, integrity, scalability, availability and built for the Web," the company says on its Web site.

The tool is popular in IT departments among those running ERP and CRM applications; they use it to extend and fill gaps. But in recent years, APEX has gained traction for line-of-business development -- sales, finance, procurement and so on. "They all have their particular needs for automation within their business groups," Hichwa explained. "Because APEX has a lower bar, technically, business-area experts who are not full-time professional developers, but who are technical, can use it. These are people who can get their heads around a SQL statement and understand the data model. APEX allows them to create a high-quality Web application quickly, without having to dive deeply into the computer science realm."

Hichwa, who, even after more than 10 years on this project, was fairly bursting with a genuinely infectious enthusiasm for this release, said that more books have been written about APEX than any other Oracle technology (20 books, by my count). Expect to see a lot more later this year covering APEX 5. "We'll be writing a few of them ourselves," he said.

APEX 5 is brimming with enhancements, including Universal Theme, an all-new UI for APEX apps. It's simpler than previous themes and more easily customizable, and it addresses the growing need to build modern, responsive, sophisticated apps without requiring expert knowledge of HTML, CSS or JavaScript, Hichwa said. The new UI also includes a new color palette; icons for easy, visual identification; intuitive workflow-based menus; and improved keyboard and accessibility support.

This release also comes with Page Designer, a new IDE designed to enhance developer productivity for prototyping, design, development and maintenance of APEX apps. The IDE provides a drag-and-drop interface for rapid development of app pages. And an enhanced code editor provides SQL and PL/SQL validation with inline errors, auto completion, syntax highlighting, search and replace with regex support, and undo and redo support.

The list of enhancements also includes new a mobile reporting capability; support for modal and non-modal dialogs; a new calendar; and a collection of Packaged Applications -- 19 APEX apps that can be used out-of-the-box and are supported by Oracle.

A complete list of APEX 5 enhancements and details can be found here.

Posted by John K. Waters on May 11, 2015