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Spry: Ajax Without JavaScript Headaches

Developing an Ajax-based application is not an easy task for a skilled programmer, let alone for a Web site developer whose skills are largely confined to HTML and cascading style sheets .

Adobe Systems , which knows a thing or two about publishing, has what it thinks is a way to bridge that gap with a new Ajax publishing framework, code-named Spry.

"People with design skills struggled with Ajax designs in the market because it's geared for a programmer," said Jennifer Taylor, senior product manager for Dreamweaver at Adobe. "We wanted to make it quick and easy for a designer to make an Ajax interface."

Ajax is short for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, a Web development technique for creating interactive Web applications that look and behave like a desktop-based application. One of the shortcomings of the Web is that when data on screen needs to be update, it requires a full refresh of the browser.

Ajax allows for updating the information without requiring a screen refresh. This is done by sending just the new data needed behind the scenes. All this is done using HTML, XML and JavaScript , technologies already on the market.

But here's the rub. Web page designers tend to have very strong HTML and CSS  skills but are a bit behind with JavaScript skills.

Spry helps Web designers incorporate XML data into HTML documents with a minimal amount of JavaScript. Still, developers want to be able to do more than that, said Adobe.

"One of the things we've been seeing is there's a large number of designers expecting more out of the experiences they deliver on the Web," said Todd Hay, director of platform marketing and developer relations at Adobe. "Designers want a more Ajax-like experience in their Web page. Spry lets them incorporate these into websites without having to drop into programming."

Spry is still in a pretty early state, early alpha, by Taylor's admission. Right now, Adobe is looking to get feedback from developers and decide which Adobe publishing products, like PageMaker and DreamWeaver, will get the Spry technology at a future time.

"It has multiple homes. It's not tool-specific," said Taylor. "I can pick up Notepad and Spry and begin developing Ajax-enabled interfaces."

The latest release makes greater use of Web standards, particularly XML namespace attributes and provides better support for progressive enhancement and graceful degradation.

The XML namespace support was specifically requested by developers, said Taylor. This helps validate Web pages against W3C standards and insure people create valid markup.

Graceful degradation is a method of handling the loss of JavaScript, for whatever reason. For example, if JavaScript is suddenly turned off, an Ajax application might crash or lose data. Graceful degradation handles such a loss in a less volatile manner.

Greg Murray, the newly-appointed Ajax Architect of Sun Microsystems, said Spry should help the non-programmer.

"With Spry, most of the JavaScript is hidden, in that the JavaScript behavior is auto-attached to the necessary content based on the attributes and styles. This style of programming is very elegant in that it cleans up what an HTML developer deals with," he said in an e-mail to internetnews.com.

"That said, you still need to invest some time with the Spry documentation and understand the Spry framework to fully utilize its capabilities," he added. "I also like that Spry promotes a separation of behavior, style and content. This separation is something I have been promoting for some time with jMaki and the other happenings at Sun."