Top AJAX tools deliver rich GUI goodness

Backbase, Bindows, JackBe, and Tibco General Interface bring fat features to enterprise Web clients

Version 3.2 looks similar to 3.0 and 3.1, giving you a browser-based IDE that looks and feels like the IDE classics. You can develop your interface by dragging and dropping objects around the page, something that still seems amazing in the world of HTML. While I found much of the IDE to be functional and useful, I grew a bit tired of the handholding. After a few minutes, I wanted to go back to pure XML or HTML or JavaScript mark up of the application. The Tibco interface, while quite slick, seemed to have too many options and I found myself searching for easy ways to rewrite the names of menu items or buttons. A traditional development editor lets you abstract away complexity by hiding it in some file or object, out of sight and out of mind. I felt like there were too many options in front of me. This is, however, just a matter of taste because there are many developers who like this approach.

The source code for 3.2 is being rolled out in phases and protected by a BSD license. The earlier 3.1 had a more limited license that charged for closed sites, but 3.2 removes this limitation. Tibco will pay for more development with support contracts that include a warranty. Eventually, the company hopes to integrate community contributions into the mix, something that will give them the opportunity to add in code from other major (or minor) open source contributors.

This is an interesting play and one that signals how Tibco (and Bindows) differ from Backbase and JackBe. Tibco already emphasizes how its product’s independence from server code makes it easier to integrate with other widgets and non-Tibco offerings. Making the whole product open source allows Tibco to blend in the contributions of the others without legal headaches or the need to define things such as a plug-in architecture. If they see a neat widget with the right license, they can add it.

The other changes in the 3.2 product support this move. The older 3.1 system would only produce code that worked on Internet Explorer, largely because only the Microsoft browser supported its extensive collection of graphics, charts, and gauges. Porting that to Firefox wasn’t trivial; it required redeveloping those goodies in the very different world of SVGs (Scalable Vector Graphics). That’s done now and you can write applications that run successfully on both browsers and sometimes even Safari or Opera.

Version 3.2 also includes numerous little enhancements. Tibco cites their new Matrix class, a general grid tool that can now take put any kind of widget in any cell. These small enhancements are repeated throughout the code. The results are smaller, quicker, and more generalized.

Four Pillars of AJAX

How do you choose the right package for your project? The differences are almost more about style and structure, not capabilities. All four are solid packages that represent big leaps forward from the open source toolkits. And all of them provide a good way to turn the DOM tree in a user’s browser into an extension of your server. The creators, however, come from different worlds, and their packages will appeal to developers who think as they do.

Even though much of the look of an AJAXified Web set can be redesigned by replacing a CSS file, the style of the development toolkit bubbles up to the user’s level. Backbase products look and feel like they came from Europe. Bindows, on the other hand, is clearly a product with an installed base in the U.S. government; the attention it pays to Section 508 regulations reflects this focus.

The biggest difference will probably rest in the server. If you’re adding AJAX gadgets to an existing or forthcoming Struts, JSF, or .Net project, then Backbase would be a good choice. But if you’re knitting together a number of disparate databases and Web services living in a corporate datacenter, then JackBe’s Presto could be a better fit. You could accomplish both projects with any of the four products, but these choices could make your life easier.

I will be interested in watching how a classic, IT company such as Tibco will handle a completely open source tool. The decision to embrace an open source model may seem to be a political and economic choice, but these decisions also have practical side-effects that can be quite dramatic. The openness will encourage developers inside and out to add more hooks and figure out more ways to open up their products to other code. The style of development changes throughout the source tree. A number of corporate developers tell me that they privately look with admiration at the fertile ecology of some well-run open source projects. The open source developers, for their part, marvel at the power and efficiency of focusing well-paid, full-time programmers on a problem. Perhaps Tibco’s blended approach will prove to be ideal.

The rise of tools such as these has larger implications. For years, everyone has predicted the death or commodification of the operating system layer. These tools drive another nail in the cranky, virus-ridden coffin of the OS. I’ve found it much easier to work with DOM-based user interface design tools than the classic object-oriented frameworks, and I expect that the tools examined in this article will Click for larger view. make more converts. The applications you can generate with these tools are as good as the frameworks that rest directly upon the OS, and they come with many advantages. Viruses, disk crashes, and operating system complexity continue to make it a headache for users to juggle OS-based software.

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The rise of tools such as these has larger implications. For years, everyone has predicted the death or commodification of the operating system layer. These tools drive another nail in the cranky, virus-ridden coffin of the OS. I’ve found it much easier to work with DOM-based user interface design tools than the classic object-oriented frameworks, and I expect that the tools examined in this article will Click for larger view. make more converts. The applications you can generate with these tools are as good as the frameworks that rest directly upon the OS, and they come with many advantages. Viruses, disk crashes, and operating system complexity continue to make it a headache for users to juggle OS-based software.

There are indications that the AJAX world is working on eliminating the last advantages of the OS. The open source group Dojo distributes a package that leverages the ability to store data locally on a PC. The system is fragile and relies on users’ installing a Flash plug-in, but it suggests that the AJAX world will soon conquer the ability to run offline. If this is combined with some good encryption, the AJAX application will be able to offer the user local control of files with offline access and seamless, private backup when a machine is able to reach the Internet. All of the developers of the frameworks in this article are well-aware of this grail, and you can bet that they’ll put a real polish on this capability soon.

Correction:
This article has been revised to correct the browser support information and pricing for Bindows.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Value (10.0%)
Performance (15.0%)
Documentation (15.0%)
Capability (30.0%)
Ease of development (30.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Backbase 3.2 8.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.9
Bindows 2.5 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.3
JackBe NQ Suite 4.6.1 8.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.5
Tibco General Interface 3.2 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.3
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