The war for Ajax developers

The war for Ajax developers

Summary: As Ajax developers start running up against the limitations of the technology, they're going to start looking for ways to move into rich media. These are a bunch of great developers, and I think there's a war going on for the mind share of those developers.


The war for Ajax developersI think there's a war for Ajax developers and I'm not sure the people involved realize it yet. I look at Ajax developers as the pioneers of the web. Like the heroes of the old west they combine a rugged ingenuity with a bit of crude willpower to make a gigantic impact. They've laid the groundwork for how the web works and in the process set a high bar for user experience. Just like the pioneers, I think they're wary of what comes next, so they keep pushing farther west; pushing Ajax to its limits even as the richer web starts to take hold.

So as video and multimedia become integrated more tightly with web applications, what do Ajax developers do? When they want to create animated user interfaces, embrace rich media or add deeper functionality, where do they go? Taken as a whole, Ajax developers have given us some creative, eye-opening solutions to the problems the web has thrown at them. But Ajax can only go so far, and lately it's been hitting its limits. Where do these smart developers go when they want to do things beyond the scope of Ajax? Therein lies the war for Ajax developers and I think there are two main players and some ancillary characters courting the vast, talented pool of Ajax developers.

The generalists
Technologies like OpenLaszlo and the XUL project provide Ajax developers a familiar way to create rich experiences. OpenLaszlo makes it easy for Ajax developers to build an application, then deploy it in the familiar world of DHTML. But OpenLaszlo also allows Ajax developers to deploy a Flash-based application; a good way to get their feet wet in richer technologies. XUL provides Ajax developers with a brand they trust; Mozilla, and a way to use technologies they know to push the boundaries a bit further. Unfortunately XUL adoption has been limited up to this point

Microsoft The company known for lock-in has actually done a lot to court Ajax developers. It's ASP.NET AJAX product has made a lot of waves in the Ajax community as a great framework for building web applications. But more importantly has been "WPF/E". The first release of WPF/E focuses on video and multimedia. There eventually will be managed code support, but for the time being, the core language of WPF/E is JavaScript. The tools, Blend and Visual Studio, give Ajax developers a much more robust way to develop applications but still stay within their comfort zone. Microsoft's Ajax strategy is one of the more underrated storylines in the RIA world. They've created technologies that shore up some of the weak spots in Ajax (rich media, animation) but still make use of the core parts.

Adobe LogoAdobe's strategy is a bit different, but maybe more interesting. They've got their Spry framework, which is billed as Ajax for designer types, and it doesn't seem to have gotten traction amongst the more seasoned Ajax developers. But they've provided a Flex-Ajax bridge as well as an Ajax hook for Flex Data Services; both of which make some of Flash's advanced features available to Ajax developers. But the biggie is Apollo which will allow Ajax developers to take their web application knowledge into the blurring world of the web/desktop. Apollo is going to have a big impact on how software is developed and as it does that, it's offering Ajax developers first class citizenship. They can tie into rich media easily because Apollo supports Flash but they can keep their apps mostly Ajax. In many ways, Apollo offers Ajax developers a way to change web applications again, just like they did with Web 2.0 the first time.

Ajax is a good technology, and it's brought us a long way. I'm not belittling the Ajax world when I talk about them as pioneers; they had a profound impact in how end users and businesses alike think about the web and software. But Ajax is quickly hitting the technology wall as developers become more advanced and start looking for better tools and richer platforms. There are ways to do animation and graphics, but they consist mostly of hacks and counter-intuitive development. Rich media is increasingly important to the web and you just can't do it natively with Ajax. So as those talented, creative developers look to the next generation, richness plays an important role. How they choose to do that will shape the web as dramatically as XMLHTTPRequest did the first time around.

Topic: Software Development

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  • make a fair comparison

    Flex is a product and AJAX is a low-level technique. To compare apples to apples, compare Flex to an AJAX-based *product*, or compare low-level AJAX programming to low-level programming in *Flash*, not Flex.

    For example, if you are programming in AJAX at a low-level animation isn't straightforward. However, if you are using an AJAX-based product, it's extremely straightforward. To enable animated tree folders, the API in SmartClient is "animateFolders:true".

    It doesn't get any simpler than that.

    In fact, Flex lags behind some AJAX-based products in several key areas. There is no reason to assume that because Flex or other technologies have an advantage in graphics that they will take over areas of application development where they have, if anything, a disadvantage. All trends point the other direction:

    - Sitepoint "State of Web Development" survey shows AJAX
    surpassing Flash in 2007
    - free preview at:

    - Oracle and many others taking approach of embedding
    Flash within Ajax just for Charting, Graphs
    • RE: make a fair comparison

      First off, I'm not comparing Flex to Ajax, all I'm saying is that Flex allows you to create richer interfaces than Ajax does. I don't really think that's up for debate.

      Secondly, I'm also not implying Ajax is going away. Sites like Digg or the revamps to sites like Netscape and Yahoo are perfect examples of where Ajax fits the bill. What I'm talking about are applications. Trying to build an application in Ajax is silly, especially if that application needs rich media, as many are starting to.

      I think you're proving my point with the last example. When people want richness (the charts, for instance) they're using Flash. The web is only going to get richer and those Ajax developers will look for other technologies to help.
      • re: comparisons

        Good point about comparing apples vs. oranges (or product vs. technique) - however, these days people are trying to use both products to replicate each others strengths. Ultimately, that doesn't work.

        Thanks for the link to "smartClient", although, I must say, really, I though flash was slow! This is a dog! Denegrate Flex based products anyway you want, but don't use "loads too slow" - my experience with AJAX apps so far has convinced me that Flex is the way to go for speed (Yahoo email anyone?)


      • you say Oracle is silly?

        If trying to build an application in Ajax in silly, Oracle, Intuit, Yahoo and Google, among many others, are silly.

        The best approach, which the industry is converging on, is to use Ajax for the primary interface, and Flash or Flex in niche areas.

        The fact that Flash is the currently the best choice for certain narrow use cases does not indicate that it will come to dominate what it is not good at. Companies want standards-based approaches and using Flash is a short term compromise. Over time, those niche uses will be replaced by emerging standards, as has already begun with SVG, What-WG, and other standard technologies.
  • Yahoo mail is actually AJAX

    Hi David,

    Yahoo email is Ajax, not Flex.

    You might want to revisit other "Flex" apps you have enjoyed and find out what technology they actually use :)

    Re: SmartClient - SmartClient is routinely praised for its speed. I gave a direct link to an example that loads the works (including the IDE). A more typical experience is to arrive at just, which loads instantly, while SmartClient is cached in the background - not possible in Flex.