AJAX is worth all of its hype

Here we have it, another buzzword: AJAX. Yet this one is worth all the hype. In the wake of “Web 2.0”, AJAX was either born or simply named after years of ambiguity. There’s room for debate. No matter how you spin it (and whether you like it or not), AJAX has a significant future on the Web. The real debate is what that future will be.

There has been so much confusion as to what is AJAX. Everyone wants to define it, mould it, exploit it, some even mock it. The simple facts remain: the term has caught on and it encapsulates a whole new wave of development. AJAX is here to stay.

It represents Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (and DHTML, and so on and so on). In a nutshell, JavaScript now works. The reality is that AJAX involves many technologies, some of which you already know. Understand that it is more than just a fad; it’s a very powerful approach to building Web applications — and without the steep learning curve.

The technology allows for interaction from the user to be gathered locally client-side and responded to by dynamic display and manipulation. The exchange is done intermittently, eliminating the need for multiple calls to the server. This facilitates a smoother, quicker user experience. One that works, and feels, much like a desktop application.

Compare that to a standard Web application where business logic and UI creation is managed on the server with the client browser serving merely as a vehicle to render content. AJAX changes this model to include the client as an active participant.

Take a look at the canonical AJAX application, Google Maps, and stack it up against MapQuest and its limited HTML capabilities. Enough said. AJAX allows for a more interactive, functional experience without the click-wait-refresh pacing. So question not the validity of AJAX. Do question how it will affect you, your job and your business.

Today the most popular examples of AJAX are very cool, but pretty trivial. Where’s the real business value? How can it be implemented? There are some early-adopting companies, such as The Gap, that are now incorporating the technology live on their sites. The Gap uses AJAX to display item specifics and stock availability. This will pave the way for other high-profile companies.

Even as you read this, a new generation of Web software is being written to exemplify AJAX. That may sound absurd, but it’s true. AJAX is so hot right now; people are doing everything and anything in attempts to be associated with the hype. Take colr.org. “It’s a site for playing with colors.” Not sure what that means. But it’s an AJAX site and their unique visits are probably higher than one would expect such a site to be.

Correction: AJAX is a powerful approach to building Web applications when used effectively in real world and relevant applications.

Another heated topic in the AJAX debate is how it will affect existing Web technologies, most notably Flash. Revisit Google Maps and toss it up against Yahoo Maps (done in Flash). What’s the difference? Not a whole lot. Flash can follow the pattern of asynchronous data retrieval in much the same way that AJAX does. It can also communicate with the server using XML. AFLAX anyone?

In comparing both sides, Flash excels in its rich, multimedia strength, browser-independence and the player penetration rate now at 98 per cent. On the other hand, there are legions more JavaScript programmers in the world, and while Flash is browser-independent, AJAX is not proprietary.

Many of the commonly discussed pitfalls about AJAX are identical to those of Flash. For starters, there’s the ever-popular BACK button issue. The browser BACK button does not comply with these technologies very easily. There are also print complications, since many browsers mangle or fail to print AJAX and Flash apps. Search Engine Optimization difficulties are also a common attack.

Some people fail to acknowledge that AJAX applications do not necessitate a site overhaul. Rich add-on tools like sifters and comparators can cohabitate nicely inside HTML pages. At a closer look, the above criticisms carry far less weight. And for those that are still wary, I don’t think anyone could refute AJAX’s potential for heavy, internal applications, or the endless possibilities in gaming and interactive marketing tools.

Building very thin, user-friendly front ends and tapping into powerful back-end resources is nothing new. But maybe AJAX has come to fruition at just the right time.

Microsoft is scrambling to get ATLAS underway, powered by their own XAML markup language, and open-source frameworks like Laszlo are gaining popularity; it’s really anybody’s game. Kudos to AJAX for taking a considerable lead — or rather, kudos to Google for bringing it to the mainstream.

The good news is that all these technologies can live and work together. Many company sites will become collections of server-side Web services that can be consumed by any number of client-side software offerings. You can’t deny it: in a fluid and changing environment, we all need to adapt. Here’s to intermingling.

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— Gomes is the CTO and co-founder of the Rich Internet Group, a Canadian interactive Web development shop specializing in the latest Web 2.0 technologies.

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