|By Harshad Oak||
|January 4, 2006 02:45 AM EST||
"Ajax technologies aren't particularly new or sexy"
Harshad Oak: Congratulations on the publication of your book “AJAX In Action”. Could you tell us a little more about yourself and your involvement in Ajax?
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HO: As Ajax is such a new thing and only a handful are sure of what Ajax is all about, could you give us your thoughts on “What is AJAX”?
DC: Well, it isn't a technology. At the risk of sounding a bit fluffy, I'd say it's a way of doing new things with old technologies. From the programmer's perspective, everything that we needed to do AJAX has been available for several years, but it's taken most of us this long to get it. A few brave souls like Brent Ashley, Eric Costello, and the people that I'm now working with at Historic Futures, have been pioneering this approach for some time, but it was never mainstream until recently.
To me, that's the most interesting thing about AJAX. As techies, we tend to get hung up on the Next Big Thing technology-wise (OK, i should speak for myself, I get hung up on these things), and yet with AJAX, the technologies themselves aren't particularly new or sexy. Rather, it's the realization that new things can be done with the old technologies. Simply adding asynchronous requests into the mix increases the reach of these technologies to the 'sovereign' applications that users use as their main workhorse for several hours a day. We're seeing people like 37signals suddenly make sense of the ASP model that's been talked about for several years and never quite taken off until now. And once you get into the whole Web 2.0 thing of 'mash-ups' and published APIs, then the entire business model is changing further still.
HO: In a very short time, Ajax has perhaps become the most popular acronym in software development. What do you think are the reasons? Did you see this coming?
DC: No, I didn't see it coming, much as I'd like to nod my head sagely :-). I think the popularity of Ajax lies in the low barrier to entry. Writing an AJAX app needs nothing more than a text editor and a web browser, although a serious AJAX professional will probably want a whole array of debuggers, IDEs and DOM Inspectors up their sleeves too – I certainly do.
Web sites can adopt it incrementally, again, making the barrier to entry pretty low.
If you compare AJAX to, say, Java Web Start, then Web Start wins on sheer power and what you can do with it. But AJAX is good enough for most situations, and it's ready to run on most people's computers without installing any client software. Maybe the fact that it uses a scripting language has something to do with it too (I'm a big fan of scripting as much as possible, I got a great productivity boost personally out of Jython, for example, when I first picked it up a few years ago.)
DC: There's a line that the mark of a really good invention is that it will end up getting used for purposes that the inventor never could have dreamed of. I forget who it's attributed to now. I'm all in favor of pushing the envelope of what a web app can do, and I think AJAX is going in the right direction, on the whole.
Sure, it's possible to make the user experience worse by inappropriate use of AJAX, singing, dancing boxes popping up everywhere. But I'm pleased to see sites like Backpack and Flickr that work not just because they're using cool new technologies (or is it cool old technologies?), but because they're marrying that with improved useability, and offering something that people really do find easy to use.
DC: For a very graphical application, Flash can do things that the current round of browsers just plain can't. With AJAX, one is very much tied to the rectangular nature of the DOM elements – look at the hoops that Google Maps jump through to render round-edged speech bubbles with semi-transparent drop shadows, for example. I presume that drawing that sort of thing in Flash would be much easier. I'm not that familiar with Flash from a developer standpoint, so please take my reply with a pinch of salt :-).
Again, in most cases, AJAX is there, it works, and it's good enough. Nobody designing an interactive web-based application platform from scratch would come up with AJAX, it's evolved organically out of the web browser. Like Microsoft Windows, AJAX has nothing so much in its favor as the fact that it is ubiquitous.
HO: Technologies generally don't sustain if there aren't good tools and frameworks around them. So what's the status with AJAX? Does one develop AJAX applications using any text editor or are there any specialized tools we must look at?
DC: There is no single AJAX IDE at the moment. Heavyweight development jobs can benefit from some sort of IDE, and I've seen people using everything from Eclipse to Dreamweaver to code their AJAX apps. The full toolkit is broader than that, however. There are code debuggers, such as Venkman for Mozilla, the free Microsoft Script Debugger and the Script Editor that ships with Office and/or Visual Studio for IE. There are HTTP debuggers – I'm currently using Fiddler and the Apache TCPMon. There are DOM Inspectors, XSLT tools, and so on. Firefox and Mozilla provide an excellent starting set of dev tools, with the big downside that they can't help you with IE-specific bugs.
HO: Interest in AJAX has been especially high in the Java world. How does AJAX fit into Java's scheme of things?
HO: Is AJAX more of a concern for the web designer or for the server side developer? How do you think would the division of work in AJAX project teams work out?
HO: Where do you see Ajax going from here?
DC: All over the place :-) The big server frameworks are picking it up. The new types of smart internet clients are doing clever things with it. It seems to be breathing new life into the ASP business model. I'm intrigued by the various gadget/widget frameworks – Konfabulator, Mac OSX Dashboard, and Vista Gadgets – that seem to be combining elements of AJAX and desktop apps, blurring the boundaries a little bit further. I only wish that I had more time to explore all these avenues, I'll look forward to seeing what happens in the next year or two in this space.
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