AJAX not yet the standard, but retailers report success


New research suggests that few large retailers are using AJAX technology on their Web sites, but at least a few companies using AJAX techniques to create interactive Web pages say they have been able to improve their customer experience while avoiding prohibitive startup costs.

AJAX, a set of scripting components known as Asynchronous JavaScript + XML, is used to build Web services that act like desktop applications. The advantage for users is that AJAX-based pages allow you to access new functions without reloading a Web page.

The makers of Gliffy, an online program that lets users draw and share diagrams, used an open source platform called OpenLaszlo to help them build their site.

“They make it so much easier to do development,” Gliffy president and co-founder Chris Kohlhardt said of Laszlo and similar toolkits. “We have two guys who were able to build this entire thing using just Laszlo and their brains, and now we have a profitable company in a matter of two years.” The use of Laszlo cost nothing, so salary was the only major expense, according to Kohlhardt, who is based in San Francisco.

“We’re so much different than a static Web page,” he said. “You can actually create pictures within your Web browser.”

Brulant, an Ohio firm that does marketing and Web site design, recently examined the Web sites created by 115 of the top 200 Internet retailers and found that only one in four were using some type of AJAX technique. Only six per cent were using advanced AJAX techniques, the firm said.

Blockbuster, Hollywood Video and Amazon.com are among those leading the way in AJAX, said Mark Fodor, a partner at Brulant who performed the study.

Hollywood Video’s site, for example, allows users to rate movies from one to five stars and place films in a wish list without having to reload a page. The idea is to create a program that can run on its own within a Web browser, said David Temkin, co-founder of Laszlo Systems.

“It’s just now becoming popular. It’s not mainstream,” he said. When you click on an option within a site built with AJAX, or a similar type of site known as a rich Internet application (RIA), “certain things happen that may not go back to the server at all,” he said. “You’re running a little program in the browser so it can do things on its own. When it does go back to the server it’s not to get a whole new document.”

Wal-Mart and H&R Block are among the companies using Laszlo to build AJAX capabilities. Most companies that use AJAX are just scraping the surface, and no one has perfected a checkout process that can be done without reloading any pages, Fodor said.

Pandora, an Oakland, Calif., company, allows users to build their own radio stations. A user can pick just a few songs or artists he or she likes, and the Pandora system will then play a huge variety of songs similar to the ones chosen. “We wanted something that wouldn’t require an additional music download,” said Tom Conrad, Pandora’s CTO. “Out of the box, a browser doesn’t know how to play audio.”

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