January 24, 2006 4:58 pm

Ajax scores for web users

A simple change in how browsers load web pages is heralding a fundamental shift in the way we interact with the internet.

Whereas current websites are mostly static, a new technology is making them easier to use, more responsive and, in some cases, able to mimic complex desktop applications such as word processors. As a result, it is making software such as project management and content management, once available only to big enterprises, cheap and accessible to small businesses and individuals.

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Named Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) in February 2005 by Jesse James Garrett, director of User Experience Strategy at Adaptive Path, a technology company, it has risen to prominence as high profile sites have started to use it. These include Google Maps, a website that displays maps, Flickr, Yahoo’s photograph archive website, Del.icio.us Direc.tor, a way of bookmarking web pages and Google Mail, a web mail service.

The change Ajax makes is very simple. Rather than having a web browser reload an entire web page every time a user clicks a link or button, Ajax allows only those elements that need updating to be reloaded – a simple change with dramatic consequences.

“By using the Ajax techniques, we are able to move beyond traditional web mail to provide a very fast and interactive product,” says Paul Buchheit, software engineer at Google. “Google Mail added features not previously found in web email, such as address auto-complete and interactive spellchecking. Actions such as replying to a message are now instant. Previously they required loading a new page from the server, which can be very slow.”

One development that has allowed this is that JavaScript, a computer language originally invented by Netscape Communications Corporation for giving more interactivity to web pages, has come of age: users are switching to more advanced web browsers, such as Internet Explorer 6.0 and Firefox with better JavaScript functionality, allowing developers more scope to manipulate the user interface.

“Previously, JavaScript’s use was limited to small things such as menus and form checking, but all of the real work was done on the server,” says Mr Buchheit. “In the Ajax style of building applications, the Javascript running in your browser takes a much more central role in managing the user interface.” Hence, Ajax applications can allocate work between the client browser and the server. As a result, network bottlenecks and outages do not slow down performance as much as they could.

Being web-based, many current Ajax applications have been called “social software”, that is, they provide ways of collaborating or sharing information such as bookmarks or photos. Ajax is also suited to project management software. An example is Basecamp, one of a number of Ajax-based collaboration tools aimed at small businesses produced by software company 37Signals.

A common collaboration tool benefiting from Ajax is email. “E-mail is one of the killer applications for Ajax,” says Scott Dietzen, president and chief technology officer of Zimbra. Zimbra’s email client works inside a web browser, but is as fully featured as a desktop application, supporting functionality that would have been unthinkable in a web-based application only a few months ago. Being part of a web browser, the application integrates seamlessly with other collaboration tools such as Zimbra’s instant messaging, calendar and address book. It also means that users can check their email, whether they are in the office or using a laptop in any Wi-Fi enabled environment. Ajax, therefore, helps Zimbra provide a complete web-based collaboration suite.

Collaboration is also the strength of the web-based word processor, Writely. “Writely is about collaboration, sharing and publication,” says Sam Schillace, co-founder of Writely. Because Writely is on the web, users have an easy way of editing and sharing documents without having to email them to each other and manage all the changes that their colleagues make. It also provides a simple way of publishing documents on to websites such as blogs and, because it works in a browser, users can edit the documents wherever they have access to a computer and the internet.

In spite of its strengths, there is a limit to how responsive Ajax technology can be and therefore what Ajax applications can do.

Ajax is, for example, unsuitable for online gaming, which requires a lot of desktop computing power, or for Google Earth, an application that includes three-dimensional fly-throughs of terrain.

Nevertheless, there is great scope for Ajax as development tools are being made public as open-source software. Both IBM and Zimbra are offering toolkits to developers, which, in Zimbra’s case, makes it easier for others to integrate with its collaboration suite.

In the near future, when business people sit in internet cafes in constant contact with their teams as they edit documents, instant message and collaborate on projects, they’ll probably be doing it all through Ajax applications.

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