AJAX and the richer Internet application

AJAX and the richer Internet application

Summary: Existing RIA platforms like Flex and DreamFactory will give AJAX a run for its money over the coming year. Who knows which will prevail?


The upcoming launch of Macromedia's Flex Builder development tool is a timely reminder that the AJAX crowd didn't invent the idea of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs). Flex redeems Macromedia's ubiquitous Flash browser plug-in, which earned notoriety as the originator of all those useless and highly annoying 'skip intro' pages built by clueless Web 1.0 website designers. It brings Flash into the Web 2.0 era, turning it into a presentation layer for accessing back-end server resources, including web services.

Why would anyone need something like Flex, now that we have AJAX? Although AJAX is good at getting information from the server and presenting it on the client, it has very limited client support for graphics. Whereas Flash is so good at presenting graphics that it's been abused for that purpose for most of its existence. But in the hands of a good on-demand application developer, Flash is an excellent vehicle for turning data into easily interpreted graphical information. This type of treatment can turn around an application from one that's clunky and unintuitive into one that's a joy to use.

Another RIA platform worth noting is DreamFactory, which is purpose-designed to build rich clients for on-demand applications built with XML and web services. The most popular application produced so far for Salesforce.com's AppForce platform is DreamFactory's DreamTeam, which uses the capabilities of its RIA plug-in to create a feature-rich and user-friendly teamwork automation package.

I asked DreamFactory's CTO Bill Appleton a couple of weeks ago whether he was at all fazed by the advent of AJAX, and here's what he told me:

"If you look at the number of moving pieces in an AJAX application, once you get beyond about a hundred, it gets very complex. With DreamFactory it's very easy to develop an application with fifty to sixty thousand moving pieces."

Maybe that delta will narrow as AJAX toolkits become more sophisticated, but it's going to be interesting to watch this battle play out over the next year or so. All the buzz about AJAX may help to reinvigorate interest in existing RIA platforms like Flex and DreamFactory, and who knows which one will turn out to be the most widely used in the end?

One thing is certain: the days of when people dismissed Internet clients as hopelessly inferior to native Windows clients are past. Everyone now understands that very sophisticated application functionality can be hosted in the browser, using its native capabilities plus some downloaded code. Applications should no longer be thought of as having a single runtime location: the Web allows them to execute co-operatively in real-time on the client and one or more servers. "It's almost a new class of applications that's fully on-demand and fully leverages the desktop," Bill Appleton told me. "We're really using both ends of this pipeline very effectively."

Topic: Apps

Phil Wainewright

About Phil Wainewright

Since 1998, Phil Wainewright has been a thought leader in cloud computing as a blogger, analyst and consultant.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Don't forget Laszlo

    Laszlo Systems have an OpenSource application server and an IDE in Elclise (build by IBM). Laszlo also creates flash applications. Laszlo has also been around longer than Flex. Not saying Flex is bad...but it's $$$
    • Laszlo is cool but

      Laszlo is cool but it relies on a proprietary browser plug in and it is slower than a good ajax application. Take for instance the fact that I have a 64 bit linux machine and macromedia has not released a 64 bit browser plugin for linux. No thanks I will take a browser neutral platform any day.
  • I think you've lost sight of what 'AJAX' is

    AJAX stands for 'Asynchronous JavaScript and XML' (apparently). If you stop using XML for the data format (e.g. use JSON or CSV), is it still AJAX?

    I'd love to see a live graphic with 50,000 'moving pieces' that used XML as the data protocol, but I'm not sure I'd like to actually have to use it!

    AJAX is buzz and spin, it isn't a technology, trademark or brandname (unless we're talking about household cleaning products...). To state AJAX 'has very limited client support for graphics' is absurd - AJAX isn't a thing, it doesn't have any support for anything. It is simply an amalgum of technologies that are used to ask for data from the server without refreshing the page.

    What the browser can do (or does) with the retrieved information is completely up to the browser. Conceivably, a serialised Flash object could be returned, so 'AJAX' could be complimentary to Flash.

    Now we're full circle - if the data ain't XML, is it 'AJAX' at all?
    Fred Fredrickson
    • I've just met the "Ajax" guy at the web 2.0 conference

      And asked him this EXACT question.

      He answered yes :D

  • Now let me make U 1 thing clear Mr.

    U r tryin 2 Jack AJAX. When the fact of the matter is that The heavy flash of yours that people block using FlashBlock is just a small teeny tiny part of HTML or AJAX. Flash fails where JAVA failed 10 years BACK.

    WANA corrupt AJAX ? in your dreams U Marketing scum, If U wana kill AJAX then first Kill HTML and JAVAScript U greedy. But then

    AJAX will live on, the GENE is Out
    • Oh Dear 'illogicallySmallPenis'

      you say "Flash fails where JAVA failed 10 years BACK" except you are quite patently wrong, flash is one of the most widely distributed internet technologies. 98% penetration, with a consistent cross browser, cross o-s experience, unlike much hacky ajax fad rubbish. Flash rules RIA-dev; you tend to find that flash haters are talentless, mediocre people that can't cope with it's limitless creative possibilities. So go back to slashdot twit and spread your bitter & barely comprehensible idiot kid talk there i.e in language you are probably more acquainted with, "sTfU n00b"
  • FWIW--AJAX for the enterprise

    FWIW--Industry analysts are saying that TIBCO's General Interface product is the most mature enterprise AJAX product available today. TIBCO even built its AJAX IDE to run in the browser. Unlike the majority of Flex case studies that are predominantly focused on business to consumer e-commerce, marketing and selling, (where flashier graphics make sense), TIBCO's earned AJAX kudos from press and analysts for its focus on browser based web applications for the enterprise (where you can't always install a plug-in or run java on the enterprise desktop because it's locked down). Also checkout the latest browser-native vector based charting package in TIBCO's General Interface 3.0 for those that may believe such things are only possible with a plug-in. http://developer.tibco.com
  • umm - moving parts??

    "If you look at the number of moving pieces in an AJAX application, once you get beyond about a hundred, it gets very complex. With DreamFactory it's very easy to develop an application with fifty to sixty thousand moving pieces."
    moving parts? what exactly does that mean?

    AJAX is a tool, a communications prototcol, a way to talk to the server from the client without a page refresh (and that's all!!!!!) - it's what the programmer does with it that counts.

    I could write a "million moving part" web app using AJAX if I wanted - it's all a matter of organization and design.


  • We need to stick to reality

    The article highlights a fact about RIAs and AJAX that many tech journalists seem to leave out of their analysis.

    Simply put, rich clients absolutely require rich graphics. You absolutely cannot do rich graphics in Javascript without some kind of special client technology.
    • RE: We need to stick to reality

      Errr... you mean like DHTML?

      I think the problem is the lack of definition of what 'Rich' really means.

      I think it means 'looks and feels like a desktop application', in which case DHTML is quite capable of rendering such an app.
  • You might lose $500.00 EASY.

    There is a hidden $500.00 dollar fee assessed on top of nearly
    every New and Used car purchase. It is not the transportation fee. It
    has nothing to do with the vehicle in a direct sense. It is an
    underhanded trick to make $500.00 dollars MORE than they need
    or should. Less than 3 % of the public is aware of this! To find out
    more please visit www.carwealth.com