The report, released Jan. 4, indicates that other rich Internet application (RIA) technologies, such as Adobe Flash, Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere (WPFe) and others, "tend to offer a richer tool set and stronger development platforms." Ajax, conversely, lags behind those products in terms of IDE tooling.
"But what we're seeing is that the situation is changing really fast," noted Richard Monson-Haefel, senior analyst, Burton Group, and the report's author. The Eclipse Foundation, led by IBM, recently threw its support behind the Open Ajax initiative, and industry leaders Microsoft and Sun plan to integrate Ajax into their tools. By the end of the year, Monson-Haefel said, Ajax should catch up to those other IDE tools.
A three-tier framework
Unlike HTTP page requests, which rely on a back-end server to update a Web page, Ajax renders page updates on a client's CPU. This allows for asynchronous updates -- changes to one part of a page but not another -- and can result in faster, more responsive applications.
Making Ajax work requires three levels of tools, Monson-Haefel indicates. The first, remoting toolkits, communicate between the Ajax application in the Web browser and the app sitting on the back-end server. The second, UI toolkits, provide pre-defined GUI widgets. The third toolkit, Web framework extensions, integrates Ajax into existing Web frameworks.
Most Web framework extensions also include remoting and UI toolkits.
A list of ASP.NET-compatible extensions appears in the box on the right.
Monson-Haefel's report lists four dozen different Ajax frameworks and toolkits. Given the technology's open-source origins, this is not surprising.
Monson-Haefel expects the number of Ajax programming products to grow before it starts to shrink, contracting to the point that only a few tools dominate the space -- much like the SOAP toolkit market did. "At first there were dozens of products for SOAP messaging, but now they're using facilities built into vendors' tools and IDEs, and that will probably happen here," he said.
The current proliferation of tools carries both advantages and pitfalls.
On the other hand, Pascarello noted, a lot of libraries lack sufficient documentation, and "you can see the frustration in some developers on the forums trying to figure out how things work." In addition, the turnaround time for fixing bugs in some libraries is an unknown, as they were created during a developer's free time.
When, and when not, to use Ajax
The advantage of Ajax programming over tools like Flash and Java applets, Monson-Haefel said, is its seamless integration with HTML content. This allows for incremental implementation of Ajax, as opposed to an all-out redesign. "There's no need to pick up a new presentation element," Monson-Haefel said of Ajax. "It's a seasoning element."
With Atlas, Microsoft's Ajax programming tool, .NET developers can extend the rich functionality available in the Windows Presentation Foundation over the Web browser -- but end users do not need the .NET framework installed. "[Ajax] just broadens the accessibility to the Windows Presentation Foundation experience," Monson-Haefel said.
Controls such as combination selection lists, stock and news tickers, polls, shopping carts, autocomplete fields and rich ToolTipsText are good candidates for being "Ajaxified," Pascarello said. "Start with a double combo or an autocomplete component and work your way up from the top," he added.
Given the immaturity of Ajax technology, the Burton Groups recommends "very small and incremental implementations of Ajax," Monson-Haefel concludes in his report. Ajax works well for lightweight RIA that will complement existing HTML, he suggests, while Flash is better for building a rich GUI.