Ajax, More Than A Buzz Word

Ajax the development technique, not to be confused with Ajax the cleaning solution, is taking the web by storm. What is it?

Ajax stands for Asynchronous Javascript And XML. Its an architectural methodology on the interactions between a number of different technologies in a way that provides a more seamless user experience between user-to-server communication.

There are tons of blogs and articles out there that rant and rave of its use as savvy site designers implement Ajax into their web applications, and rightly so. However, through my blog skipping and digg watching I have seen numerous complaints of “OMG, Ajax is stupid….its just a fad/buzzword/etc” or “Ajax is just overhyped, don’t know why people use it!!” I have a couple words that describe those people: cynical, ignorant and, well…squirrel handed. Wake up people. Ajax isn’t a fad, its an architectural change in the way that web applications function. A focus on application speed and uninterrupted user interaction.

What’s so great about it? Why do I pee my pants with glee every time I use a web app that makes use of the technology?

I’m a developer. I’ve been developing database driven web applications for a number of years now and have seen the clear line between a desktop application and a web application. Desktop applications are highly interactive and responsive to the user, where web apps (in the past), were fairly static locations (however dynamic the content) to provide information/entertainment to the user, where user interaction required page loads in order to store information to a database/write to a file.

Next came Flash, an excellent tool but tends to require a much more artistic flare and is much more time consuming with general maintenance than its worth.

The reason Ajax is so sexy is that it bridges the gap.

The average-Joe browser may not be aware when they stumble upon a site that makes good use of Ajax, but that average Joe can feel something right about it. To the avid browser, however, an Ajax site is more readily obvious; you can interact with elements on a page and save settings without reloading; pages are highly resposive to user input with minimal wait times.

Gmail and Google Maps were the applications that really brought Ajax into the limelight. (They weren’t the first, just the first major apps). The world saw what Google could do and followed suit. The world saw that it was good. The Ajax revolution was born. It has birthed a whole new breed and boom on the internet, bringing forward a multitude Ajax enabled sites and applications:

And thats just the tip of the iceberg. I look forward to what will become of our expectations of web applications. You won’t see me sitting idle during this evolution. I will be innovating and participating all along the way.

Google Services

After posting about Google Maps’ implementation of satellite imagery from Hurricane Katrina, it was suggested that I do a follow-up on Google Earth. I think I’ll go one step further and elaborate on some of Google’s hottest services and slightly speculate on what could be coming down the road.

Google Maps
Google Maps vs. MapQuest…Google wins hands down. Not only is this product able to generate efficient directions, but you can view maps using the standard road maps, using satellite imagery, or a hybrid of the two! This is a very sweet product that has been blogged about by many so won’t elaborate too much more on this product…but I would suggest heading over to MaisonBisson.com and NoSheep!.

Google Earth
If you think Google Maps is something sweet, Google Earth will really turn you on! Ok, fine. It isn’t a web app…its a desktop app. Google Earth is a product formerly known as Keyhole until Google bought them up (along with Keyhole’s satellite) then reworked and rebranded it as their own. This is Google Maps on steroids. When you open the app, you start in space looking at Earth. When you enter a city, state, etc in the search box and hit enter, you see the earth rotate and you zoom in on the location you entered. If the location happens to be a place that is densely populated, there is a chance that there are 3-dimensional buildings available for you to view…simply check the ‘Buildings’ box and tilt your view and viola! If you haven’t checked it out yet, I would highly recommend you get off your butt and go download it. Its bound to be a great procrastination tool!

Gmail
Google Mail has breathed life back into the e-mail web client industry. They are setting the standard and are crushing competitors with their innovative design and search-based/tagging e-mail archiving. Gmail is a whole new way of handling the taxonomy of e-mail!

In Gmail:

  • There are no folders, there is labeling. WTF is that? Well, its a way of marking an e-mail as part of a specific topic…say I receive an e-mail from MasterWish about my new account and I want to save it. Rather than dropping that e-mail in a folder marked ‘MasterWish’, I apply a label to that e-mail called ‘MasterWish.’ Ok, so whats the difference between that and folders? Here’s the kicker, I can apply a second label to that e-mail called ‘Account Information’…Then I can apply a third called ‘Sweet Websites’. Basically it allows you to put an e-mail into as many categories that you want which makes searching for the e-mail a whole lot easier. Now I no longer have to sit and think “Alright…this e-mail is about MasterWish so I want to put it in the MasterWish folder…but wait. It is also an Account Information e-mail….hrm.” Now I simply label it as many times as I want and I’m done!
  • Goolge Search Power! Yeah, rather than folders and moving e-mail all over gods creation, Google has a handy dandy ‘Archive’ button. If you don’t want a crap ton of e-mail that you have already read sitting in your inbox and you don’t want to delete it, Archive it! No worries, if you want to find it again simply use the google-style search box to find it again. Hugely efficient, hugely accurate, extremely easy, and faster than Outlook search :D
  • View entire e-mail threads. When you get a conversation going back and forth with a friend or business…i.e. you send an e-mail, they reply, you reply, they reply, you reply, etc. Rather than cluttering up your inbox with umpteen-million e-mails, Gmail places them in one! You can see every e-mail in a given discussion and expand/hide parts that you care/don’t care to see.
  • AJAX. (Asynchronous Javascript And XML). With Gmail there are few page loads. As you navigate around your Gmail account you may notice that the page usually doesn’t reload… Thats AJAX. Gmail and Google Maps have made it hugely popular. I’ll post a followup describing it later because it is its own topic in and of itself.

Google Talk
I just downloaded Google Talk today :) Google now has an IM application! If you have a Gmail account, you can get it and login without creating yet another account to remember. As my friends move towards Gmail accounts, this will become a slicker tool to use. If you have a Gmail account, I urge you to download Google Talk and give it a whirl. If there is enough end-user response to the application, I’m sure Google will be able to do great things in the IM market. Its simple. No ads. It offers one-click access to your Gmail account.

Google Desktop
Microsoft did it wrong (as usual)…Google has done it right (as usual) with Google Desktop. This tool will index all of your e-mail (Outlook, Outlook Express, Gmail, etc), your IM programs, visited webpages, text documents, and a crap ton of other stuff allowing you to search (using a browser) all of the above returning search results as quick as Google Search! If you have used the Microsoft search tool in Windows, you know from experience that its like watching grass grow.

Oh, and with the newest version of Google Desktop, there is a sidebar that allows you to monitor all sorts of things in addition to executing desktop searches. There is a photo rotater, a blog monitor (places newest posts on your most frequented site visits), an iTunes controller, etc.

The above is what I use and find extremely cool. Obviously there are a whole lot of additional web apps that Google is developing. I’ll be posting more as I use them ;) In the mean time, check out what Google has to offer at the Google Labs. Where are they headed? Are they slowly cornering/buying out various web markets for a ‘secret scheme’ or just trying to make right what has been horribly wrong for so long? Time will tell…we do know, however, that Google is making other companies *cough cough*Microsoft*cough cough* extremely angry as the Google competition is hard to top! If Microsoft is threatening to “Kill Google”, the company must be doing something right!