Getting AJAX Ready for Prime Time

“Microsoft Office-level functionality is rapidly becoming available on the Web today” – By: Dion Hinchcliffe – Dec. 28, 2005 04:15 AM – A little-noticed AP article that headlined recently delves into the details of Ajax, Web-based software, and other Web 2.0 related subjects. Apparently not covered much by the technical community, the article is yet another emergence of our favorite topic in mainstream media. While primarily focusing on Ajax, and Microsoft’s entry into the space, Atlas, the article touches on some of the really important next Web generation pieces, such as participation capabilities like information sharing, albeit without citing Web 2.0 by name, saying “web-based applications are increasingly appealing at a time separate computers for home, work and travel are common and people get used to sharing calendars and other data with friends and relatives.”And of course, in the interest of balance, the article actually does a pretty credible job of citing the drawbacks of putting 100% of software function on the Web, “other limitations are intentional. For security reasons, a browser cannot seamlessly access files or other programs on a computer. And, of course, Web applications require a persistent Internet connection — making work difficult on airplanes.” For further veracity, the article also quotes key players at Google and Microsoft who are working on various Ajax solutions. Ajax Schema Chart  

It’s this last point about current drawbacks that I find so interesting since, for example, Microsoft Office-level functionality is rapidly becoming available on the Web today. Witness 37signal’s WriteBoard, Upstartle’s Writely, and TrimPath’s social spreadsheet, Num Sum, as just three of the more powerful and interesting examples. And folks, these applications are actually extremely good. So good that they almost (but not quite) give my trusty MS Office suite a run for its money. 

Why don’t Web-based productivity applications measure up? It’s the little things. Minor communication hiccups are the most persistently annoying. I often find myself resubmitting something, only to find it to be done twice or three times when everything catches up. But the biggest obstacle to going Web-based is the fact that you need a big, fat pipe to the Internet whenever you want to work. This more than anything makes going Web 2.0 all the way a fence sitting event for most of us. I’ve even written recently that lack of true Internet pervasiveness (yet) is a non-trivial impediment to certain types of Web 2.0 services at the moment. One of the biggest holdups is that without a connection, you can’t even load your application, or just as serious, get access to your data. But this is where some good news is finally coming in. Recognizing that people will just need to have that local storage (loading Web 2.0 apps without a connection is still an interesting problem, there’s probably space for another startup here), enter Brad Neuberg’s AMASS, also know as the Ajax Massive Storage System.  

AMASS promises to solve some of the problems of non-connected access to information, by only breaking the open-standards of Web 2.0 a bit. Says Neuberg (my bold), “[AMASS] uses a hidden flash applet to allow JavaScript AJAX applications to store an arbitrary amount of sophisticated information on the client side. This information is permanent and persistent; if a user closes their browser or navigates away from the web site, the information is still present and can be retrieved later by the web page.” Nueberg claims that 95% of users have the Flash plug-in AMASS needs and that it all works on IE and Firefox with fairly good performance. While this gives users a standard, platform-neutral way to cache their data, it does also complicate the Web application’s design, security, and data synchronization issues. Nonetheless, expect to see AMASS-like functionality in a Web 2.0 service near you. It’s advances like these that will knock down the remaining barriers to achieving, and surpassing, parity with native software. Once they are in place, it’s almost certain that Web 2.0 applications will ultimately eclipse most everything that traditional native software can achieve by offering capabilities that just aren’t possible in a disconnected world. Also, I do suspect that our current models of how we work with and exchange information such as documents, presentations, and other productivity-style data, will be fundamentally transformed and shifted into new forms. Don’t be surprised if the importance of mimicking the way traditional apps work becomes less interesting rather quickly. I’ll be looking more in the near future at ways that innovators are creating the dependability and accessibility in Web 2.0 software that will be required for widespread adoption. Stay tuned.

Technorati: web2.0, ajax
Picture of Dion HinchcliffeAbout Dion Hinchcliffe
Dion Hinchcliffe, editor-in-chief of SYS-CON Media’s Web 2.0 Journal (web2.sys-con.com), is cofounder and chief technology officer for the enterprise architecture firm Sphere of Influence Inc. (www.sphereofinfluence.com), founded in 2001 in McLean, Virginia. A veteran of software development, Dion works with leading-edge technologies to accelerate project schedules and raise the bar for software quality. He is highly experienced with enterprise technologies and he designs, consults, and writes prolifically. Dion actively consults with enterprise IT clients in the federal government and Fortune 1000. He also speaks and publishes about Web 2.0 and SOA on a regular basis.

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