When put in perspective, AJAX is about reaching a better balance between client functionality and server functionality when executing the action requested by the user. Up until now, client-side functionality and server-side functionality were regarded as separate bits of functionality that work one at a time to respond to user’s actions. AJAX comes with the solution to balance the load between the client and the server by allowing them to communicate in the background while the user is working on the page
To explain with a simple example, consider web forms where the user is asked to write some data (such as name, email address, password, credit card, etc) that has to be validated before reaching the business tier of your application. Without AJAX, there were two form validation techniques. The first was to let the user type all the required data, let him or her submit the page, and perform the validation on the server. In this scenario the user experiences a dead time while waiting for the new page to load. The alternative was to do this verification at the client, but this wasn’t always possible (or feasible) because it implied loading too much data on the client (just think if you needed to validate that the entered city and the entered country match).
In the AJAX-enabled scenario, the web application can validate the entered data by making server calls in the background, while the user keeps typing. For example, after the user selects a country, the web browser calls the server to load on the fly the list of cities for that country, without interrupting the user from his or her current activity. You’ll find an example of AJAX form validation in Chapter 4.
The examples where AJAX can make a difference are endless. To get a better feeling and understanding of what AJAX can do for you, have a look at these live and popular examples:
Google Suggest helps you with your Google searches. The functionality is pretty spectacular; check it out at http://www.google.com/webhp?complete=1. Similar functionality is offered by Yahoo! Instant Search, accessible at http://instant.search.yahoo.com/. (You’ll learn how to build similar functionality in Chapter 6.)
GMail (http://www.gmail.com) GMail is very popular by now and doesn’t need any introduction. Other web-based email services such as Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail have followed the trend and offer AJAX-based functionality.
You’ll see even more examples over the course of this book.
Just as with any other technology, AJAX can be overused, or used the wrong way. Just having AJAX on your website doesn’t guarantee your website will be better. It depends on you to make good use of the technology.
So AJAX is about creating more versatile and interactive web applications by enabling web pages to make asynchronous calls to the server transparently while the user is working. AJAX is a tool that web developers can use to create smarter web applications that behave better than traditional web applications when interacting with humans.
The technologies AJAX is made of are already implemented in all modern web browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Opera, so the client doesn’t need to install any extra modules to run an AJAX website. AJAX is made of the following:
For the client-server communication the parts need a way to pass data and understand that data. Passing the data is the simple part. The client script accessing the server (using the
XMLHttpRequest object) can send name-value pairs using GET or POST. It’s very simple to read these values with any server script.
This book assumes you already know the taste of the AJAX ingredients, except maybe the
XMLHttpRequest object, which is less popular. However, to make sure we’re all on the same page, we’ll have a look together at how these pieces work, and how they work together, in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. Until then, for the remainder of this chapter we’ll focus on the big picture, and we will also write an AJAX program for the joy of the most impatient readers.
None of the AJAX components is new, or revolutionary (or at least evolutionary) as the current buzz around AJAX might suggest: all the components of AJAX have existed since sometime in 1998. The name AJAX was born in 2005, in Jesse James Garret’s article at http://www.adaptivepath.com/publications/essays/archives/000385.php, and gained much popularity when used by Google in many of its applications.
What’s new with AJAX is that for the first time there is enough energy in the market to encourage standardization and focus these energies on a clear direction of evolution. As a consequence, many AJAX libraries are being developed, and many AJAX-enabled websites have appeared. Microsoft through its Atlas project is pushing AJAX development as well
AJAX brings you the following potential benefits when building a new web application:
It makes it possible to create better and more responsive websites and web applications.
Because of its popularity, it encourages the development of patterns that help developers avoid reinventing the wheel when performing common tasks.
It makes use of existing technologies.
It makes use of existing developer skills.
Features of AJAX integrate perfectly with existing functionality provided by web browsers (say, re-dimensioning the page, page navigation, etc).
Common scenarios where AJAX can be successfully used are:
Enabling immediate server-side form validation, very useful in circumstances when it’s unfeasible to transfer to the client all the data required to do the validation when the page initially loads. Chapter 4 contains a form validation case study.
Creating simple online chat solutions that don’t require external libraries such as the Java Runtime Machine or Flash. You’ll build such a program in Chapter 5.
Building Google Suggest-like functionality, like an example you’ll build in Chapter 6.
More effectively using the power of other existing technologies. In Chapter 7, you’ll implement a real-time charting solution using Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), and in Chapter 10, you’ll use an external AJAX library to create a simple drag‑and‑drop list.
Coding responsive data grids that update the server-side database on the fly. You’ll create such an application in Chapter 8.
Building applications that need real-time updates from various external sources. In Chapter 9, you’ll create a simple RSS aggregator.
Potential problems with AJAX are:
Because the page address doesn’t change while working, you can’t easily bookmark AJAX-enabled pages. In the case of AJAX applications, bookmarking has different meanings depending on your specific application, usually meaning that you need to save state somehow (think about how this happens with desktop applications—there’s no bookmarking there).
Search engines may not be able to index all portions of your AJAX application site.
The Back button in browsers, doesn’t produce the same result as with classic web applications, because all actions happen inside the same page.
Finally, before moving on to write your first AJAX program, here are a number of links that may help you in your journey into the exciting world of AJAX:
http://ajaxblog.com is an AJAX dedicated blog.
http://www.fiftyfoureleven.com/resources/programming/xmlhttprequest is a comprehensive article collection about AJAX.
http://www.ajaxian.com is the AJAX website of Ben Galbraith and Dion Almaer, the authors of Pragmatic AJAX.
http://www.ajaxmatters.com is an informational site about AJAX, containing loads of very useful links.
http://ajaxpatterns.org is about reusable AJAX design patterns.
http://www.ajaxinfo.com is a resource of AJAX articles and links.
http://dev.fiaminga.com contains many links to various AJAX resources and tutorials.
http://ajaxguru.blogspot.com is a popular AJAX-related web blog.
http://www.sitepoint.com/article/remote-scripting-ajax is Cameron Adams’ excellent article AJAX: Usable Interactivity with Remote Scripting.
http://developer.mozilla.org/en/docs/AJAX is Mozilla’s page on AJAX.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AJAX is the Wikipedia page on AJAX.
The list is by no means complete. If you need more online resources, Google will surely be available to help. In the following chapters, you’ll be presented with even more links, but more specific to the particular technologies you’ll be learning about.