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Marshall's Web Tool Blog

Training and Consulting in New Tools for Effective Web Use

This site is an archive of posts that I hope you will find useful. Please visit my new site at Marshallk.com.

AJAX: So Hip it Hurts (But it Does Hurt Good)

This is a long and somewhat complicated post. Or at least it will be for some readers. It will be far too simple for others. Please skip past or to headlined sections as you see fit. The part about the brain implants is at the end, but don’t skip to that until you need to.

A big new topic in the web world (as of a few weeks ago, but now it's big) is what's being called AJAX, an acronym for asynchronous JavaScript and xml (two types of programming languages). After you read my two sentence explanation of it, go look at some of the examples after it. Then reread the explanation and it will make a lot more sense.

Short Explanation

My short version of an explanation, as I understand it is this.

The web's usual system so far requires that every click you make on a web page must be communicated back to the hosting server of the page you are on before the page content can change. The page’s host server then communicates back to your browser how to reload the whole page to reflect the changes you've selected. Very slow and unsmooth compared to what AJAX enables.

AJAX delivers far more information to your browser at each web page than is initially displayed on the page, thus enabling actions you take to be responded to quickly. The browser itself can change sections of the page without the whole page needing to be reloaded.

A more intense definition is available at Wikipedia's page on AJAX, which is edited every day but has only existed since mid March. This stuff is that new, but big.

Examples – Check these out!

AJAX is so hip that the tag "AJAX" is one of the top 5 most active tags in the social bookmarking tool Del.icio.us right now. (So go check out what's getting tagged AJAX in de.licio.us to get a wider view of the field, though a lot of it is really technical. Better yet, transcend the hip-kid spell of Del.icio.us and see a tag search for AJAX at the metasearch engine TagCentral.net)

But...Problems Are Already Here, and So Is a Look to the Future

Alright, so it's very cool and lots of fun to use. I'm advocating use of it in the websites I'm subcontracting to do content development for, but it's going to be up to the programmers to go for it or not. (They know it's hip and cool, but when we should use it is another question.)

But, people are already looking for what comes next. Capabilities are growing exponentially, so why rest with AJAX? The fascinating magazine and website InfoWorld now has an article titled "What's Next After AJAX? : There are some capabilities that Web-based apps can't handle -- yet". It's a relatively technical article, but the gist of it is that there are certain disadvantages to not sending a message back to a page's server with each click and then reloading the changed page. Specifically, when the page should contain something totally new that wasn't available when you first loaded it, then AJAX could prevent you from seeing that information until you chose to reload the whole page. Breaking news via RSS, changes being made to a wiki or any other plugged in doc, new content of any type: all these things are more easy to know about the instant they are available via increased broadband and Web 2.0 applications - except AJAX apps as they are today. It's not that other apps all interrupt what ever you are doing, but they require more page loads and thus more chances to refresh with any new content available. AJAX holds everything it has at the moment you download a page and lets you look quickly and smoothly through it, but decreases the number of page loads you are going to click for. And those are when you get new information that emerged since your last page load. And there is pertinent information available since your last page load. (Familiarity with these new web tools will change your expectations.)

What Is Next

So, the InfoWorld article asserts that this problem will be solved soon and everything will be even better as a result. Using the increasingly cheap and ubiquitous nature of high-speed connections, "push" content will be delivered to you via Instant Messaging or Flash or some other tools, even when you are busy enjoying an AJAX page instead of reloading. By synching those technologies, you can sit and enjoy the quick smoothness of an AJAX page and still be notified by other means that, for example, "hey! some one new just linked to your web site/posted a comment in response to yours/patented something of interest to you or did anything you want to know about right away." Waiting for info until you go looking for it yourself is so Web 1.0 (OMG!). Amongst 2.0 apps, only AJAX as far as I know could slow down the rate at which you discover emerging information. So that must be fixed. And it probably will happen very soon.

What About Gmail? (What about Gmail?)

I wonder though, what about Gmail? I keep a Firefox tab open to my Gmail inbox while I'm using other sites in other tabs, and Gmail periodically refreshes the inbox page and changes the number of new messages on the tab if there are new messages. I do a lot of work on public computers, so this is a simple way to watch for incoming emails. I can often respond within 60 seconds of being emailed. Gmail uses AJAX, but is it also a successful integration of AJAX and old-school page reloading protocols? Perhaps what really indicates otherwise is that the inbox doesn't appear to use AJAX, only the conversations:messages with tabs do.

Conclusion About AJAX Brain Implants

One way or the other, Moore's Law says that computing power will continue to double every 18 months, there are internet tech and knowledge workers spead quite widely around the world now, and technical innovation is understood better all the time. So this stuff is going to look elementary in the relatively near future. But compared to what the internet has looked like for the last 10 years, AJAX is pretty big news. In the near term future though, the internet will be an even more quick, graceful, globally connected multi-media experience wherein we get our information instantaneously without even looking for it.

I intend to draw the line before a brain implant, but not everyone will. The relationship between concepts like AJAX and general human perception is an interesting one.

For example, do our brains respond to our queries based only upon what we knew when we began asking a question, or are we capable of assimilating new information that arose mid-question? ? How well will we be able to process rapid reference to old information mixed with interrupting new information? What if it fundamentally changes our assessment of the situation in general? What is the relationship between concepts like AJAX and others like "ego-casting," or consuming only media that we agree with? There are lots of interesting questions to ask. In the meantime, we need to make sure that these tools are used by more than just the international elite.

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