AJAX: Roller skates for the Web

Founder of the term advises caution but also stresses benefits of Web development approach

SANTA CLARA, CALIF. -- AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) Web application development can be roller skates for the Web; it must be used appropriately or it can be dangerous, said Jesse James Garrett, the IT consultant credited with coining the term "AJAX."

Garrett gave a keynote presentation at the AJAXWorld Conference & Expo on Tuesday morning. While noting the benefits of AJAX, chiefly its enabling of asynchronous interaction over the Web, Garrett cautioned that AJAX is not usable in all instances. It is similar to how it would not be good to roller skate around a shopping mall, he said.

"We're going to introduce AJAX into places where it doesn't belong," said Garrett, who is director of User Experience Strategy and a founding partner of Adaptive Path.

Afterward, Garrett elaborated. "I think a lot of people are trying to use AJAX for doing kind of more dynamic content navigation -- the stuff that the Web is already pretty good at, and that's a place where it starts to break down," Garrett said. This use of AJAX breaks the conventions of the "back" button, he said.

Garrett's roller skate assessment struck a chord with attendee Vera Algoet, a Web developer at the Monterey County Office of Education. Although not currently an AJAX developer, Algoet cited the possibilities of fun and danger with using AJAX.

"I haven’t done any [AJAX development] yet, but I've read some things about security concerns," she said. But AJAX offers the possibility of improved applications, Algoet said. "I just want to make better applications" that are easier to use, she said.

Recalling the genesis of the term "AJAX," Garrett said his company was hired by a large insurance company to improve an application to capture more business. Setting about trying to find a solution for responsiveness on the Web, Flash was first thought of as a solution, he said. But it became apparent there was a different way to approach the problem.

"We built a prototype of this approach, we tested it with the insurance agents, and the response was overwhelmingly positive," Garrett said. "We actually had people laughing out loud with delight at processing an insurance policy."

To persuade the insurance company president to fund the project with $2 million, Garrett came to the conclusion that he needed an easier way, just one word, to encapsulate what he was trying to do. He then came up with the word, AJAX.

Garrett noted that AJAX is a concept involving asynchronous interaction and the use of browser-native technologies. Communicating the importance of these applications is critical, he stressed.

"The challenge for us in designing these AJAX applications is in figuring out how to communicate to users the possibilities of using these applications," Garrett said.

AJAX, he said, allows for incremental migration. "With AJAX, we can apply it in bits and pieces. We can incrementally migrate components of this new application to this new model where it makes sense, rather than having to move the whole thing all at once," said Garrett. Additionally, AJAX developers are able to learn from each other's approaches.

While AJAX technologies have been around for a while, it was not until 2005 that everybody got behind this approach, Garrett said. This was because the end of the browser war presented a relatively stable landscape and scripting languages became prominent. The innovation posed in the AJAX-based Google Gmail and Google Maps applications also contributed, he said.

AJAX usage figures presented by Evans Data at the conference show a promising future. About 1.7 million developers now use it and another 1.9 million have evaluated it or plan to use it, according to Evans.

An Adobe official at the show stressed that Adobe's Flex and Flash technologies can work with AJAX rather than rival it.

"Flex and the Flash platform [are] not here at all to replace or try to compete with AJAX," said Christophe Coenraets, senior technology evangelist at Adobe.

"Flex and AJAX work together to deliver the right experience," he said.

Coenraets also briefly discussed Adobe's planned Apollo technology for running browser-based applications outside of a browser. This technology, which currently is an alpha stage of development, enables users to run Flex and Flash applications offline and allows access to local resources.

JackBe at the conference unveiled its Presto REA (Rich Enterprise Application) platform, for delivering enterprise AJAX applications that are based on SOA and Web services.

"It provides a governed access to SOA services," said Rob Vonderhaar, vice president of marketing at JackBe. The platform goes into a beta release in November, with general availability planned for the first quarter of 2007.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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