The Significance of AJAX

AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript And XML) is getting a lot of press these days.  MSDN even has an article which decribes how to do AJAX programming with ASP.Net 2.0.  The basic idea is that by doing client side programming in the browser, you can create a richer user experience.  There seems to be no shortage of opinions on the potential impact this technology will have on the computing industry.

In some respects, all of this attention is a little odd.  The AJAX technologies have been available for years.  (Outlook Web Access has used similar concepts in the past several versions.)  And, while AJAX does allow for a richer user experience than traditional web applications, it still falls well short of the user experience provided by traditional desktop applications.  (Most users prefer Outlook over Outlook Web Access, for example.)  It seems that the interest in AJAX is a reflection of the belief that many have in the promise of web based applications.

Policies which mandate the development, exclusively, of web based applications are another reflection of this belief.  (Many US Federal Government Agencies have such policies.)  The interesting thing about these policies is that they are almost never driven by users.  IT departments, correctly, point out the deployment and maintenance benefits of web applications.  The cost, in terms of user productivity, of web applications versus desktop applications, however, is not typically factored into the decision.  (When someone uses an application all day, extra mouse clicks add-up.  Also, numerous articles on user interface design point out the importance of quick response times. Etc.)

The current interest in  AJAX may indicate that users are starting to lose patience with the web applications we’ve been giving them.  It may mean that we need to start focusing on user productivity along with ease of deployment and maintenance.  AJAX is a good first step towards putting the focus back on the user.  Microsoft is working on a project, code named ATLAS to make it easy to build these types of applications using ASP.Net.  (You can find more info here.)  AJAX, however, is still limited by current browser based technologies. 

To really improve the user experience, I think we need to look at new approaches for combining the IT benefits of web applications with the user productivity benefits of desktop applications.  (At Microsoft, we group our approaches under the heading of smart client.)   In fact, I think that it may be necessary to revist the polices that mandate the creation of web only applications.

Only time will tell if AJAX enables a rich enough experience to satisfy users.  Regardless of the outcome, however, the real signficance of AJAX may be that it creates a renewed focus on user productivity. 

I’d love to hear comments on this topic, especially from US Federal readers.



Comments (4)

  1. The app I am working on for DHS/CBP is web based, and as soon as we can we are moving towards Ajax via Atlas.

    I have used Ajax (when it was Remote Scripting!, and prior to that using iframes and ColdFusion/WDDX) for a long time, but until Atlas it has always been a huge undertaking, involving writing your own framework. Actually, the IE Web Service Behavior made things a lot easier – but it is not cool to use behaviors these days due to cross-browser compatability (duh).

    One of the things we are concerned with as a Federal Developer is any deployment issues we might face – we have already hit some snags due to some machines randomly having Javascript disabled. I think a lot of effort will need to be put into getting Federal admins to consistently setup workstations and if they want the ease of deployment they need to put some time into making sure web apps with a rich UI can run. "Disable javascript" is a nail in the coffin for rich web apps.

  2. Jim Carlson says:

    The Federal Agency I support is widely dispersed. It is very easy to put up a new website that everyone can access and that can be readily updated.

    More and more users dial-in from home. Versions of Office vary and are not the latest. The .Net Framework is not installed.

    It would cost the Agency a lot more to develop and deploy "Smart Applications."

    My single aging server with 1 GB memory and SQL Server hosts several websites serving several hundred users without any complaints of slow response.

  3. I’ve receieved several great comments, both online and offline, regarding my previous posts around smart…

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