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How Ajax conquered the Web

Keynoters at Ajax conference explain how technology and terminology that was virtually unknown one year ago has won over the hearts and minds of Web developers who have flocked to San Francisco to learn more about it.

San Francisco, Calif. – One of the attendees at The Ajax Experience, which bills itself as "The Premier Ajax Event of 2006," asked at the opening keynote Wednesday night if this was the first year for this show.

The question was soon answered by Ben Galbraith, consultant, author and a co-founder of, sponsor of the event, who said in the keynote that putting on an Ajax conference last year would have been a non-starter. It would have been the answer to the age old question: What if you gave a party and nobody came?"

Ajax is really just DHTML but if we'd called this the DHTML Experience nobody would have shown up.
Ben Galbraith

Last year at this time, he recounted, Ajax was little more than a term consultant Jesse James Garrett came up with to describe a technology approach using Asynchronous JavaScript And XML to provide a richer desktop-like user interface for Web applications.

Galbraith and his keynote partner, Dion Almaer, were busy at this time last year adding the Ajax terminology to presentations they were doing at last year's JavaOne Conference.

Then as Galbraith recounted it Wednesday night to a near capacity crowd in a ballroom at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, the two of them started a blog about Ajax, which became in the past year the Web community of developers working with Ajax.

It was the software technology equivalent of driving from zero to sixty in 10 seconds.

So the answer to the attendee's question is that it wasn't even conceivable to do an Ajax conference a year ago and yet here Galbraith and Almaer were addressing a crowd of developers hungry to find out more about Ajax.

Galbraith acknowledged that the emergence of Ajax out of nowhere is due in part to the fact that it is a very buzz-worthy term that replaced the clunky Dynamic HTML (DHTML) acronym and technology that had been around since 1997.

"We're all engineers and we know Ajax doesn't really mean much," he said. "Ajax is really just DHTML but if we'd called this the DHTML Experience nobody would have shown up."

But he noted there have been some technology advances since 1997 that helps Ajax interfaces do more than was possible with DHTML. One event that went unnoticed, according to Galbraith was in 2002 when Mozella added XHR (XMLHttpRequest) to its Web browser.

The rich client potential of XHR went "undiscovered" until developers at Google began using it for rich browser client apps like Google maps, he told the audience.

So a little new Web services technology, some killer apps and a great name have made Ajax a phenomenon in the software world in a little more than one year.

But Galbraith offered yet another reason why Ajax is so exciting. He said it came along when Web developers were getting bored working within the constraints that limited their creativity through 2004. Developers had done as good a job as they could building applications that required the end user to wait for HTML pages to rebuild before they could go to the next step of ordering a book.

"But eventually we got bored," he said.

Then along came Ajax and suddenly it seemed Web applications could rival desktop apps in providing a fast, friendly user interface. And Web developers and designers snapped out of their funk and began re-imagining what a Web-based application could be.

However, Galbraith and Almaer cautioned that technology constraints still exist with Ajax and they believe that a technology breakthrough that might allow developers to create even richer client experiences is not on the horizon.

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Meanwhile, they expect Microsoft with the Vista release of the Windows operating system to extend the capabilities of desktop applications. If Ajax can produce rich user interfaces for Web apps, Microsoft is likely to try to protect its market dominance by creating what Galbraith termed "filthy rich" UIs. At the same time, the Flash technology from Adobe Systems Inc. is likely to enhance what developers can do with Ajax.

Galbraith and Almaer predicted that it will be interesting to watch Microsoft and Adobe compete for the hearts and minds of developers.

But they concluded that the good news for Web developers is that with no immediate technology breakthrough on the horizon to extend Ajax, they have an opportunity to work within the current constraints without worrying that what they learn to do today will be outmoded tomorrow. And they said that a number of software vendors will be releasing Ajax tools in the near future that will make developers jobs easier.

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