Startups Board the AJAX Bandwagon

It’s a brave new world of software programming out there, and AJAX is the agent being used to deliver a clean look for more interactive, yet seamless desktop computing.

AJAX, short for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, is a programming approach that uses a number of programming languages and technologies together, including HTML or XHTML, JavaScript, the Document Object Model and XML.

When these technologies are combined in the AJAX model, Web applications can make speedy updates to the user interface without reloading the entire browser page.

Microsoft has garnered its share of attention for promising to use AJAX to underpin Windows Live. Google has made a splash for using it for its Maps and Gmail applications.

But startups are also realizing that server-side technologies are taking off, and are moving swiftly to provide alternative options.

Enter ICESoft, one of a sprinkling of smaller companies, including JackBe, Backbase and Nexaweb, that do new work with AJAX.

The Calgary, Canada-based company is in “alpha” release of its testing for products like ICEfaces, which harnesses AJAX to let developers create pure Java, thin client, rich Web applications. The idea is to provide an alternative to the Microsoft .NET way of building better user experiences.

Robert Lepack, vice president at ICEsoft, said that while J2EE provides a solid foundation, it struggles in the final mile when its leaves the server environment to deliver content.

Moreover, while JavaServer Faces (JSF) delivers a fine framework for Web applications, it relies on markup-based presentation within the Web application model. As such, it doesn’t address the needs of a rich-client application.

Taking it a step further, Lepack said AJAX alone is powerful but it has very rough edges. The programming tools behind it are still primitive, so writing applications with it is different than what enterprise developers are currently accustom to.

AJAX applications are also more challenging to write, often flouting Web browser customs for simplicity. Typically, as one loads more Javascript to an application, browsers will react differently.

That’s where ICEfaces can make a difference, he said. With a Direct-to-DOM approach, ICEfaces pares page rendering times, eliminates complete page refresh and page flicker, and provides real-time updates of the UI.

“ICEfaces is a standards-compliant AJAX solution for rapidly creating rich Web applications that are easily maintained and scaled, at the lowest cost,” Lepack said. “We put in place an AJAX bridge, or foundation layer, to isolate Java developers from having to deal with any pitfalls of JavaScript.

Those are tall orders for a startup, but some analysts like IceSoft’s approach and moxie at a time when AJAX is gaining in popularity, thanks to endorsements from Microsoft and Google.

ZapThink analyst Ronald Schmelzer said Web developers don’t want to limit themselves to building Internet Explorer-only applications, so the move to AJAX and products like ICEfaces signals a movement toward more widely accepted non-Microsoft technologies for rich browsers.

“Instead of it compiling Java code, ICEfaces is outputting AJAX,” Schmelzer said. “They want to turn all of the Java developers into AJAX developers. They [ICEsoft] claim any JSP application can be rendered as an AJAX application without the developer having to do anything. If they can flip the switch, I think it will be pretty ubiquitous.”

So ICEsoft has a shot at doing something different if it can get momentum. Google is already there, with Microsoft on the way, according to Forrester Research analyst Carl Zetie.

“The interesting thing about Microsoft is, they have actually been doing things with AJAX for a number of years,” Zetie said. They did Outlook Web Access but they never really made a big fuss about it. This really caught fire when people noticed the responsiveness and sophistication of applications like Google Maps.”

Google Maps is a great example of how AJAX was used to improve the user experience, allowing users to redraw parts of the screen rather than having to do a whole page refresh, Zetie said.

In Google Maps, users can smoothly scroll and move the map around. In other maps applications, if you want to move the map a half mile to the right, you have to discard it and fetch a new one.

Also, while you’re looking at a Google map in the background it’s fetching all the surrounding areas that you can’t see, so that as you start to scroll, they are already ready to be displayed.

Zetie attributed the rise of interest in AJAX to the proliferation of browsers like Firefox that don’t work with UI technologies such as Microsoft’s ActiveX. The increase in the use of server-side technologies like PHP and PERL isn’t hurting AJAX either.

“If you want to do something that’s richer than a conventional HTMl page, you no longer assume that using a Microsoft technology like ActiveX is going to be acceptable,” he said. “People had to find an alternative.”

For Microsoft’s part, the company’s development staff believe the world will be blown away by what the software giant will do with AJAX for Windows Vista, and specifically with a set of extensions to ASP.NET that have been code-named Atlas.

Atlas consists of a client-side framework to code against objects with ASP.NET server controls. Forest Key, director of product manager for the developer tools division at MSFT, said AJAX helps developers get around some of the painful latency associated with Web browser applications like Microsoft’s own Hotmail.

“The DHTML, AJAX technologies allow you to break down principle barriers of a better user experience, including the ability to do asynchronous information, so you’re not waiting constantly for a browser refresh to get up to date data,” Key said in an interview. “It provides a more seamless user experience.”

Thanks to the Windows Presentation Foundation in WinFX, Key said developers will get a much richer bang for the buck in terms of performance, usability and richness of applications they will be able to build.

“The richness and performance and presentation of data is so superior to what’s possible in a browser,” Key said.

ICEsoft’s Lepack grants Microsoft its due, but said it’s time for the Java giants in software to start pulling their AJAX weight. If they don’t, ICEsoft plans to take share.

“We need to take a look at main competitors in the J2EE stack,” LePack said. “What are they doing to compete against Microsoft? Companies like IBM, BEA and Oracle need to react to what Microsoft is doing with Windows.”

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