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Microsoft to preview Ajax technologies at PDC

"Atlas" will provide an extensible object-oriented framework to facilitate Ajax-style Web development.

The drive to develop rich user experiences for Internet applications by utilizing Ajax technologies -- asynchronous JavaScript and XML -- is opening a market for Ajax development tools and frameworks that Microsoft and others are looking to fill.

Microsoft will preview the fruits of an Ajax project, code-named Atlas, at the September Professional Developers Conference. At the conference, the company plans to offer a developer prototype of the Atlas framework bits to run on top of ASP.NET 2.0.

"The goal behind ASP.NET Atlas technologies is to simplify Ajax-style development and make it accessible to a broader range of developers," said Brian Goldfarb, Microsoft product manager for Web platform and tools.

Ajax-style applications change "the paradigm of browsing from page to page into more of a one-page application system, and as a result you lose features like forward/back, caching, refresh, etc.," Goldfarb said. "With ASP.NET Atlas we hope to address some of those issues as part of the core technology stack."

While the term "Ajax" has only recently been coined, and the hype factor is high, Microsoft has been a pioneer in Ajax technologies for a number of years, developing dynamic HTML (DHTML) and XMLHTTP, a set of APIs that can be used by JavaScript and other Web browser scripting languages to transfer XML or other data to and from a Web server using HTTP.

"The Exchange team developed XMLHTTP in 1998, and it shipped as a feature of IE 5. The Exchange team rewrote Outlook Web Access on top of this new platform in Exchange 2000, and enhanced it further in Exchange 2003," Goldfarb said. "Going forward, MSN is extending the Ajax approach into even richer client-side experiences, with the public beta serving as a very visible example."

Over time, the Atlas project will deliver the following pieces:

  • Atlas Client Script Framework, a JavaScript client framework for building Ajax-style browser applications.
  • Ajax-style ASP.NET server controls.
  • ASP.NET Web Services integration, which will enable Atlas applications to access any ASP.NET-hosted ASMX or Windows Communication Foundation (formerly "Indigo") service directly through the Atlas Client Script Framework, on any browser that supports XMLHTTP.
  • ASP.NET building block services for Atlas and client building block services, which will make the ASP.NET Application Services "accessible as Web services that developers can access from the client framework in the browser or from any client application," Goldfarb said.

"Today, doing asynchronous data transfer, manipulating the DOM [document object model] and understanding DHTML in a deep way are complex development tasks," Goldfarb said. "With Atlas, developers will have prebuilt constructs like client-side controls that encapsulate common functionality and have a rich client-side framework to manage complex tasks like data retrieval via Web services, DOM manipulation and standard behaviors. Instead of having to invent thousands of lines of complex Ajax code, with Atlas developers can do these complex tasks with much less code and fewer difficult concepts."

Although Ajax is not "rocket science," Ajax frameworks will lessen the developing and debugging difficulties of JavaScript, said Dion Almaer, co-founder of the Ajaxian community,, and soon to launch the consulting company Ajaxian Inc. in September. "It gets more complicated as you build more rich things into the client; you have to learn more about JavaScript, you have to become part of the software engineering world."

Almaer cites the open source Web framework Ruby on Rails as "the first Web framework to have good support for Ajax. It gets you away from having to write ugly JavaScript. They were pioneers in that space."

And Backbase B.V, a Netherlands-based company, offers a client-side presentation framework, Almaer said. The Backbase Presentation Client engine provides a declarative client-side runtime for developing Ajax applications.

"Although Ajax is popular, when [developers] try to build [Ajax applications], the hardcore nerds will survive, but it will be tough for mainstream programmers, mainly because of JavaScript," said Jouk Pleiter, Backbase CEO.

But even with better tools, Goldfarb said life won't be all Ajax, all the time. "There are definitely applications that are serviced by existing technologies quite well. I think as more people get exposed to Ajax-style development and the thinking and practices progress, you will see more of an emphasis on the right technology for the job and not just the next hip thing."

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