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TECH TALK: The Best of 2005: Ajax and Web 2.0

December 13th, 2005 · No Comments

Let me start this week by encapsulating what I think were some of the best blog posts and articles of the year. These writings influenced my thinking significantly.

1. Adaptive Path on Ajax

Ajax has been the biggest innovation to the Web interface in recent times. The term was coined by Jesse James Garrett of Adaptive Path in a February essay. It has been the rage since for software development, and has spawned numerous start-ups. This is what Garrett wrote:

Take a look at Google Suggest. Watch the way the suggested terms update as you type, almost instantly. Now look at Google Maps. Zoom in. Use your cursor to grab the map and scroll around a bit. Again, everything happens almost instantly, with no waiting for pages to reload.

Google Suggest and Google Maps are two examples of a new approach to web applications that we at Adaptive Path have been calling Ajax. The name is shorthand for Asynchronous JavaScript + XML, and it represents a fundamental shift in whats possible on the Web.

Ajax isnt a technology. Its really several technologies, each flourishing in its own right, coming together in powerful new ways. Ajax incorporates:

  • standards-based presentation using XHTML and CSS;
  • dynamic display and interaction using the Document Object Model;
  • data interchange and manipulation using XML and XSLT;
  • asynchronous data retrieval using XMLHttpRequest;
  • and JavaScript binding everything together.

    An Ajax application eliminates the start-stop-start-stop nature of interaction on the Web by introducing an intermediary an Ajax engine between the user and the server. It seems like adding a layer to the application would make it less responsive, but the opposite is true.

    Instead of loading a webpage, at the start of the session, the browser loads an Ajax engine written in JavaScript and usually tucked away in a hidden frame. This engine is responsible for both rendering the interface the user sees and communicating with the server on the users behalf. The Ajax engine allows the users interaction with the application to happen asynchronously independent of communication with the server. So the user is never staring at a blank browser window and an hourglass icon, waiting around for the server to do something.

  • 2. Tim OReilly on Web 2.0

    Ajax is one of the strands which epitomises the discussion around Web 2.0 and the web as platform. Tim OReilly captured the essence of the transition in a September essay which highlighted seven themes:

    1. The Web As Platform
    2. Harnessing Collective Intelligence
    3. Data is the Next Intel Inside
    4. End of the Software Release Cycle
    5. Lightweight Programming Models
    6. Software Above the Level of a Single Device
    7. Rich User Experiences

    This is what Tim OReilly wrote on the theme of software above the level of a single device.

    One other feature of Web 2.0 that deserves mention is the fact that it’s no longer limited to the PC platform. In his parting advice to Microsoft, long time Microsoft developer Dave Stutz pointed out that “Useful software written above the level of the single device will command high margins for a long time to come.”

    Of course, any web application can be seen as software above the level of a single device. After all, even the simplest web application involves at least two computers: the one hosting the web server and the one hosting the browser. And as we’ve discussed, the development of the web as platform extends this idea to synthetic applications composed of services provided by multiple computers.

    But as with many areas of Web 2.0, where the “2.0-ness” is not something new, but rather a fuller realization of the true potential of the web platform, this phrase gives us a key insight into how to design applications and services for the new platform.

    To date, iTunes is the best exemplar of this principle. This application seamlessly reaches from the handheld device to a massive web back-end, with the PC acting as a local cache and control station. There have been many previous attempts to bring web content to portable devices, but the iPod/iTunes combination is one of the first such applications designed from the ground up to span multiple devices. TiVo is another good example.

    iTunes and TiVo also demonstrate many of the other core principles of Web 2.0. They are not web applications per se, but they leverage the power of the web platform, making it a seamless, almost invisible part of their infrastructure. Data management is most clearly the heart of their offering. They are services, not packaged applications (although in the case of iTunes, it can be used as a packaged application, managing only the user’s local data.) What’s more, both TiVo and iTunes show some budding use of collective intelligence, although in each case, their experiments are at war with the IP lobby’s. There’s only a limited architecture of participation in iTunes, though the recent addition of podcasting changes that equation substantially.

    This is one of the areas of Web 2.0 where we expect to see some of the greatest change, as more and more devices are connected to the new platform. What applications become possible when our phones and our cars are not consuming data but reporting it? Real time traffic monitoring, flash mobs, and citizen journalism are only a few of the early warning signs of the capabilities of the new platform.

    Tomorrow: Google


    TECH TALK The Best of 2005+T

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