Friday, December 20, 2013

A Flex Spin Off Is In Development

Years ago I spent a few days in a backroom in Van Nuys, California knocking together the abomination that is our barcode label printer integration.  My wife, then a teacher, was off for the summer and we were staying at the Oakwood wedged between Universal and Warner Brothers in some nebulous quarter of LA that was either Hollywood, Glendale or Burbank. Nobody's quite sure. 

This particular Oakwood would turn out to be an incubator for child stars and had provided accommodation for the likes of Kirsten Dunst and Doogie Howser, MD.  I learned this somewhat after the fact - after asking the staff why there were so many kids running around with expensive haircuts and bad attitudes.

My wife decided to maximize her LA experience and signed up to be an extra.  She did an all night shoot for Californication in high heels.  Needless to say, neither of us were in a place to make good decisions that summer.  It was in this atmosphere that our raw templating approach to bar code printer integration was born.  It works, but it's about as brittle and user unfriendly as you can get.

Holding Our Nose

We've let this problem fester for a while - but lately there's been a lot of interest in modernizing barcode printer integration.  We've had character encoding issues that can't be solved without moving to ZPL2 in addition to the general hassle of working with label templates in the raw printer language.

We recently hired a developer (Erik), who in a previous life, worked for Seagull Scientific on their label workflow product, Commander.  He ran point on an effort to find barcode label design/automation software we could easily integrate Flex with.

The report was not good.  Everything out there seems to be from another time.  Much like our own A/V rental software industry, it's ten to twenty years behind the times.  It's all CD-ROM's in boxes in an era when fewer and fewer computers even ship with optical drives.  It's a scenario we know all too well. 

We saw little point in investing our scarce resources into integrating with software platforms that are surely destined for extinction.

In The Meantime

So it occurred to us that it's recently become possible to do a lot of powerful things in browsers without asking the user to download any software or install a plugin.  There's SVG, D3 and HTML 5's Canvas to name a few options.  Someone could - and inevitably would - build a barcode label design tool entirely in Javascript.  What if we built it first?  What if we gave it away for free as an open source library?

We'd just need a little server application to go with it that could store the label templates, talk to the printers and expose an API for triggering print operations.  It occurred to us pretty quickly that the utility of such a system would extend well beyond equipment rental software - so adding this as yet another feature to Flex made little sense.  We decided to spin it off as a separate project, brainstormed for names, checked our list against available domain names and Label Ninja was born.


A Green Field

Work on Label Ninja will start early next year and the focus will be replacing our existing raw templating system as soon as possible. We won't shoot for the kitchen sink - the focus will be clarity and simplicity.

For us, it will be a way to gain experience developing HTML 5 applications without putting our core product at risk.  For our customers, it will make changing barcode labels and hooking up printers ten times easier.  It will also give customers a taste of what to expect when our effort to replace Flash begins in earnest - an effort that won't be a shot-for-shot remake of Flash based Flex, but a full reevaluation of the user interface, one that incorporates attention to aesthetics as well as functionality along with a new emphasis on simplicity.

All Flex customers will be first in line when Label Ninja rolls off the assembly line next year.  There's no need to sign up for the mailing list because you're already on it.  But you might check out Label Ninja's coming soon page (labelninja.net) anyway, as it gives a hint of where we're headed.




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