Ajax: A New Approach to Web Applications
February 18, 2005
If anything about current interaction design can be called “glamorous,” it’s creating Web applications. After all, when was the last time you heard someone rave about the interaction design of a product that wasn’t on the Web? (Okay, besides the iPod.) All the cool, innovative new projects are online.
Despite this, Web interaction designers can’t help but feel a little envious of our colleagues who create desktop software. Desktop applications have a richness and responsiveness that has seemed out of reach on the Web. The same simplicity that enabled the Web’s rapid proliferation also creates a gap between the experiences we can provide and the experiences users can get from a desktop application.
That gap is closing. Take a look at Google Suggest. Watch the way the suggested terms update as you type, almost instantly. Now look at Google Maps. Zoom in. Use your cursor to grab the map and scroll around a bit. Again, everything happens almost instantly, with no waiting for pages to reload.
Ajax isn’t a technology. It’s really several technologies, each flourishing in its own right, coming together in powerful new ways. Ajax incorporates:
- standards-based presentation using XHTML and CSS;
- dynamic display and interaction using the Document Object Model;
- data interchange and manipulation using XML and XSLT;
- asynchronous data retrieval using XMLHttpRequest;
The classic web application model works like this: Most user actions in the interface trigger an HTTP request back to a web server. The server does some processing — retrieving data, crunching numbers, talking to various legacy systems — and then returns an HTML page to the client. It’s a model adapted from the Web’s original use as a hypertext medium, but as fans of The Elements of User Experience know, what makes the Web good for hypertext doesn’t necessarily make it good for software applications.
Figure 1: The traditional model for web applications (left) compared to the Ajax model (right).
This approach makes a lot of technical sense, but it doesn’t make for a great user experience. While the server is doing its thing, what’s the user doing? That’s right, waiting. And at every step in a task, the user waits some more.
Obviously, if we were designing the Web from scratch for applications, we wouldn’t make users wait around. Once an interface is loaded, why should the user interaction come to a halt every time the application needs something from the server? In fact, why should the user see the application go to the server at all?
How Ajax is Different
An Ajax application eliminates the start-stop-start-stop nature of interaction on the Web by introducing an intermediary — an Ajax engine — between the user and the server. It seems like adding a layer to the application would make it less responsive, but the opposite is true.
Figure 2: The synchronous interaction pattern of a traditional web application (top) compared with the asynchronous pattern of an Ajax application (bottom).
Who’s Using Ajax
Google is making a huge investment in developing the Ajax approach. All of the major products Google has introduced over the last year — Orkut, Gmail, the latest beta version of Google Groups, Google Suggest, and Google Maps — are Ajax applications. (For more on the technical nuts and bolts of these Ajax implementations, check out these excellent analyses of Gmail, Google Suggest, and Google Maps.) Others are following suit: many of the features that people love in Flickr depend on Ajax, and Amazon’s A9.com search engine applies similar techniques.
These projects demonstrate that Ajax is not only technically sound, but also practical for real-world applications. This isn’t another technology that only works in a laboratory. And Ajax applications can be any size, from the very simple, single-function Google Suggest to the very complex and sophisticated Google Maps.
At Adaptive Path, we’ve been doing our own work with Ajax over the last several months, and we’re realizing we’ve only scratched the surface of the rich interaction and responsiveness that Ajax applications can provide. Ajax is an important development for Web applications, and its importance is only going to grow. And because there are so many developers out there who already know how to use these technologies, we expect to see many more organizations following Google’s lead in reaping the competitive advantage Ajax provides.
The biggest challenges in creating Ajax applications are not technical. The core Ajax technologies are mature, stable, and well understood. Instead, the challenges are for the designers of these applications: to forget what we think we know about the limitations of the Web, and begin to imagine a wider, richer range of possibilities.
It’s going to be fun.
March 13, 2005: Since we first published Jesse’s essay, we’ve received an enormous amount of correspondence from readers with questions about Ajax. In this Q&A, Jesse responds to some of the most common queries.
Q. Did Adaptive Path invent Ajax? Did Google? Did Adaptive Path help build Google’s Ajax applications?
A. Neither Adaptive Path nor Google invented Ajax. Google’s recent products are simply the highest-profile examples of Ajax applications. Adaptive Path was not involved in the development of Google’s Ajax applications, but we have been doing Ajax work for some of our other clients.
Q. Is Adaptive Path selling Ajax components or trademarking the name? Where can I download it?
A. Ajax isn’t something you can download. It’s an approach — a way of thinking about the architecture of web applications using certain technologies. Neither the Ajax name nor the approach are proprietary to Adaptive Path.
Q. Is Ajax just another name for XMLHttpRequest?
A. No. XMLHttpRequest is only part of the Ajax equation. XMLHttpRequest is the technical component that makes the asynchronous server communication possible; Ajax is our name for the overall approach described in the article, which relies not only on XMLHttpRequest, but on CSS, DOM, and other technologies.
Q. Why did you feel the need to give this a name?
Q. Techniques for asynchronous server communication have been around for years. What makes Ajax a “new” approach?
A. What’s new is the prominent use of these techniques in real-world applications to change the fundamental interaction model of the Web. Ajax is taking hold now because these technologies and the industry’s understanding of how to deploy them most effectively have taken time to develop.
Q. Is Ajax a technology platform or is it an architectural style?
A. It’s both. Ajax is a set of technologies being used together in a particular way.
Q. What kinds of applications is Ajax best suited for?
A. We don’t know yet. Because this is a relatively new approach, our understanding of where Ajax can best be applied is still in its infancy. Sometimes the traditional web application model is the most appropriate solution to a problem.
Q. Does this mean Adaptive Path is anti-Flash?
A. Not at all. Macromedia is an Adaptive Path client, and we’ve long been supporters of Flash technology. As Ajax matures, we expect that sometimes Ajax will be the better solution to a particular problem, and sometimes Flash will be the better solution. We’re also interested in exploring ways the technologies can be mixed (as in the case of Flickr, which uses both).
A. The answer to all of these questions is “maybe”. Many developers are already working on ways to address these concerns. We think there’s more work to be done to determine all the limitations of Ajax, and we expect the Ajax development community to uncover more issues like these along the way.
Q. Some of the Google examples you cite don’t use XML at all. Do I have to use XML and/or XSLT in an Ajax application?
Q. Are Ajax applications easier to develop than traditional web applications?
Q. Do Ajax applications always deliver a better experience than traditional web applications?
A. Not necessarily. Ajax gives interaction designers more flexibility. However, the more power we have, the more caution we must use in exercising it. We must be careful to use Ajax to enhance the user experience of our applications, not degrade it.