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Ajax after the hype

Yes, there was exuberance when Ajax burst on the scene in 2005, but by now it appears that the hype was justified by the benefits of the technology, although analysts see some problems.

Sometimes hype is justified. That appears to be the case with Ajax.

"A year ago everybody was trying to wrap themselves around this popular buzz word, but it's one of those instances where the buzz was commensurate with the benefits," says Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions LLC.

In the long run, two Ajax camps are likely to emerge: Microsoft and OpenAjax.
Tony Baer
Principal AnalystonStrategies Inc.

In Gardner's view there are two styles of technology that fall under the name Ajax. First, there is the acronym that specifies Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, but there is also Ajax as a generic term for a wider range of Rich Internet Applications, which may, for instance, substitute another scripting language for the Java version.

"Ajax is alive and well," Gardner says when asked about the current state of Ajax. "What's probably even more alive and well is a generic use of the word Ajax. I think what happened with Ajax is it became synonymous with Rich Internet Applications, which could be created through a number of technologies that have varying degrees of actual Ajax pure technology involved. So maybe we should separate Ajax as one approach for Rich Internet Applications and then generic use of Ajax meaning generally Rich Internet Application. The Ajax approach is doing very well and the generic version is doing extremely well. It's actually changing the impression people get from Internet applications."

The impression Ajax provides is what Miko Matsumura, vice president of SOA product marketing at webMethods Inc., calls the human side of SOA.

"SOA is cybernetic, which is to say half human and half machine," Matsumura said. "Ajax is one of many interface technologies which will help build the bridge between the machine side and the human side."

The words "enjoy" and "technology" do not always go together well, but Gardner said both developers and end users are enjoying Ajax.

"Developers are enjoying deploying it and end users are enjoying using it," the analyst said "Most people probably don't have a clue – either consumers or end users in an enterprise – that Ajax and these other variants of the rich Internet theme are benefiting them, but they are. They're seeing better graphs, better charts, better animations. So by all indications it's not just a hype curve, but a real, solid productivity benefit.

Ajax is showing up not only in its most famous example, Google Maps, and more traditional desktop applications for online word processing and spreadsheets, but also in the booming online gaming industry and even in blogs, Gardner said.

"I'm personally using it in my blog because I can do some rich things that are happening locally that don't ping the server," he said. "For example, you can do polling. I can have questions at the bottom of my blog and say: 'How many people plan to use Unix? How many people plan to use Windows?' I can generate a poll with a lot of the graphics and actions of that poll are being done on each person's browser on their own desktop. It's not necessarily going back and pinging the server each time."

In Gardner's generic view of Ajax, developers can use traditional Ajax, or the more generic RIA approaches the make use of approaches such as Representational State Transfer (REST) or the new Microsoft approach formerly known at Atlas, but now also using the Ajax name.

"What really the trend here is Rich Internet Applications, defined by working in the browser with a combination of scripting and XML," Gardner said. "It's the benefit that's important, not necessarily the precise way you gain that benefit."

However, from the point of view of another analyst, Tony Baer, principal analyst at onStrategies Inc., the generic approach to Ajax has a plus side for developers, but a minus side in terms of standardization and reuse.

"The good news and the bad news is that Ajax developers have more choices than ever," Baer said. "There are hundreds of tools, dozens of open source frameworks, but no standard frameworks or vocabularies in sight. For now, that means developers can grind out Ajax rich Web apps quickly and they don't have to worry about learning more industrial strength rich client, proprietary alternatives that Adobe, IBM, and Microsoft are promoting."

The bad news in Baer's view is that the SOA promise of reuse is being lost in the Ajax shuffle.

"The lack of any form of standardization within Ajax means that potential for reuse is practically nil," he said. "That makes Ajax apps highly perishable -- an issue that OpenAjax hopes to attack."

OpenAjax is the vendor initiative for standardization started this year by IBM and joined by other big players in the Java space including Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp., as well as Adobe Systems Inc. and the Eclipse Foundation. Notably missing from the membership list is Microsoft, which may mean that Ajax development will fall into two competing camps, Baer warns.

"In the long run, two Ajax camps are likely to emerge: Microsoft and OpenAjax," he said. "Not terribly different from .NET and Java: Two parallel streams that find ways to coexist and maybe eventually interoperate."

There is one other Ajax problem to be addressed as the technology is more widely adopted, said Gardner. That involves one of the biggest money makers for publishing Web sites from Google to The New York Times. Here is another good news/bad news issue. The good news is that Ajax allows activity to take place in the user's browser without having to wait for the Web page to refresh every time data is entered. The bad news is that each time the page refreshes, Web publishers can count that as a new page view for their advertisers.

"Web-based organizations that are dependent upon Web advertising and the ability to deliver a high volume of page views, they're finding that Ajax, among the various choices they have for creating better user interfaces, doesn't create a unique page view every time somebody does something with that Ajax element," Gardner said. "They're not generating the same volume of page views. It could be a problem for advertisers."

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However, just as Baer sees the interoperability issues eventually getting sorted out, Gardner predicts that publishers and advertisers will find a way to balance the need for page views with the attractions Ajax offers for readers.

"The balance is do you want to give users slow boring pages that create a lot of page views or do you want to give them rich interactivity and great UI benefits, and perhaps lose a certain number of hits that were probably hollow empty hits just from refreshing a page," Gardner said. "There may be people out there who lean toward getting rid of Ajax because they want every last impression they can get, but overall I think what's going to win is the balance between the page view model and the need for rich useful presentations."

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