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In the "fat" client desktop world, the concept of embedding one application's content in another is nothing new.

Doing the same thing online via AJAX, however, has not yet been commonplace, but thanks to a new proposed specification being heralded by Zimbra called ALE (AJAX Linking and Embedding), that may be about to change.

Satish Dharmaraj, co-founder and CEO of open source collaboration suite Zimbra explained to internetnews.com that ALE is the AJAX equivalent of Microsoft's OLE .

OLE enables users to embed a component of one application inside of another, for example a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet inside of a Microsoft Word document.

Ross Dargahi, co-founder and vice president of engineering at Zimbra, explained that modern Web browsers have a design mode capability, which is what AJAX editors use in order to bold or highlight text in an online application, for example.

"What Zimbra has done is figured out a way that, while in edit mode, you can embed other AJAX components into that window and those components can stay live," Dargahi said.

"For example, if you have an AJAX spreadsheet component, you can embed it in this editable window using the spreadsheet component while still being able to edit the text and the content around exactly as you would with Microsoft Office or Open Office."

The ALE spec specifies a design pattern that an ALE component can execute. The ALE framework will recognize the pattern and enable it to interact with a component.

"You can imagine all kinds of different AJAX components that you could embed and put into such a document," Dargahi said. "ALE takes AJAX to the next level making Web applications a lot more analogous to the desktop applications."

Dharmaraj noted that ALE is intended to be an open specification that he hopes is broadly adopted across the AJAX community.

"There is no Zimbra trademark or copyright on it; it's something that everybody can use as they see fit," Dharmaraj said. "What we hope to gain from this is the furthering of thin-client and zero-footprint computing with Zimbra being at the leading edge of that.

Zimbra isn't the only company that sees potential in ALE. IBM is interested in it, too.

"Really what ALE is is an AJAX design pattern," David Boloker, CTO of Emerging Technology at IBM, told internetnews.com. "As a design pattern as you start to see the use of it and discussion and applicability across different kinds of apps, it becomes pretty interesting."

Boloker noted that potentially every single application that is AJAX-based could have an embed of an object.

"This is an intersection in the Web of where Web documents come in," Boloker said. "Inside the Web document could be anything from a map to a piece of data, which then could get mashed up with something else which then could have an embed to a third thing."

ALE is currently just a draft specification, though Zimbra is using it in a currently non-public build of its collaboration suite. A forthcoming public build is expected sometime soon, however.

Boloker said that the place for full ALE discussion should likely be the OpenAJAX project, which is an industry association that is helping to further AJAX deployment and development.

"To me this [ALE] is the beginning of a good discussion about what is embedding, how embedding should work within AJAX, and finally we'll start seeing usage cases and demo code come out," Boloker said.