But while clothing trends come and go, Ajax looks like it may stick around, offering Web developers a means to create rich clientlike applications on webpages without resorting to huge amounts of code or forcing users to download plug-ins. However, like every hot new Web technology, CIOs must hold firm against the regular barrage of “if Google is doing it, why can’t we?” and find the underlying value in Ajax for their particular companies.
Where Ajax Came From
Freely draggable satellite images on Google maps. Instant spellchecking in Gmail. They’re cool features. Admit it. The launch of tools such as those revitalized interest in both the online mapping and Web-mail markets. With a flourish, Google demonstrated that browser-based applications could support rich clientlike capabilities and performance—without the rich client.
How Ajax Got So Smokin’
Once named, the hype followed. Ajax applications were hot, and the benefits they provided were easy to see, even for non-techies. Plus the whole idea of “client-free,” rich Web applications fit well into an assortment of David versus Goliath prognostications about the future of software development, with Bill Gates often playing the role of the giant. Stories about Ajax and apps developed with the tools appeared everywhere, including publications such as The New York Times and BusinessWeek. Want to get some attention for your startup? Announce that you are developing your product in Ajax. Looking to warm up your r¿m¿Add Ajax to your skills list.
Ajax’s new branding also coincided conveniently with the dawning of Web 2.0, a vaguely defined movement that promotes the idea of the Web as a platform for easily remixable, highly flexible services—and Ajax looked promising as the glue that could hold those services together.
How Not to Get Burned
Even people deeply engaged in Ajax development suggest going slowly. Take a deep breath and learn what the technologies can and can’t do and what skills you need on staff to take best advantage of the tools.
Ajax, at least for now, is best suited to making user interfaces more intuitive and useful. Pop-up, context-sensitive information balloons (like those on Netflix.com), data lists that regularly update without reloading a page: These are the types of things that Ajax can offer right now to help you spruce up your browser-based tools.
Dave Jenkins, CTO at online outdoor equipment retailer Backcountry, used Ajax to add a feature to a browser-based ERP application: When a customer-support representative closes out a support ticket, the line on the screen blinks yellow twice and then fades away—a simple but effective visual cue that something has happened to the data. Jenkins argues that this is far better than the screen simply refreshing and the user noticing that the data has disappeared.
Where Ajax Is Going
The exact direction Ajax takes from here on is anyone’s guess, although it’s a safe bet that frameworks and tools will rapidly mature and diversify. Microsoft, for instance, is working to release a set of integrated tools called Atlas next year that will combine Ajax with elements of the Visual Studio and ASP.Net toolset. (And the company is promising that it will maintain cross-platform compatibility on the browser side.)
Whether all the new development options create a scenario where users revolt against overused Ajax widgets—much as they did the “blink” tag—remains to be seen. For now, however, commercial applications such as the Zimbra and Scalix e-mail systems are showing Ajax to good effect—and helping pave the way for enterprise-class development frameworks.