Rich Internet Apps That Just Work—Writing for the User

AJAX is power. It makes Internet applications look, feel and perform in the eyes of the user like desktop apps, all while run from the server and written in the platform-agnostic languages of HTML and JavaScript. But, it carries a heavy price: breaking the browser.

“The customer is always right.” This time-worn adage—attributed to either Harry Selfridge, founder of the famous British Selfridges department store, or Marshall Field, of the Chicago department store that bears his name—has been discussed and dissected to no end. Undoubtedly, every one of us can come up with plenty of cases when customers aren't right, and it does not make sense to treat them that way. What is true, however, is that if you want to sell (or develop) something that's useful to customers, you must build it for the way they actually work, not the way you want them to work.

In the Web's early days, we were all entranced by the ability to access any application anywhere, without installing anything more than a browser. Developers loved the idea of writing in a single universal language. Even better, HTML is declarative—no interesting components and callbacks, no per-platform or per-OS-version oddities (more or less). Users loved the simple book paradigm. You could go back and forward (which, unsurprisingly, were the names of the buttons), and even click reload. The semantics were simple; writing for the platform was easy, and deployment, compared to managing each desktop, felt like the new Enlightenment.

The downsides, of course, were obvious, but a fair price to pay. If each page was statically generated with just HTML, every change, however small—say a change in text or adding a warning—required a complete page reload. Besides the headache for the user, it was unnatural and slow. Some pundits in the 1990s suggested that the Web would never be a dominant platform for this very reason. Dynamic HTML based on JavaScript, which allowed DOM manipulation, gave us some leeway, but anything that came from the server—real data—required a reload.

Enter AJAX

In the early to mid-2000s, developers began to explore how to communicate with the server without requiring page reload. Microsoft introduced the XMLHTTP ActiveX control in 1999, later adopted by every other browser. In 2005, Jesse Garrett, cofounder of Adaptive Path, coined the term Asynchronous JavaScript with XML, or AJAX. Although Jesse didn't invent it, he certainly popularized it, which once again underscores the importance of marketing that we engineers tend to overlook. As an interesting aside, one of the earliest known usages of AJAX occurred in...1596, by Sir John Harington, to describe his new invention: the flush toilet.

AJAX was wonderful. We could get what we wanted from the server without reloading the entire Web page. We could process it in the background. We could get as little or as much as we wanted. It seemed Web apps, now called Rich Internet Apps, finally were fully competitive with desktop apps in terms of ease of deployment and performance. It enabled such ubiquitous apps as Google Maps, which would have been impossible without AJAX.

The User Is the Problem?

The big problem with AJAX apps is that they broke Web semantics. The Refresh, Back and Forward buttons work entirely on the address in the URL bar of the browser. In the days of static pages, that mostly indicated where you were: http://example.com/store?product=12345 was definitely different from http://example.com/store?product=99999.

In the modern RIA AJAX world, however, the URL was http://example.com/store. With the product rendered using AJAX, the URL unchanged, reloading was highly unlikely to bring you back to where you were.

First Attempts

The first responses were to add complex state to the server. JavaEE, PHP frameworks and others all added session variables in which you could store oodles of information about what the user's last request was, and so you could roughly attempt to reconstruct it for the next request. The entire JavaServer Faces (JSF) framework is built around such complex state semantics. These did the job, more or less, but they were very complex and required lots of effort with which to work.

The next attempts essentially said, “we don't support browser buttons!” Put in other terms, “we and the technology are right, and the user is wrong.” As anyone who ever has been in business knows, this strategy is doomed to failure. It may work, for a little while, if your customer has no alternative, but customers who are told they are wrong and “just don't get it” quickly will look for alternatives. Silicon Valley is littered with the corpses of startups that whined, “our customer just doesn't get it.” Of course, it was the startup (and the engineers) who just didn't get it.

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Helpful in current software development

MrKunst's picture

thanks for the article, we could just it in a current development project.

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