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In short, an Ajax application runs locally and refreshes continuously. Users make an HTTP request to a server, and the application processes other data while waiting for an answer. It's a lot quicker than waiting for an entire page to refresh, and since Ajax apps are Web based, users can access them anywhere.
The technology isn't new; it debuted in 1998 with Microsoft Outlook Web Access. The attention came first when Jesse James Garrett of the consultancy firm Adaptive Path coined the acronym and then when technology such as Google Maps went mainstream.
"It moved from technology to the end-user realm," said Mark Driver, research vice president, Gartner. "All those things came together in 2005."
Ajax received so much hype this year that it practically stole the show in the days following Microsoft's much-anticipated Visual Studio 2005 and SQL Server 2005 release this November. The company "leaked" to the press a memo from chief technical officer Ray Ozzie in which he questioned, among other things, Redmond's stalling in Ajax development.
Meanwhile, Microsoft's tool for Ajax development, Atlas, is due in the second half of 2006. Atlas offers a server development platform for ASP.NET and recognizes that Ajax is but one front end for ASP.NET.
The company's best bet for competing with Ajax, though, is the Windows Presentation Foundation, which promises better front-end and back-end smart clients and Office-oriented applications. "WPF is going to be a very big deal when it comes out" next year, Driver said. "It's going to push the state-of-the-art desktop forward."
Along with the possibilities of WPF, the immaturity of Ajax is cause for caution, for the technology is not without it problems.
In assessing the technological risks associated with Ajax, AjaxInfo.com founder Alexei White offered three strategies in this posting. White suggests using a third-party framework to "leave browser compatibility and optimization issues to the experts," moving as much processing onto the server as possible, and testing your applications at regular intervals.
Long story short: Ajax has potential, but a cautious approach is best for 2006. With a lack of accepted development standards, today's Ajax-powered apps are proprietary, Driver noted. Plus, the technology is just one step along what Driver called the "natural continuum" of rich Internet applications built under Web 2.0. Seems like it's a bit premature to dub 2005 the year of Ajax and the beginning of the end for client-side development as we know it.