Why was Dynamic HTML a bust and "AJAX" a hit?

One of the eternal mysteries of the software industry for me is how formerly ignored or scorned ideas can become buzzwords du jour almost overnight.  XML  -- which has a data model that is quite close to the scorned LISP S-Expressions and uses the "discredited" hierarchical rather than relational approach -- is one big example.  A smaller but more contemporary example is what Microsoft and Netscape called "Dynamic HTML" back in 1997 or so, but has become resurrected as AJAX - "Asynchronous Javascript and XML".

There have been a several of interesting pieces recently on why this idea went from hype to passe to waycoolbuzzwordcompliant in just over 5 years.  I'll single out a couple from people who were present at the creation of XmlHttpRequest and have seen it rise, fall, and rise again on the popularity charts: Adam Bosworth helped drive this at MS in the late '90s, and now observes:

the physics didn't work in 1997. A lot of Ajax applications have a lot of script (often 10 or 20,000 lines) and without broadband, the download of this can be extremely painful. With broadband and standard tricks for compressing the script, it is a breeze. Even if you could download this much script in 1997, it ran too slowly. Javascript wasn't fast enough to respond in real time to user actions let alone to fetch some related data over HTTP. But Moore's law has come to its rescue and what was sluggish in 1997 is often lightning quick today.

Finally, in 1997 or even in 1999 there wasn't a practical way to write these applications to run on all browsers. Today, with work, this is doable.

Kurt Cagle  wrote an article about XmlHttpRequest in 2000 and recently discovered " I'm so bleeding edge I'm surprised I haven't died from blood loss" now that AJAX has more buzz than a hyped-up hornet.  He attributes the buzz to the fact that: 'Opera, Safari and Mozilla Firefox all adopted the XMLHttpRequest object as an inbuilt component with KDE's Konqueror recently joining the ranks. This was a critical turning point, as it meant that at least desktop clients now have the capability of communicating with the server "out-of-band".' 

I guess the observation that everything old becomes new again in the world of fashion is hardly novel, but those who live on the bleeding edge need to recall it now and then.

Comments (5)

  1. NickFitz says:

    Although support by more browsers has been very important, this is an excellent example of the importance of having a simple name. I’ve been building intranet applications around DHTML with XmlHttpRequest since around 1999, but held off on using it on public-facing sites unless it could degrade gracefully on non-IE browsers.

    Support has been there in Mozilla for a while now, but it’s only since the Adaptive Path team (http://www.adaptivepath.com/publications/essays/archives/000385.php ) coined the spiffy name Ajax that the world at large has been sitting up and taking notice. Seems like branding matters.

  2. It’s absolutely hilarious that the technorati are embracing this technology that Microsoft first introduced almost 10 years ago, hailing it as "the next big thing". No doubt there were enough people out there not willing to use it back in the day because NS didn’t do it very well anyway (it never did anything well after 2.0 in any case) and it was "probably another MS proprietary extension".

    Just like CSS behaviors are "proprietary extensions" that happen to be based on a W3C recommendation, but it’s just fine and dandy if Mozilla comes up with their own little XBL-based behavior system. And propietary "moz" extensions to CSS. Blinking tags anyone?

    Hilarious, I say.

  3. AndrewSeven says:

    There were cross-browser ways of doing it even in those version 4 days. (We all remember Dan Steinman and DynamicDuo right?)

    I used hidden frames in one version, maybe even a 100x100px window in annother.

    Having just downloaded and tried the Shwartz Interactive version (http://ajax.schwarz-interactive.de/ ), I must say it is well integrated with aspnet and very easy to use.

    If I’m not mistaken, implementing "innerHtml" was annother important example of following MS’s lead.

  4. Jeremy Gray says:

    "but it’s only since the Adaptive Path team (http://www.adaptivepath.com/publications/essays/archives/000385.php ) coined the spiffy name Ajax that the world at large has been sitting up and taking notice. Seems like branding matters."

    It also seems like everyone is forgetting to credit the true source of the newly-refound attention being paid to the technique. Adaptive Path certainly didn’t invent anything, nor did they coin a particularly attractive term. They did, however, jump on the bandwagon, coined a term, and then spread the meme as quickly and as widely as they could, and it is on that basis, frankly, that I will be explicitly paying very little attention to anything said by Adaptive Path in the future.

    In any case, it is worth reminding everyone of the main source of all of the recent buzz surrounding the technique, and it went a little like this:

    Person A: "Have you seen Google maps yet?"

    Person B: "Damn, that’s slick!"

    It was only after that that the following took place:

    Adaptive Path: "We call this AJAX."

    Everyone: "AJAX it is, then."


    Given the source of the resurgence, did anyone think of asking Google what they might like to call it? 🙂

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