In this interview, Dave Crane not only talks about Ajax but also about how Ajax can fit into the kind of applications and frameworks we are used to working with today. He also tells us why he feels Ajax has become so popular in such a short time and what lies in the future for Java based Ajax development.Dave is the author of “Ajax in Action” and has been working with Ajax technologies for several years.
IndicThreads >> Hi Dave. Congratulations on the publication of your book “Ajax In Action”. Could you tell us a little more about yourself and your involvement in Ajax?
Dave Crane >> Hi! Thanks, it’s a real buzz to see the book out there, and getting such a good reception.
“The Ajax technologies themselves aren’t particularly new or sexy…”
IndicThreads >> As Ajax is such a new thing and only a handful are sure of what Ajax is all about, could you give us your thoughts on “What is Ajax”?
Dave Crane >> Well, it isn’t a technology. At the risk of sounding a bit fluffy, I’d say it’s a way of doing new things with old technologies. From the programmer’s perspective, everything that we needed to do Ajax has been available for several years, but it’s taken most of us this long to get it. A few brave souls like Brent Ashley, Eric Costello, and the people that I’m now working with at Historic Futures, have been pioneering this approach for some time, but it was never mainstream until recently.
“Ajax is a way of doing new things with old technologies…”
“Adding asynchronous requests into the mix increases the reach of these technologies…”
To me, that’s the most interesting thing about Ajax. As techies, we tend to get hung up on the Next Big Thing technology-wise (OK, i should speak for myself, I get hung up on these things), and yet with Ajax, the technologies themselves aren’t particularly new or sexy. Rather, it’s the realisation that new things can be done with the old technologies. Simply adding asynchronous requests into the mix increases the reach of these technologies to the ‘sovereign’ applications that users use as their main workhorse for several hours a day. We’re seeing people like 37signals suddenly make sense of the ASP model that’s been talked about for several years and never quite taken off until now. And once you get into the whole Web 2.0 thing of ‘mash-ups’ and published APIs, then the entire business model is changing further still.
IndicThreads >> In a very short time, Ajax has perhaps become the most popular acronym in software development. What do you think are the reasons? Did you see this coming?
Dave Crane >> No, I didn’t see it coming, much as I’d like to nod my head sagely :-). I think the popularity of Ajax lies in the low barrier to entry. Writing an Ajax app needs nothing more than a text editor and a web browser, although a serious Ajax professional will probably want a whole array of debuggers, IDE’s and DOM Inspectors up their sleeves too – I certainly do.
“The popularity of Ajax lies in the low barrier to entry…”
Web sites can adopt it incrementally, again, making the barrier to entry pretty low.
If you compare Ajax to, say, Java Web Start, then web start wins on sheer power and what you can do with it. But Ajax is good enough for most situations, and it’s ready to run on most people’s computers without installing any client software. Maybe the fact that it uses a scripting language has something to do with it too (I’m a big fan of scripting as much as possible, I got a great productivity boost personally out of jython, for example, when i first picked it up a few years ago.)
“I’m a big fan of scripting as much as possible…”
Dave Crane >> There’s a line that the mark of a really good invention is that it will end up getting used for purposes that the inventor never could have dreamed of. I forget who it’s attributed to now. I’m all in favour of pushing the envelope of what a web app can do, and I think Ajax is going in the right direction, on the whole.
“It’s possible to make the user experience worse by inappropriate use of Ajax,…”
Sure, it’s possible to make the user experience worse by inappropriate use of Ajax, singing, dancing boxes popping up everywhere. But I’m pleased to see sites like Backpack and Flickr that work not just because they’re using cool new technologies (or is it cool old technologies?), but because they’re marrying that with improved useability, and offering something that people really do find easy to use.
Dave Crane >> For a very graphical application, Flash can do things that the current round of browsers just plain can’t. With Ajax, one is very much tied to the rectangular nature of the DOM elements – look at the hoops that Google Maps jump through to render round-edged speech bubbles with semi-transparent drop shadows, for example. I presume that drawing that sort of thing in Flash would be much easier. ( I’m not that familiar with Flash from a developer standpoint, so please take my reply with a pinch of salt 🙂 ).
“Ajax is there, it works, and it’s good enough. Ajax is ubiquitous…”
|Dave Crane at Haddon Hall, England|
Again, in most cases, Ajax is there, it works, and it’s good enough. Nobody designing an interactive web-based application platform from scratch would come up with Ajax, it’s evolved organically out of the web browser. Like Microsoft Windows, Ajax has nothing so much in its favour as the fact that it is ubiquitous.
IndicThreads >> Technologies generally don’t sustain if there aren’t good tools and frameworks around them. So what’s the status with Ajax? Does one develop Ajax applications using any text editor or are there any specialized tools we must look at?
Dave Crane >> There is no single Ajax IDE at the moment. Heavyweight development jobs can benefit from some sort of IDE, and I’ve seen people using everything from Eclipse to Dreamweaver to code their Ajax apps. The full toolkit is broader than that, however. There are code debuggers, such as Venkman for Mozilla, the free Microsoft Script Debugger and the Script Editor that ships with Office and/or Visual Studio for IE. There are HTTP debuggers – I’m currently using Fiddler and the Apache TCPMon. There are DOM Inspectors, XSLT tools, and so on. Firefox and Mozilla provide an excellent starting set of dev tools, with the big downside that they can’t help you with IE-specific bugs.
“Ruby on Rails is clearly enjoying much synergy with Ajax…”
“In serverside frameworks, I’d put my money on prototype.js (and it’s child Scriptaculous)…”
“Maybe Dojo and MochiKit on the client tier…”
IndicThreads >> Interest in Ajax has been especially high in the Java world. How does Ajax fit into Java’s scheme of things?
“Ajax steals some of the thunder from the server-side frameworks…”
“Ajax and Java look to have a long and happy future together…”
IndicThreads >> Is Ajax more of a concern for the web designer or for the server side developer? How do you think would the division of work in Ajax project teams work out?
“Balance of power between client and server is shifting…”
“To get the benefits from Ajax, it’s necessary to move some of the logic from the server to the client…”
IndicThreads >> Where do you see Ajax going from here?
Dave Crane >> All over the place 🙂 The big server frameworks are picking it up. The new types of smart internet clients are doing clever things with it. It seems to be breathing new life into the ASP business model. I’m intrigued by the various gadget/widget frameworks – Konfabulator, Mac OSX Dashboard, and Vista Gadgets – that seem to be combining elements of Ajax and desktop apps, blurring the boundaries a little bit further. I only wish that I had more time to explore all these avenues, I’ll look forward to seeing what happens in the next year or two in this space.
“Ajax is breathing new life into the ASP business model…”
IndicThreads >> Thanks Dave for sharing your views on Ajax. Any blog URL / email you would like to share?
Dave Crane >> Thanks for the opportunity to talk. I hope your readers have enjoyed my thoughts, and feel inspired to roll their sleeves up and get coding some interesting Ajax stuff!
My own blog can be found at http://dave.sunwheeltech.com/wordpress/, and my co-author Eric Pascarello keeps his at the JavaRanch (http://radio.javaranch.com/pascarello/ ). Eric puts a tremendous amount of energy into the various Ajax forums and groups on the web, and we’d both be very happy to welcome the readers of IndicThreads to our sites. (Our third co-author, Darren James, doesn’t have a blog as far as I know. Hi, Darren!)