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Ajax hype vs. reality

Ajax is a powerful rich Internet application technology, but Burton Group cautions against overkill and notes that tools and frameworks for using it are nascent.

"Less is more" when it comes to Ajax, a much-hyped Rich Internet Application (RIA) technology, according to Richard Monson-Haefel, a senior analyst at Burton Group Inc. in Midvale, Utah. The enabling technology can greatly enhance the user's Web experience -- rather than reloading pages from the server, the Ajax paradigm is a single-page interface -- but it can make navigation difficult if used in excess, he said in a recent telebriefing on Ajax.

Some people believe Ajax will [be] a major comeback factor in portal solutions.
Richard Monson-Haefel
Senior AnalystBurton Group Inc

Ajax's prime advantage over other RIA technologies is seamless integration with HTML, he said, so it can be used incrementally without the need to change existing Web content.

"Think of it as seasoning a Web site," he said. "It's a pretty low-risk way of doing things." Ajax is also back-end agnostic and does not require any plug-ins. Used in conjunction with other RIA technologies, such as Flash from Macromedia, Ajax is a powerful tool, he said.

However, the technology is still immature, and tools and frameworks have not gained a lot of traction yet, Monson-Haefel said. "If you don't like working with tool kits and libraries, Ajax is probably not for you."

Burton Group defines "rich" Internet applications as those that offer functionality beyond standard HTML frames and hyperlinks. A well-noted example of Ajax functionality is Google Maps.

While Ajax is a recently coined termed, it has been around since the introduction of JavaScript. It is based on JavaScript/ECMAScript, Cascading Style Sheets, Document Object Model and XML HTTP Request. Initially, it was difficult to design Ajax-style applications that ran across different browsers, "but now the mainstream browsers have migrated to support the Microsoft implementation of these technologies" as a lowest common denominator, he said.

The dominant RIA technology in use today is Macromedia Flash/Flex. Other RIA technologies include the user interface markup language for the Microsoft Windows Presentation Foundation called XAML (Extensible Application Markup Language), Mozilla's XML-based user interface language XUL, droplets and Java applets, and Microsoft's upcoming Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/E).

"[Flash] is a nice technology, good for rich animations and graphs, but Flash is a bit of a big fish in a small pond," Monson-Haefel said. "The real market is not that big right now. So whether its dominance will last will be a question as the market grows. Microsoft will introduce WPF/E, which will be a major contender."

Microsoft also plans to roll out an Ajax framework extension, code-named Atlas, which Monson-Haefel said is "very promising." Other integrated development environments (IDEs) available for Ajax, he said, are not yet mainstream. These include Javascript Synthsis Technology (JST) from Morfik Technology, IntelliJ IDEA 5.0 from JetBrains, Tibco General Interface (GI) from Tibco Software, Visual GUI Builder from JackBe, Backbase from Backbase B.V. and the open source Ruby on Rails framework.

"It has built-in Ajax capability, which allows you to write Ajax applications in the Ruby programming language," he said.

The Tibco tool for writing Ajax applications is "quite good," Monson-Haefel said. "JackBe is pretty decent RIA technology and Backbase is probably one of the better ones right now. The advantage of an IDE is WYSIWYG development, but you buy into their GUI, so you're pinning yourself down with look and feel."

In addition to IDEs or framework extensions, Monson-Haefel said there are also Ajax UI tools and remoting tools available -- more than four dozen in all, including both proprietary and open source offerings. Only a few have any traction, he said. According to a recent Burton Group survey of 488 Ajax developers, the most popular tool kits, libraries and framework extensions are Prototype, a JavaScript framework with an MIT-style license;, a JavaScript library with an MIT-style license; Direct Web Remoting, which has an Apache 2.0 license; the Dojo UI tool kit with Academic Free License v 2.1; and Ruby on Rails.

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To date, much of the Ajax attention has been focused on business-to consumer Web sites, but Monson-Haefel noted that Ajax does have some synergy with Web services and SOA, and it could impact enterprise portals.

"Some people believe Ajax will [be] a major comeback factor in portal solutions. Portals came out with a lot of hype, but in reality they're not a quite a silver bullet. But the ability to combine Ajax presentation with portal functionally will enhance the corporate user experience."

Monson-Haefel warned that Ajax can be easily abused. "If developers don't understand usability theory, they will apply it in a way that will be a nuisance and people will turn off JavaScript. The analogy I use is the browser popup window, which was originally a usability feature, but it was so abused it became a pariah of the Web and people disabled them."

His recommendation: "Exercise caution when implementing Ajax solutions."

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