Ajax is the talk of JavaOne

By Rich Seeley, News Writer
22 May 2006 | SearchWebServices.com

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San Francisco - Since Java is part of Ajax's middle name, it was not surprising that the rich user interface was a hot topic, perhaps even the hot topic at JavaOne in San Francisco this past week.

Ajax does give you the power to develop very bad user interfaces.
Tim Bray
Director of Web Technologies, Sun

All the major Java platform vendors at the show, Sun Microsystems Inc., BEA Systems Inc., IBM, JBoss Inc. and Oracle Corp., were touting new found Ajax capabilities. Three smaller Ajax tool vendors -- BackBase B.V., ICEsoft Technology Inc. and JackBe Corp. -- were hawking their wares on the show floor.

Some of the big vendors may partner or, in the Darwinian world of software, swallow up the little Ajax companies.

Bill Roth, vice president of the BEA Workshop Business Unit, said his company has been impressed with the Ajax development framework from BackBase. He said BEA is working together on some implementations in the Netherlands, where BackBase is based. Roth said the two companies are in preliminary discussions about partnering, so the BackBase Ajax development tools might soon be bundled with BEA Workshop.

Not everyone at JavaOne was wild for Ajax, however.

Tim Bray, XML pioneer and director of Web Technologies for Sun, said Ajax might be wielding a double-edge sword.

"The clamor around Ajax is about the richer user experience," he said. "That's kind of a two-edged sword. We used to have a richer user experience in the days before the Web with Visual Basic and people stampeded into the arms of a simpler user experience with the Web browser as soon as they got a chance."

Bray's concern is that the rich UI could become a techno-bauble heavy UI that might leave end users dazed and confused.

"Ajax does give you the power to develop very bad user interfaces," Bray cautioned.

On the plus side, he said Ajax can make Web applications run faster for the end user by eliminating the back and forth between the Web browser and the server.

"Obviously a user interface that is faster is categorically, unqualifiedly better," Bray said. "If that's the only contribution Ajax makes that would be plenty big enough."

Bringing desktop-like speed and responsiveness to Web applications is the selling point for all the Ajax vendors, but approaches vary.

In the relatively new world of Ajax technology, BackBase is one of the older vendors having opened for business in 2003 to create a richer UI with JavaScript, said Jouk Pleiter, co-founder and CEO. Recognizing that JavaScript was not the easiest scripting language to work with, the company developed tools that allow developers to create Ajax interfaces without getting into what he terms the JavaScript "plumbing issues."

"If you look at JavaScript in general, it's a very complicated language to program in. It is difficult to get it consistently behaving across multiple browsers and that is exactly why a company like BackBase exists," Pleiter said. "So, actually what we do is we say, JavaScript is great, you can create a very attractive interface with it. It's a rather complicated programming environment so we've tried to hide the complexity of JavaScript."

While some tools aim at the UI developers who work with scripting languages, ICESoft provides tools aimed at enterprise Java developers who work on the server side. In the ICEsoft booth at JavaOne, Ken Fyten, product manager for its ICEfaces tool, demonstrated its drag-and-drop capabilities working inside Sun's Java Studio Creator. Buttons and calculator objects can be moved into place with the code generated automatically, so there is a minimum of code writing and editing.

With the logic residing on the server, Robert Lepack, vice president, marketing at ICESoft said the ICEfaces approach avoids overloading the browser. "The Web services run on the server and only send snippets to the browser," he said. The server-centric approach extends to a feature ICEsoft calls "Server-Initiated Rendering," which automatically and asynchronously updates the browser when data, such as a stock price or an online auction bid, changes on the server.

The JackBe NQ Suite of tools takes an enterprise SOA approach to Ajax, said John Crupi, CTO, who came to JackBe from Sun where he had been working on SOA technology. The JackBe approach was to take lessons learned in SOA and apply them to extending SOA with Ajax as "an enabling technology."

For more information
How Ajax conquered the Web

Georgia maps future with Ajax

"One of the problems that SOA had was that initially people were building Web services in SOA architecture from the bottom up," he said. "So they took an inventory of everything they had and said, let's just make this a Web service and we're SOA. But guess what? It was never designed for that level of granularity. So, next round they got smart and started doing them more top-down and basically aligning with the business units and asking what does business need and what are the applications and that drives the definition architecture of your SOA backend."

In its short life Ajax has followed the same trajectory in the developer learning curve, in Crupi's view.

"You can build a page and sprinkle Ajax widgets, but if you're actually going to build a full-blown mission critical application for businesses, you have to think of the end-to-end architecture," he said. "So we just see Ajax as a natural extension and alignment to the backend enterprise, also highly aligned with SOA. It allows you to create applications, but it's purely just an enabling technology, Ajax, it's not a solution in and of itself."


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