The Little Screen That Could

Posted in Application Development, Rich Internet Apps. at 2:45 am by Tony Baer

Nature abhors a vacuum. But when it comes to the web, that’s what we’ve tolerated for over a decade. Fire up a web page and wait for a full refresh each time you interact. While the web’s ubiquity and reach has been wonderful, having such a clunky interaction model has proven downright frustrating for anybody accustomed to the responsiveness of conventional GUIs.

So we’ve tried a few workarounds, like Java applets, which proved sluggish while drawing pathetic browser support. Or Active X Controls, whose suitability as vectors for malware relegated them to the status of web social disease.

Now the industry’s giving rich Internet clients a second try. Macromedia wants that ubiquitous Flash runtime already on your browser to morph into Flex, a full rich client framework. Microsoft’s aspirations are similar with the awkwardly named Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), to be part of the new Windows Vista OS (Microsoft wants predominance so bad, they’re even creating a cross-platform ‘lite’ version). Meanwhile, IBM through its surrogate partner Laszlo wants a rich framework that’s open source.

But the drawbacks of Flex, WPF, and Laszlo are that they’re all vendor-driven. While competition’s great, does anybody realistically expect us to load our browsers with multiple run times to render what’s out there? After the applet experience, we’re not holding our breath.

Yet, beneath the radar, there are a bunch of technologies that already exist on your browser that deliver 80% of what these competing frameworks are promising. Better yet, no vendor owns them, and you don’t have to download anything for them to work.

Just over 6 – 8 months ago, a consultant with the colorful name Jesse James Garrett devised a convenient handle for this grab bag: Ajax. It stands for Asynchronous JavaScript over HTML (if you want the exact technology recipe for Ajax, click here). The secret sauce? Ajax can dynamically submit XML requests to an HTTP server, allowing your web page to change without having to perform a complete refresh. In other words, restoring the versatility that the thin web browser took away.

Don’t believe us? Just go to Google Maps, scroll your mouse, and watch the map change dynamically.

So where’s the business opportunity in Ajax? It’s not in tools because, although they could stand some improvement, there’s little money there.

As venture capitalist Dan Grossman of Venrock noted, it’s likely to materialize in the form of web-based applications or services that take advantage of Ajax’s abilities to deliver dynamic experiences without requiring plug-ins or similar excess baggage.

Services like Zimbra, which provides an email/collaboration suite that not only out- indexes and searches Exchange, but also taps web services (another standard) to make practical use of the content already in an email or calendared meeting. For instance, right click a PO# and pop up an update from your order management system. Or click a phone number to dial a VoIP (Voice over IP) phone call, or an address to map it via Google.
The possibilities are endless.

The value of Ajax is that it enables other things. In that sense, it’s like Windows or Microsoft Office, which provided de facto standards enabling productivity apps to exchange data. But the closer resemblance is to grass roots technologies like Linux or the HTML browser, because they were accessible, affordable, and most importantly, simple. Better yet, they unlocked value in new classes of applications or services never before possible.