Cleaning up with Ajax

Hagan Rivers, of Two Rivers Consulting, gave a talk on Ajax and Web 2.0 at last week's meeting of Boston CHI (the Boston-area chapter of the ACM SIG on Computer-Human Interaction.)

She is an excellent speaker and I found the Ajax section particularly exciting and the Web 2.0 piece less so. Probably because I feel Ajax is the early embodiment of something important, while Web 2.0 is a squishier concept--more an attitude than anything else.

So, what did learn? First, Ajax is what is enabling some of the new style of web interfaces that have started popping up. Panning by clicking and dragging in Google Maps, for example. Netflix is starting to incorporate Ajax into its interface. Web interfaces are starting to act more like desktop interfaces.

Second, I learned that Ajax really isn't new technology: it's a new name applied to an aggregation of several technologies. At its most basic, it is Asynchronous Javascript and XML. See the slide deck (below) for a more precise list of the technologies involved. What Ajax enables is asynchonous communication between the client and server sides of a web application. Old, page-oriented style of interface: User mucks locally with forms, etc., and then presses Submit which then might cause the server to generate new html for the client. New, Ajax-oriented style of interface: The client-side Ajax engine and the server have the ability to cooperatively and constantly update the application's web interface without explicit actions from the user. It's much closer to the kind of interface interactions that have been available for a long time in the desktop world.

So why is it exciting? If Ajax merely helps web apps move closer to what's already available for apps on the desktop, what is the big deal? The big deal is that you can now see an inkling of a future in which desktop operating systems and applications don't matter anymore. The browser really begins to be capable of becoming the future desktop replacement. And, while Ajax might not be exactly the right solution in the end, you can see the shape of where we are headed.

A desktop born of open standards and based on open standards. Applications that live in the network--applications and data that are accessible from everywhere. Looking out a few years, I see a broad and promising vista (with a small 'v') where a good, solid, standards-compliant browser is all you'll need to access your applications.

Hagan's slides and supporting video clips are here.


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