Promise yet questions at Ajax confab

Promise yet questions at Ajax confab

Summary: Barely a year old as a term, the Ajax browser programming technique has received a lot of press and industry attention in the last few months. Not the least because head-turning software is being developed with it. Ajax sparking yet another big push towards Software as a Service on the Web and even the biggest software players like Microsoft are making significant investments in Ajax desktops, online business software, as well as elaborate Ajax development frameworks such as Microsoft's forthcoming Atlas product.

TOPICS: Tech Industry

Barely a year old as a term, the Ajax browser programming technique has received a lot of press and industry attention in the last few months.  Not the least because of the head-turning software that's being developed with it (check Michael Arrington's terrific TechCrunch if you're still not sure about this.) 

Jesse James Garrett: It's time to lay the groundwork for the next stage of the development of the WebAjax is sparking yet another big push towards Software as a Service on the Web and even the biggest software players like Microsoft are now making significant investments in Ajax desktops, online business software, as well as elaborate Ajax development frameworks such as Microsoft's forthcoming Atlas product.  Even more staid companies IBM and Oracle have gotten together recently and formed an Open Ajax coalition to make sense of where Ajax is going and help ensure it goes in the right direction.

To get a handle on all this, at the Real-World Ajax Seminar yesterday in New York City (disclaimer: I was an invited speaker), Ajax luminaries Jesse James Garrett, Dave Crane, David Heinemeier Hansson, Scott Dietzen, Bill Scott, and many others got together to talk about the very latest developments in Ajax.  It was interesting to see the concerns and questions that emerged from the audience as the day progressed.  Though even the skeptics agreed that it'll soon be more common to encounter Ajax features on a Web site than not, one major concern is how appropriate a software model Ajax really is for software that matters: business applications and important personal software.

Is the Ajax application model really a good one for most software?

Can an application model ever really be taken seriously which doesn't readily allow information storage on the local client or even access to your own software unless your Internet connection is working properly?

That particular question and other important ones, like ready compatibility with common enterprise technologies, was a key concern for many.  Yet the overall mood of the crowd was very optimistic, which surprisingly seemed to consist about equally of large corporate developers and Internet firm programmers, patiently waded through over 10 hours of sessions from Ajax expert after expert to get a feeling for it.

Scott Dietzen, CTO of Zimbra, tells Ajax war storiesThe older Ajax vendors, which have been working on sophisticated Ajax-enabled software for a year or more now, also provided some interesting lessons learned.  Scott Dietzen, CTO of Zimbra, in particular had things to say about optimizing for performance and figuring out how to test Ajax software, two things that SOA project leaders would be happy to tell you plague them in very similar, building-on-quicksand ways.

And Ajax development tool leaders like TIBCO and Backbase made a strong showing with their relatively mature Ajax tools since both companies got into the space before Ajax was even a term.  Intriguingly, their tools put Ajax development power more into the hands of corporate developers than pure-play Web software creators.  And likewise, the relatively new Ajax-powered SOA/Client model also came up time and again in many of the presentations, and the vision of a zero-footprint, zero-admin, rich applications that love Web services seemed to be a winning message with many.

The vision is clear, but are the tools and issues? 

The fundamental vision of Ajax though was painted by speaker Jesse James Garrett and coiner of the Ajax term, who told the crowd that it is "time to lay the groundwork for the next stage of the development of the Web."  And it's in this sense that the audience tried to size up the significance of what they were hearing.  Certainly, there will always be skeptics but even the pragmatists were also talking today about whether these new models of online software are actually compatible with large organizations and software efforts.  Ajax and kin may just be too different and their requirements so disjoint from the well-trodden paths and products of the enterprise world that developer tools might just be fractured on this fault line.

However, if real pragmatics is what you want, it was David Heinemeier Hansson that delivered the clearest eyed vision in his Ajax on Rails presentation yesterday afternoon as he described the storied advantages of the increasingly popular Ruby on Rails framework.  I asked him directly about the scalability and maturity of Rails and he told me that 37signals supports a user base of almost 400K users with less than a dozen and a half servers.  And Rails, being based on Ruby, can reportedly make software maintenance easier and simpler than ever before, a compelling argument in an enterprise world where maintenance is the mainstream story, not new development

So, though Rails and the enterprise was precisely the subject of discussion in the blogosphere today, it is clear that the practical approach to software development, as advocated by the Rails community and embodied by the Rails framework, could be very compatible at least with the smaller, fast moving modern organization, what some business folks have given a fancy term to: gazelles.

A springboard to large-scale success or failure? 

I'm a believer in Ajax, SOA/Client, and agile development partially because we can all see the results today in the relatively high-quality, low cost, innovative software pouring out of the Web these days.  But it's also clear that tools that let you do big things easily also force you to deal with big design, implementation, and scalability more easily.  This will push the short-term results of using these technologies towards the more spectacular, both in terms of successes and failures, at least until the experience curve catches up. 

And while I'm confident that it won't be the case, it could ultimately be what Ajax and Web-based mashups could be most famous for: Creating mounds of ephemeral eye-candy that can can't achieve the necessary gravitas and depth to really matter.

Dynamic software languages are back with a vengeance.  Will you build your new software with them? 

Topic: Tech Industry

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  • RADical Ruby on Rails

    Getting a website developed and running is one thing.

    Maintaining it is another.

    The Rails framework isn't the first to encapsulate the Model/View/Controller, but what sets it apart is perpaps more about the pure object-oriented nature of Ruby and how Rails acheives encapsulation, thanks to the work of David Heinemeier Hansson.

    So far, I see Ruby being a close relative to Perl, the 'Duct Tape of the Internet'.

    It is objects all the way drawing on most of the good traits of Perl while adhering to object-oriented principles from the 'get-go'.

    Anyone who has Perl basics under their belt should be able to 'hit the ground running' with Ruby.

    With any class framework, you need go thru a learning curve before becoming productive. Right?

    Wrong. Sometimes.

    Ruby on Rails proves that above statement is false and that's probably why Rails is garnering very high interest overall.

    But, please. Don't take my word for it.

    If you need convincing, I suggest you start by reading an excellent article here:

    And to be suitably 'wowed', feel free to run the Rails Video link found in the same article:

    What's especially nice is that you can do all your development from Eclipse, using the RDT plugin.

    If you haven't given Eclipse a try, well, I suggest you take a look. Install and reserve judgement.

    Follow this article how-to to get jump started into Ruby on Eclipse:

    Also, there is a RadRails Eclipse plugin here:

    Oh, there's a good SQL plugin for Eclipse also, SQLExplorer, found here:

    Put Eclipse together with Ruby RDT, RadRails, and SQLExplorer and you have a RAD programming environment in the makings! ;)

    RADical Dude! :)

    OK then. Thanks for a good article.
    D T Schmitz
  • TalkBack!

    (tap tap) Is this Mic on Dion? ;)

    So much for TalkBack. No Takers on this subject, apparently.
    D T Schmitz
  • Still waiting

    As far as user interface issues are concerned I am still waiting to see what the big deal is. Some marketing guy groups existing tools into a bundle and slaps a buzzword on it and viola! it's going to replace the desktop. It reminds of all of the noise that was made about the Java version of WordPerfect, where is that now? I have seen sites that use a lot of DHTML and javascript well before and they are nice, for a website, but I don't see it dislodging the thin client in Windows or *nix at any time soon.
  • Ditto.

    The only threat I see is a local intranet solution for businesses.
  • AJAX. Not that big of a thang.

    OK. So bits of a web page can be updated asynchronously. It still boils down to the project and what it's requirements are. AJAX will be good for some projects and it won't be enough for others. For those others, thin clients or pure thick clients will still be the answer.
    Jake Danger
  • AJAX is the Worst Technology I have Yet Seen!

    AJAX and its sibling, ATLAS, is by far the WORST technology I have yet seen in the web development community. Google puts a few maps online that happen to pull xml and images using a browser DOM, an XMLHTTP call, and some nasty JavaSCript and people flip out and start talking Web 2.0 and a new web thats coming! Nothing could be farther from the truth!

    We were dealing with horrible JavaScript cross-browser problems in 1999 and not much has changed. The technologies behind AJAX is nothing new, nor have the problems changed. Its still a poor little client-side browser circus trick that doesnt deserve the press you guys at ZDNET keep giving it (ei PR firms from companies that market the tools for it).

    The fact is a whole host of browsers dont or cant read AJAX technologies. On top of that, 10% or users world wide trun off JavaScript in the browser period, so those people get broken pages and long downloads for navigation and system that break in the browser. Its great technology for small, very specialized client-side tricks, like pulling data without a refresh or drag and drop features. Thats it! Beside, whats wrong with the refresh button? Does the same thing!

    Whu use it? XHTML and CSS is what really matters online. The browsers now cache data really fast and really well. USing XHTML and CSS and a fast database and great server-side code you can deliver the exact same data and visuals with half the time and 1/10th the code in your web pages. You sites dont HAVE to use client-side Jaavscript tricks like AJAX to deliver good web experiences! If AJAX was the end-all of the web, how come 90% of web pages still use plain html and text? Why havnt they all moved to all tis AJAX? They havent because its a huge head-ache. The only payoff is a few pretty visuals and some minor interactivity in the web page. No added value whatsoever there.

    If you are determined to deliver a truly simple, yet powerful, fully interactive web experience that goes beyond the refresh button and plain html page text and imagery, check out Flash 8 by Macromedcia. 99% browser saturation, very secure, always works, and can be fast! Can suck down images, video, animated movies, and xml and highly interactive. You cant do 1/10 the stuff you can in Flash! Our shop has used it many times the past 6 years to add high levels of interactivity. Also works in browser old and new! Try saying that with AJAX which has to sniff for all the odler agents, wont play in them, and works at best in only the newer most popular browsers!

    (Why hasnt anyone written about XHTML 2.0 or CSS 3 or the cool new recommendations by the Why? Because its a free, open source community thats non-profit. If you are trying to sell something, you get free airtime!)
  • yawn

    (check Michael Arrington's terrific TechCrunch if you're still not sure about this.)

    Checked it out, found nothing interesting. What exactly was I supposed to find that was so exciting?
  • I wonder - what makes AJAX different, from, say, Java??

    I wonder - Java, Flash, and dare I say ActiveX all do the same thing - what makes AJAX different? Why use AJAX instead of one of these?
  • When you've got a hammer

    Everything looks like a nail. And in this case it's like a hammer where the grip, handle and head are loosely coupled and tied up with duct tape. Just the usual symptoms of people (usually salespeople) looking for a magic bullet.

    The problems alluded to in the article aren't dealt with and as other posts have pointed out, you can do it in a number of ways without AJAX.

    It's all dependent on area too. My field is eLearning and that really suffers from a browser based approach. Apart from browser versions, plug-ins, security restrictions and the general instabilities that plague the net, delivering eLearning through Javascript plus whatever else technology your going to need this time is very frustrating. A number of corporations also run secure operating environments, so being able to upgrade a component or add a plug-in is not an option.

    This has lead to an increased use of Flash - simply because it downloads to the user machine and is present on most standard Windows installations. Essentially a 2D animation tool that's been enhanced to a development tool, it's not exactly the best choice for complex eLearning.

    My own tool follows the same path - but is not browser limited. To circumvent installation restrictions, the player uses its own virtual operating environment. I've also had to come up with a method to communicate between the browser and an executable and to pass results back through the browser. I'm not pretending I'm satisfied by this approach, but it does work dependably and the eLearning automatically downloads, expands and runs at full speed on the PC and it looks like how I designed it - without being dependent on the vagaries of the browser type or the user's display choices. The point is, it makes use of the Net's best characteristic - delivery from a central point and avoids the Net's problems such as drop outs, server and network load, browser differences, security restrictions and pop-up messages that test the learner's computer expertise and patience rather than educating them. As for reliable synchronised voice-over or video - that's why I now embed them in the downloadable eLearning.

    Javascript - god. If you think some of these mashups are bad, look at what we've got in eLearning - the SCORM standard - a Javascript based method of communicating between eLearning and the Learning Management System that launches it. The latest version actually broke the previous version - I found I'd have to change so many function names over in their new API, I gave up. And as for the documentation, it reads like a technical spec of C++ interspersed with edubabble (and I'm a programmer and an ex teacher)

    I suppose this rant is to point out that AJAX and a number of other 'NEW' solutions are just that - they are solutions to a problem - some of them might be bandaids and some might be runecloth bandages - but will they address the problems of reliability, business/personal data security and responsiveness that most of us take for granted with our PC based apps?
  • AJAX, and that's about it...

    I guess everybody should be reminded that AJAX is about using the XMLRequest to do the "magic" trick so that there isn't page-by-page or browser refreshes. AND THAT'S IT~! AJAX ain't about having a very fancy UI, which you can drag-N-drop etc, AJAX ain't about how you can have flexible, scalable backend business logics etc.

    Of course there are more and more libraries and tools in the market which help on developing all these UI, but don't forget about the fact that, managing these UI with JavaScript is always a pain in the ass... oouccchh.... not to mention about handle the data cached on the browser side etc.

    Some of the giants offers tools to create AJAX apps, such as Sun Creator. But the issue is, this actually ties the developments to a specific technology. In Sun Creator's case, you need to use JSF. Hhhmm...

    It's really something interesting I must say. But maturity? I'm still sitting here and waiting...
  • AJAX is just fresh paint on a rusty old car.

    Maybe it's me, but I still haven't found anything in AJAX (or SOA for that matter) which doesn't look like a freshly painted face on a thirty year old idea : one which has failed repeatedly.

    Three reasons...

    First: As far as centralized solutions are concerned, the mainframe days are mostly gone and good riddance to them. The PC revolution brought the computer's potential to the masses, and freed us all of the tyranny of the "glass room". We *like* thick clients, local storage, and offline operating capabilities.

    Second: Functionally the internet is just too unreliable, and often too slow, to rely upon for maintaining business.

    Third: Delivering good quality interactive web pages can be achieved in a myriad of ways and most of us have been doing so for the past decade or more.

    Frankly, slapping a new buzzword on an old idea and trying to build a locked-in market around it is just the tired old act of desperate marketeers trying to create the "next big thing" so as to make themselves rich on the backs of others. Thanks, but no thanks.

  • I call it a Form Velement... more about Velements here:
  • RE: Promise yet questions at Ajax confab

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