AJAX and Use

No blog is complete without some stultifying post about AJAX or some other generally asynchronous thing. As a user of the damn stuff it’s beginning to get me riled, but at the risk of adding more guff to the pile, two points occurred to me with some clarity the other day. Firstly, that whenever somebody mentions AJAX out of any context not bound strictly to discussions of the DOM and that godforsaken XMLHttpRequest object etc. etc. they are really talking about rich Internet applications. Secondly, geeks like me that talk from either side of the end-user divide have their glasses steamed up too much to notice that what I think I’d like to call “non-paged interaction” has in fact been known and loved on the web for years.

Just about everything that can be said about AJAX at the point of end-use can also be applied to Flash, Lazlo, ActiveX, even just DHTML or client-side Java. Give or take a few nit-picky things, whether one technology is better than another is a moot point. Compare and contrast Google Maps (AJAX! Cool! Innovative!) with Yahoo Maps (Flash!? Er, even better!!). Admire Google’s zooming and panning and funky fresh feel? Admire the quality and functional excellence of a Flash solution for the same design problems. Where does all this get you? Nowhere – pun intended.

The other realisation I had was that end-users have in fact being perfectly used to this sort of thing. I was talking about AJAX with some colleagues the other day. The usual stuff: what it was, how to document it, etc. We then went back to our desks. While we’d been talking, one of those “this is a cool site” mails had come around from somebody in the creative team. My cynic circuits powered up. Nobody from creative ever sends any URL out that doesn’t start you off staring at a loading bar. I was of course right, but suddenly I realised: the resulting experience from the Flash-based interactions made our geeky conversation about AJAX look like the blather it was. Non-paged, fluid, rich application interfaces have been in use by ordinary people for years (at least as long as Explora 1); appreciated, understood and all the rest of it. Yes, they’ve been in Flash for the most part – but what of it?

So why are we getting so excited about it now?