O'Reilly and Adaptive Path Team Up for Ajax Summit

by Quinn Norton

Earlier this week, O'Reilly Media and Adaptive Path teamed up for a summit on Ajax. For the unfamiliar, Ajax stands for Asynchronous JavaScript + XML. It's a fancy name for a web-based application that uses JavaScript to display or process XML/XHTML (rendered with appropriate CSS) from a server in real time using XMLHttpRequest, while often taking advantage of the browser's built-in XSLT engine.

Clearly it needs a fancy name. No part of Ajax is truly new; its youngest piece is more than five years old, which for all practical purposes is about half the age of the Web itself. So why are Adaptive Path and O'Reilly Media excited enough to have a summit? Certainly, its use in new cutting-edge web apps like Google Maps has something to do with it.

Ajax advocate Jesse James Garrett, founder of Adaptive Path, says it's because Ajax offers a "philosophy of technology" that describes a new way of creating applications on the Web. Ajax applications feel more like desktop applications, except with the real-time internet data part that you get from being on a web page. "The wall between the desktop and the Web is coming down." He sees a relationship between Ajax and desktop applications similar to Apple's new Dashboard, which uses tools more familiar to web developers than to the heavy lifters like Cocoa programmers.

Indeed, this presents its own problems, perhaps most of all for end users. "Ajax breaks the interaction model of the Web." Garrett freely admits. It faces the unique user interface problem of blending the expectations users have of a website with the behavior of a desktop application. This is the consequence of giving the user desktop app powers within their trusty browser.

But Is There a There There?

It's hard to tell on the face of it the real value of something that can be boiled down to an approach or philosophy. With push technology, not so much. With object-oriented programming, that's history written.

Ajax has yet to write its history, but Flickr is ready to bet on it. More than possibly any other company on the Web, Ludicorp took Flash to places beyond where anyone thought it could go, first with Game Neverending, and then farther with Flickr. The company quietly announced at the Ajax Summit that it would be moving its famous and well-loved photo sharing application from an intensely Flash driven app to a more mixed platform. Flickr continues on its quest to scale and refine its interface, from the Flash chat client it originally launched with all the way to a new architecture that uses a combination of componentized Flash and Ajax. Eric Costello of Flickr demonstrated a beta of the new Ajax-flavored Flickr to a receptive audience. He sees a new version of Flickr with Flash where it works most naturally, and Ajax filling in the other features. For Flickr, this solves problems like easy direct linking to images, without putting the onerous weight on the back end that Ludicorp, the makers of Flickr, have seen with a traditional JavaScript interface.

O'Reilly CTO Rael Dornfest sees this marriage as good news; Flash/Ajax integration will extend the reach of both. He sees Flash as struggling to fulfill the role it's been thrust into by web designers eager to use features traditional web apps can't provide. "Flash works better as an applet than Java, but we really don't like applets." Flickr's move will make it the poster child for an Ajaxian app can do--if it goes according to plan. A lot of people will be watching.

The Post-Bubble Perspective

Dornfest noted that the expectations of Ajax Summit are toned down compared to similar events of the past, even if the promise is as real as ever. But he notes that the subdued tone and the "small pieces, loosely joined" approach is one of veterans. "These are all people that have been burned by skip intro and Java applets."

Even Garrett's optimism is tempered by a consideration of problems with rich web applications. "The energy of the summit has been towards the design problems Ajax faces breaking the interaction model of the Web ... Ajax pulls the rug out from under users." Many summit attendees were people actively dealing with the issue of developing new ways of interacting, trying to build different expectations in their users. Garrett is clear: whether particular metaphors of web interaction should be adhered to or re-architected is unknown.

In other words, when you are building an Ajax app, right now there's no way to know if you are about to do very bad design.

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Garrett gives an example. Ajax apps can change the interface while hiding the round trip to the server or omitting it altogether--without the screen going blank, how do you communicate to the user that some little component of the page has been changed?

Will Ajax adopt user guidelines from desktop apps, or choose a path of bloody revolution? It remains to be seen, but Garrett believes it'll be a bit of both. This group didn't want the job of making those kinds of determinations. Until a set of "best practices" emerges out of the wider community, no guidance will be coming from this particular list of luminaries.

Not Coming to a Standards Body Near You

The summit saw little or no interest in any sort of Ajax standard. Garrett noted that "the consensus of the group was that there are too many people trying to solve too many problems in too many environments for there to be one standard." As such, he sees no universal Ajax toolkit forthcoming, possibly ever. "The variety and needs of Ajax developers are too diverse."

Instead the interest is in approaching browser developers directly on issues of supporting desired features. Could that approach lead to another browser war? Yes, definitely, says Garrett, though neither he nor Dornfest believe it could be on the scale of the the late '90s. As Dornfest notes, "I don't know that users would tolerate that again."

Away from the summit some complaints have arisen that Ajaxian apps are being used in the enterprise bespoke market in such a way that locks down the enterprise user to one version of IE, without the option of Opera, Safari, Firefox, or any others. But the bespoke world seems to be a bit like Vegas: what happens in bespoke software stays there, rarely influencing the wider web.

Back on the wider web, Ajax is being driven by a desire for cross-browser compatibility. While most of the applications on display at the summit were small solutions to long nagging desires--some more cosmetic, some more practical--a few of the attendees are working on interesting big apps for the widest possible audience. Evan Williams, founder of Blogger, has moved on to Odeo to try and do for online audio what Blogger did for personal web pages. Dustan Orchard showed how an Ajaxian approach is going to play a central role in what Odeo is creating. It's not available yet, but it's proceeding apace.

Participant Alex Russell summed up the summit's progress: "It hasn't so much started new things as accelerated things that were already going on."

Quinn Norton is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Wired News, The UK Guardian, Make Magazine, Seed, and more.

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