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Why Microsoft and Google are cleaning up with AJAX

Jan Stafford

Google uses it, and Microsoft is pursuing it, so there's a lot of hype and hubbub surrounding AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML). IT directors who listen closely, however, can get the real scoop on this hot technology in this interview with SearchOpenSource.com messaging expert Julie Hanna Farris.

Julie Hanna Farris

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AJAX brings together some hot properties, Javascript, HTML/DHTML and HTML, according to Farris, founder of Scalix, a Linux-based, e-mail systems vendor, and, previously, Onebox.com (acquired by Openwave), the industry's first unified messaging service; 2Bridge, an enterprise portal software pioneer; and Portola Systems (now SunONE), the first Internet-based enterprise messaging system. Scalix is using AJAX in Scalix Web Access (SWA), a Web-delivered, e-mail application.

What is AJAX, and who -- besides Scalix -- is using it?

Julie Hanna Farris: AJAX is the combined use of Javascript, dynamic HTML or DHTML, and asynchronous XML within Web content. Very simple uses of this technology range from simple interactive experiences within the normal page-based paradigm of HTML, to full Web-delivered applications that provide the interactivity of a desktop application, complete with menus, toolbars, etc.

Google Gmail and Google Maps are good examples of a very simple use of AJAX. For example, when a user scrolls a map, a Javascript method is invoked that repositions the current image and then makes an XML-based request for the image that is needed to fill in the new part of the map. The Google server will eventually return the image, which is rendered in the proper location in the page.

What should IT managers know about AJAX?

Farris: AJAX is ready for prime time. AJAX applications can deliver high function commercial-grade applications that replicate desktop functionality.

AJAX enables the centralized management and delivery of end-user applications like e-mail. Adopting and deploying AJAX applications can dramatically reduce cost, overhead and complexity of installing, updating, maintaining and supporting desktop software on end-user machines. Upgrades are as simple as a single installation on the Web server, ensuring that everyone is running the same version of software.

It's important to remember that AJAX is not a silver bullet. Not all AJAX implementations are created equal. Like with all technology, there are wide differences, in terms of functionality, stability, code quality, etc. On the more advanced side of things, it's possible to replicate desktop functionality, but most uses of AJAX are much more basic. Knowing the functional requirements for different categories of users becomes important.

The bottom line is that AJAX-based applications reduce the cost and complexity of delivering high-quality and highly-functional Web applications.

More on AJAX:

Providing cross-browser applications with AJAX

Addressing e-mail usability and productivity via AJAX

Is it just the Google connection that's raised so much interest in AJAX?

Farris: While AJAX has recently gone mainstream, it has been in use for several years, mostly on the esoteric fringe of Web development. For example, SWA has been in the market for almost two years now.

Google's use of AJAX, while fairly simple, has brought some of these concepts into the consciousness of many Web developers. You could say that Google has been the most visible purveyor of AJAX technology, which has helped it to reach a tipping point.

I believe AJAX would have made its way into the broader conscience even without Google's help. It was just a matter of time. If you take a look at the new Yahoo mail client, you will see much more advanced use of AJAX than Gmail or Google Maps. Given that the Yahoo user base is significantly larger than the Gmail base, I suspect that this will do even more to raise broad interest and enthusiasm for AJAX.

Why is Microsoft so interested in AJAX?

Farris: Microsoft is probably interested in AJAX for the same reasons everyone is interested in AJAX: the ability to deliver desktop quality applications through the Web.

What typically sets Microsoft apart from other AJAX application providers is that they do not appear to be interested in the cross-browser capabilities of AJAX applications. One can speculate that Microsoft has ample motivation to use Windows and Internet Explorer-specific features that create a dependency between their AJAX apps, IE [Internet Explorer] and the Windows platform/ecosystem. This has been the case historically.

Could you elaborate on your reasons for believing that AJAX is important to IT managers?

Farris: AJAX provides powerful building blocks for developing platform independent, advanced Web applications that have many of the best features of desktop applications. With that, AJAX allows us to merge the best features of desktop applications with the best features of the Web, in a platform-independent manner. Desktop applications provide a high level of interactivity and richness, while the Web gives us universal access without having to worry about installing software on our desktops.

Before AJAX, Web applications were heavily page-oriented and not very interactive. A user is presented with a page of information, makes a selection and is then presented with a completely new page of information, hence the page refresh problem.

With AJAX, the user is presented with an application interface that they can interact with dynamically, just like a traditional desktop application. The user interface is updated incrementally, eliminating the page refresh problem and the slow response time associated with it.

What new features will AJAX bring to Web applications?

Farris: AJAX enables advanced features like drag 'n drop, dropdown menus and faster performance capabilities, which are now making their way into Web applications. These kinds of capabilities represent a significant leap in the advancement of Web apps. More than just creature comforts, they represent a major step forward in terms of usability, productivity and application functionality.

Before AJAX, Web apps would have to work around the lack of something like drag 'n drop with check boxes and multiple clicks, resulting in multiple steps that quickly become laborious and time-consuming for users.

Does AJAX not play well in any platform or application areas?

Farris: The fact that AJAX is platform independent is a tremendous advantage for both customers and application developers.

For customers, using AJAX means gaining access to a universal client that can run on any desktop platform -- Windows, Mac, Linux, Unix -- and, any browser -- Firefox, IE, Mozilla, Safari, etc.

For software developers, app development is simplified and reduced by an order of magnitude because use of AJAX abstracts the different desktop platforms, making heterogeneity a virtual non-issue.

As more and more Web apps are developed in AJAX, there's another phenomenon that's occurring, increasingly referred to as "mashups." "Mashups" are based on the realization that the user interfaces from any number of AJAX applications can be readily integrated with each other, making application integration at the user interface level much easier.


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