Why should GIS professionals make a switch to javascript based Web Appbuilder (WAB) from Flex/Silverlight based Map Viewer?

Blog Post created by shital on May 25, 2016

The article was originally published here.

As Web GIS starts taking a central role in the GIS workflow influencing the way we collect, analyze and publish the spatial data; a website presence with mapping capabilities is now very common for organizations. This also means that incorporating new state of the art technology in rendering, querying and sharing online maps has become more of a need than a luxury. This article provides a straightforward high level overview on available web client viewer options in the ESRI ecosystem, and suggest the best one for a novice GIS architect (of course!).

ESRI avails us with three easy-to-use solutions for creating custom web mapping applications:

  • ArcGIS Online application templates: Application templates are the simplest and easiest configurable client viewer option but not as comprehensive in functionality as other two options.
  • ArcGIS Viewer for Flex: In the summer of 2010, ESRI made ArcGIS Flex Viewer as an official product. It is ready-to-deploy configurable, robust, rich internet application with one weakness – it requires Adobe Flash Player plug-in on the web browser.
  • ArcGIS Viewer for Silverlight: Similarly, ArcGIS Viewer for Silverlight was released on 2012. It also provides intuitive browser-based application builder with WYSISYG user experience but a similar caveat- it requires Microsoft Silverlight browser plug-in.

So where does Web AppBuilder (WAB) come into picture?

Coming to the first quarter of 2016, we already have a mature and professional way of sharing web maps. This has different workflow than any one explained above - build powerful, customizable GIS apps that run on any device (you name it…smartphones, phablets, tablets, android, ios, windows….) with no plug-ins required. And how do you build these GIS apps? Very efficiently using Web AppBuilder (WAB)! What really important is that, it seems, ESRI wants you to use WAB as the ‘default’ way to build custom and out of the box web applications to share online maps. So, the only direction that WAB can take from here is forward. It is also true that WAB lets you build your own web app that you can host through your server with no or next to no programming skills required. But if you like to play with some code or want to bring out the inner dormant programmer in you, you can are welcome to use the Developer edition of the WAB.  We can go back and forth over the best way of sharing maps in 21st century, but it wouldn’t take much time for an experienced developer to understand the superiority of WAB over other solutions because WAB IS BASED ON JAVASCRIPT and HTML5. If you take few seconds to google, you can easily find out that javascript is open standard scripting language with global developer base that arguably is the most popular language on the planet right now!

Once javascript had many gaps which made flex and Silverlight very popular. But, now it’s time to move to javascript again, folks! Don’t take my word for it? Adobe has abandoned Flash and Silverlight 5 is the last update by Microsoft. ESRI says version 3.7, released on last quarter of 2014, will be the last planned release for Flex based map viewer. Same is the case with Silverlight. Would anyone want to be ‘Nokia’ in the age of smartphones, again? As for WAB, you can be really picky as it already comes in three flavors: embedded in ArcGIS online, embedded in Portal for ArcGIS andDeveloper edition. All you have to do is have your pick and start publishing your spatial data and other attributes over the internet or intranet. User community has already built a lot ‘cool’ widget (aka tools) for the WAB, in-addition to those that come inbuilt with WAB (My favorite widgets: Situational Awareness, NearMe,  District Lookup, Enhanced Search, Identify, Elevation Profile). For comprehensive list, click here.

For folks who don’t want to go through the entire mumble- jumble above, I have compiled a cheat sheet to explain the pros of WAB in short:

- ESRI is making a shift to web app builder from Flex/Silverlight technology. There will be no future releases for the latter technologies.

- WAB is based on JavaScript/HTML5 technology and hence has more browser support than Flex/Silverlight.

- WAB based map viewer does not require plugins like flex/Silverlight based technologies do.

- WAB based map viewer can be used cross-platform windows, ios and android devices as well as in smartphones and tablets

- WAB based map viewer has a better zooming capability than flex map viewer. The user interface is more interactive, robust and user friendly.

-ESRI avails us with Web Appbuilder developer edition. The user community is ever rising and this will help us customize or use already customized tools to add to our map viewer. 

Still not convinced? Go through the links below and you will appreciate that  javascript based WAB is the “only future in the near future”:

If you have a better reasons as why one should switch (or not switch) to WAB, please let everyone know in the comments below.