GCN Tech Blog

By GCN Staff

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The story behind Ajax

Recently, we had the chance to speak with Jesse James Garrett, who, in a seminal essay, coined the term (and way of thinking behind) Ajax. Ajax is not one technology per se, but rather a shorthand notation for describing a whole series of Web technologies that work well together, notably HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, JavaScript, the Extensible Markup Language and XMLHttpRequest. Many agency Web design offices are looking at Ajax as way to enhance user experience.

Garrett is the director of user experience strategy of Adaptive Path, a San Francisco product strategy consultancy firm that he founded.

GCN: How did you first come up with using the term Ajax?

Garrett: Adaptive Path is a product strategy consulting firm and we were working with a client on a Web based product. We had done some research and found that the delivering a product that had improved responsiveness for the user would have a significant competitive advantage. It would allow the company to potentially increase its marketshare. So we were looking for ways to do that and that's how we hit upon this combination of technologies.

Now, all the technical people in the organization understood these technologies. They got the significance of what we were proposing, but I needed a convenient shorthand way to express this set of ideas to the business people I was dealing with. It was out of that that the term 'Ajax" came about.

After that, I wrote the essay on the Web site, and it turned out that a lot of people had a need for a shorthand way to refer to these technologies.

GCN: Were you surprised by the popularity?

Garrett: Oh absolutely. We published the essay on the Web site and then I left the country. I went to Japan for two weeks, and didn't have Internet access. So I didn't have any idea that I was going to get the feedback that I got. When I [returned] to the U.S., I had this avalanche of e-mail waiting and requests for interviews from reporters. It very rapidly blew up into this huge phenomenon.

GCN: So do you think there is a desire in many organizations to move beyond static Web pages?

Garrett: I think that that is absolutely true. There was a lot of interest and speculation back in the 1990s about the possibility of having the Web serve as a new kind of application platform. At that time, the technology was not really up to it. What had happened in the intervening years is that the technology got better. Also, our sophistication as an industry has gotten better. We now better understand how to use these technologies and that has really been the dramatic change that has led to all this interest in Ajax

GCN: We have to ask. Does Ajax actually stand for anything? We've heard it was an acronym for 'Asynchronous JavaScript and XML' or some variation of that.

Garrett: I thought of Ajax as a convenient [term]. It was never intended as an acronym.

GCN: We remember seeing a Microsoft demonstration in the late 1990s of a browser-based version of the old console game Asteroids that was written purely in JavaScript (with support from Dynamic HTML and DOM). (Note to readers: game does not work in Firefox). It was surprising to see JavaScript handle such a complex task. Do you think JavaScript is powerful enough to build robust applications?

Garrett: Well I think people are discovering that JavaScript is much more sophisticated than perhaps they had initially given it credit for. Because it is designed and marketed as a hobbyist language, people had not taken it seriously as something to do industrial strength application development with. But what we are seeing now is that JavaScript to the extent that it does have shortcomings, are fairly minor. It is, in fact, a pretty powerful language to work with.

That's not to say we wouldn't like to see improvements to it to make it better and even easier to work with. But I think at this point developers are taking JavaScript seriously in a way that they haven't for most for most of its life.

GCN: One of the reasons we've heard that Ajax concept really took off when it did was because the World Wide Web Consortium has now started to vet XMLHttpRequest as a Web standard ( XMLHttpRequest is a protocol for passing information back and forth between a Web page and a server). Any truth here?

Garrett: A lot of people have been trying to solve this problem in proprietary ways for years and there have been a variety of technologies that have been proposed to do this, but it is interesting to note that [this kind of message passing] as an approach didn't get traction until it was broadly available in a vendor-neutral way.

GCN: Does Ajax require an application server to operate?

Garrett: Not necessarily, but it will be a whole lot easier to do it with an app server than without one.

GCN: Finally, what is Adaptive Path? What does a product strategy consultancy do?

Garrett: People call us to help us them answer the question of how to make their products work effectively in the marketplace and how to work effectively for users.

--Posted by Joab Jackson

Posted by Brad Grimes, Joab Jackson on Aug 03, 2006 at 9:39 AM


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