Microsoft readies Atlas Web development framework

Technology aims to create more interactive, more responsive Web pages

Microsoft at its annual Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in September will debut a new object-oriented framework aimed at simplifying the development of client-side browser applications.

The new framework, code-named Atlas, combines technology available in previous versions of Internet Explorer that allowed Web-page updates to run in the background, rather than making continuous calls to the server to refresh a page, said Charles Fitzgerald, general manager of the platform strategy group at Microsoft.

Those technologies, DHTML and HTTP XML, provided the basis for what is called Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) development, Fitzgerald said. This style of programming enables applications to be altered dynamically on a browser page without changing what happens on the server.

“The benefit of this style of development is that you get more interactive, more responsive Web pages,” Fitzgerald said. “Atlas is just a big chunk of standard JavaScript code that lots of developers can incorporate into their Web applications so they can create a richer, more interactive user experience.”

DHTML and HTTP XML first appeared in IE in 1997, but the technologies didn’t take off among developers at the time, Fitzgerald said. Web application development is now trending toward delivering rich user experiences filled with multimedia, and Microsoft hopes Atlas will help take this kind of programming mainstream.

Microsoft will release a technology preview of Atlas at the PDC, which will be held in Los Angeles, Fitzgerald said. The full release will be available soon after, but he did not specify an exact time frame.

Developers will be able to use Visual Studio 2005, which is due to be generally available Nov. 8, for building and debugging Ajax-enabled applications, Fitzgerald added.

Microsoft is not alone in its interest in Ajax. The Sun Microsystems-sponsored NetBeans open source Java tools project also is working on an Ajax-style programming implementation. Microsoft, however, is probably more concerned about what the Mozilla Foundation, which oversees the Firefox browser, is doing to support Ajax, said James Governor, analyst at RedMonk.

The Firefox browser has been eating away at IE’s market share since its rollout last fall.

“[Atlas] is about the limitations around IE, and if Microsoft had kept innovating IE, they wouldn’t be worried about it now,” Governor said. “Firefox is where we’re seeing Ajax development really stick. That’s the platform people are increasingly going to write to, and Microsoft is worried about that as a development platform.”

Microsoft also has been keeping a wary eye on Adobe Systems since its purchase of Macromedia earlier this year. For nearly two years, Macromedia has enabled media-rich, Web-based applications to run locally on the client via its Flash player, making the use of the browser unnecessary for such apps.

Governor said Microsoft’s enabling of rich media in browser-based applications competes with Macromedia’s plans for Flash.