Payback impressive for retailers using AJAX


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 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 says 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 says. “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 6 percent were using advanced AJAX techniques, the firm says.

Blockbuster , Hollywood Video and are among those leading the way in AJAX, says 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, says David Temkin, co-founder of Laszlo Systems.

“It’s just now becoming popular. It’s not mainstream,” he says. 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 says. “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 says.

There are challenges posed by AJAX and it should not be used in every type of Web page, according to a white paper by Interakt, Web design company owned by Adobe.

Building an application with AJAX can be expensive and take more time than building a traditional Web program, the company states. There are unanswered questions about security and user privacy, and a big concern with AJAX is accessibility for disabled people because not all browsers completely support JavaScript or the XMLHttpRequest object, the Interakt white paper states. Another problem for users is that the way AJAX-based programs load content onto pages makes it difficult to create bookmarks in a Web browser. AJAX pages can change without the URL being updated, so a bookmark may not save the exact state of a page. The security vendor Imperva last month said it identified a vulnerability in AJAX which could allow an attacker to break into back-end databases or servers.

Kohlhardt of Gliffy, which has 90,000 registered users including many in the education field, says he hasn’t run into any security problems.

“We think it’s safe,” he says. “This is really just a new technique. It’s a new twist, you’re not really losing any of the security you had before.”

Gliffy finds AJAX advantageous because its need for network bandwidth is lessened as a result of code being stored on clients’ computers, according to Kohlhardt.

AJAX has helped at least one start-up company take advantage of the online music market. 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. With Pandora, users can give songs a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, tell the system to never play a certain song again or play more songs like the one just heard. They can also create new stations or find stations created by other users, all without reloading the Web page.

“We wanted something that wouldn’t require an additional music download,” says Tom Conrad, Pandora’s CTO. “Out of the box, a browser doesn’t know how to play audio.”

Pandora built the AJAX capabilities with Laszlo and uses Adobe Flash Player to play music within the browser.

The techniques behind AJAX have existed for many years but two events created a surge of interest in the Web design approach, Conrad says. One was the coining of the term “AJAX” in 2005 by information architect Jesse James Garrett, and the other was the development of Google Maps , which sends an XML datastream to a browser to let users search the globe and zoom in on maps and satellite images.

“What people discovered is the particular AJAX technique used by Google Maps is relatively easy for a programmer to add into their applications,” Conrad says.

Philosophy , an international cosmetics company, is planning a major AJAX rollout in mid-April that would create a single-page checkout system. Currently, customers have to go through a series of pages to purchase something: one page to enter a promotion code, one to pick a shipping address, one to pick a shipping method, another to pick a billing method, and so on. If someone wants to make a change and needs to return to the beginning, they have to go through the whole process a second time.

“Our goal is to eliminate people who start the checkout process and leave because of the complexity of it,” says Chuck Morehead, Philosophy’s information technology officer.

The upgrades Philosophy plans would allow users to buy gifts for multiple people and have them shipped to different addresses, all in one page. Brulant is implementing the changes for Philosophy.

“Since it’s all taking place on a single page there really is no refreshing,” says Devon Montoya, the Philosophy webmaster. “You can bounce back and forth between tabs and functionality almost at a whim to make minor changes.”

Temkin says AJAX is expanding the scope of applications that can be offered over the Internet. Pandora, the music service that allows users to create the

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