Ajax -- Bring your Website to Life

By: David Malan

Chances are that whether or not you are not a technology guru, you keep hearing talk of internet technologies in terms of a never ending stream of acronyms. XHTML, CSS, J2EE, PHP, ASP.NET, JSP, SQL, HTTP, SSL, VOIP, P2P, XML, RSS... Sound familiar -- or a bit like Klingon?

Well, this article is about another really cool acronym, only this time for the average Joe. I'll be focusing on only one acronym in this article, and only because it's one you'll be hearing a lot more about, and because it can really breathe life into your business' website.

AJAX. Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, if you must know what it stands for. Don't let that put you off. Even if it is comprised of technical words and yet another acronym, more importantly, what is it, and why do you need it?

Remember the internet up until recently? Virtually all web pages were lifeless objects, similar to pages in a magazine, with no intelligence. In order to get a response from a website, you would click a link or press a submit button, and your computer would send a message to the computer hosting the site that it needs to send you back the next page. A little bit like turning to a new colourful but lifeless page in your magazine.

Sure, there were some really great new technologies that came along to make the internet more interesting. Animated images, Flash animations, small embedded applications, and scripts downloaded with the page certainly made the pages a lot more interesting. Yet, when compared to the highly responsive environment of your desktop computer, a web page really could not compete. Click anywhere in your local pc environment and you get an immediate and logical, virtually instantaneous response from the object you clicked, without your entire screen flashing blank and reappearing again from scratch. Do the same on a web page until recently, and usually at best you would have to wait a few seconds for a completely new page to reappear, a newly turned page in your virtual magazine.

Until Ajax. Technically Ajax is actually not a new technology, but a clever grouping of a few existing technologies. What has made Ajax a workable solution is that most people have started using browsers capable of supporting these technologies, often without even realising that their browser wields these dormant superpowers.

Ajax allows your internet page to respond to a user very similarly to the way your local computer desktop environment would. In a well-developed Ajax-based site, when you click on a page object, it responds almost immediately. Any changes to the page happen there and then, without the page disappearing and a new one replacing it. The result? A much more pleasant user experience. Once more, computers are becoming more interactive and responsive.

The concept can be a bit difficult to grasp initially, so here's a simple example from the RealmSurfer website to demonstrate the concept: Ajax example: search page. At first glance this looks like any other search page. Notice that advanced search link underneath the search box? When you click it, notice that you instantly get a whole lot more functionality inserted into the page -- no page refresh. Click the link again and the process reverses itself.

This is just a very simple example of the benefits of building Ajax functionality into your site. To get a look at some really powerful applications, have a look at a few popular Ajax-enabled websites:

Google Calendars -- a really great online calendar and event scheduler. Without Ajax, this would be one of the most irritating developments since email spam, however with its Ajax capabilities it's well on it's way to becoming an online Outlook killer. Kiko is another excellent site utilising virtually the same concept.

Flickr -- one of the first sites to popularise the Ajax phenomenon, it's still one of the best ways to share pictures with your friends and family online. Yahoo was quick to realise the potential, and purchased the company a while back.

Protopage -- create your own customised, interactive home page. From the moment you land on the site, you can move objects around the page as if they are windows on your desktop, and interact with them just as easily.

There are plenty more Ajax-powered sites, and every day a whole lot more become available. What makes this technology so special? Here are a few good contributers:

* It uses relatively well established browser technology -- no plugins are needed, and most browsers these days are fully capable of supporting Ajax-enhanced pages.
* For the most part pages are still recognisable by search engines, meaning that unlike technologies like Flash, search engines will still understand what your page is about.
* It's economical. Instead of downloading a whole page when all you want to know is the weather, a well designed Ajax-based site will only download the information you need, leaving everything else perfectly intact.
* It's fast and responsive. Because much of the programming code that makes an Ajax-based page so useful is downloaded onto your local computer, much of your functionality is very fast and responsive, the same as any locally installed program.
* It's non-proprietary technology. Ajax is a combination of established web standards. You will never have to pay to use it, and neither will the people who program it for you.

A new era in internet-based computing has begun. Many have dubbed this new wave of powerful and responsive technologies Web 2.0 (fortunately not another acronym this time!). What does this mean for you as a business owner? The tools for turning your business website into a highly interactive, responsive and powerful application are now here. And your customers will love the fact that it's more responsive than their local telco representive...

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