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A Compelling Ajax Discussion in New York City

It was a tiring but thrilling day yesterday in Times Square at the Real-World Ajax Seminar

It was a tiring but thrilling day yesterday in Times Square at the Real-World Ajax Seminar.  There was a stellar line-up of speakers including the "Father of Ajax" himself, Jesse James Garrett, Bill Scott, Ajax Evangelist for Yahoo!, Scott Dietzen, CEO of Zimbra, David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of Ruby on Rails, Dave Crane, author of the #1 bestselling Ajax book to name just a few of the Ajax experts there.  SYS-CON Media, the folks holding the conference, even arranged for me to tape a good number of conversations with the speakers and I think they came out extremely well with lots of good personalities and interesting information.  I'll publish links to them as they get through post-production and get released on SYS-CON TV.

Themes: Optimism and excitement, tempered with pragmatismReal-World Ajax Seminar on March 13th, 2006 in New York City

The event clearly painted a picture of an industry in the midst of significant changes, in this case widespread new forms of Web-based software and services.  Three overarching themes became evident as speaker after speaker got up and painted their vision for Web-based software powered by little more than Javascript, Web services, and just things that you find inside your local browser: 1) That Ajax, and related RIA technologies like Flex, are a big part of the future of the Web; 2) there are definitely major pitfalls ahead of us, and; 3) that Ajax doesn't make it any easier to create good software that's easy to use, it just makes it possible to do purely on the Web.

Also, though some are getting very good now, there was a general consenuses that enabling Ajax development tools are much needed to put it within reach of the average developer.  The techniques and design patterns for Ajax are also very much in flux and still being discovered though we got a good tour of several views of this, particularly from Yahoo's Bill Scott.  There was quite a sense of excitement at the conference, tempered with a little caution in both the audience and the speakers, the concern being that the Ajax popularity wave will get carried away and force the technology to be used in places it doesn't belong.

In any case, I promised to post pictures and news on the event here and I ended up writing over four pages of detailed notes and they tell the real story of what happened at this event, one of the more significant Ajax development conferences yet held.   Here's a how some of the sessions broke down:

Jesse James Garrett at Real-World AjaxJesse James Garrett of Adaptive Path, who originally coined the term, gave an excellent overview of Ajax in his keynote, The Elements of User Experience.  Noting that it was "time to lay the groundwork for the next stage of the development of the Web", he discussed how the term Ajax came about and then went over a lot of the thinking that went into makes Ajax what it is.  He also described how Bruce Sterling recently described Ajax as "roller skates for the Web" since Ajax software is generally seamless and continuous instead of stop-start, discrete steps (page loads).  He went on to note that roller skates, just like in real life, aren't appropriate in all situations.  There was plenty of other good observations from Jesse including that one of the biggest strengths of Ajax is that it doesn't belong to any corporation or browser vendor, it belongs to all of us and "there is a sense of manifest destiny" with it.  All in all, a quite a visionary piece from a visionary Web evangelist.

Christoph Conraents, a Senior Technical Evangelist for Adobe, gave a presentation about augmenting Ajax with Adobe Flex, a product based on Flash which is designed to turn it into an enterprise quality RIA application stack.  Interestingly, though you might not think that Flash and Flex would be very relevant to Ajax, Christoph gave some compelling demonstrations that they go together better than you might think.  Flash can do things in the browser that Ajax simply can't do, particularly around the richer media formats like video.  In fact, Chrisoph showed a neat videoblogging application using Ajax and Flex working together, with Flex augmenting Ajax on the video side.  Christoph noted that Flex "adds value when doing things that are not possible with the browser alone" and noted that Flash is on some 99% of all computers today, which is definitely less than the number of computers than can run Ajax, currently estimated at just over 90%.   I do think Flex is a niche player in this space, but an indispensable niche player.

Scott Dietzen at the Real-World Ajax Seminar in New York CityScott Dietzen, CEO of Zimbra, came up and gave a stellar talk about their Ajax-powered Zimbra e-mail product and the open source framework built with it.  Scott said that with Ajax technology he didn't initially  "anticipate mashups but thinks it will be the killer app for this technology".  He talked about their Zimlet concept for creating e-mail mashups and gave some pretty amazing demonstrations of Zimlet mashups that variously integrated Skype, a purchase order system, Bugzilla, and many others.  Scott was also rich source of Ajax design knowledge and emphasized his preference for the Javascript data format JSON instead of XML and talked quite a bit about lessons learned.  His biggest trend observation was that the market is going to bifurcate into open source and non-open source Ajax development products with Microsoft leading the non-open source world and almost everyone else on the other side.  He also noted that complex Ajax applications are surprisingly hard to create and that it's definitely not a "get DreamWeaver and go" type of effort.  This echoed a lot of the folks at the conference that had built sophisticated Ajax software, in that although these Web technologies are very lightweight, they required just as much, if not more, thinking and design to go into them because of the constraints of the b rowser.

Bill Scott, Ajax Evangelist for Yahoo!, discuseed all of the work the rapidly growing Yahoo Developer Network has been putting into Ajax lately including their new Yahoo! UI Library of world-class Ajax browser widgets, their interaction design patterns library for Ajax, and even their new mashup gallery that lets regular Yahoo! users readily discover what other people are building with Ajax and the Yahoo! APIs.  In my opinion, this is a brilliant Web 2.0-style move to build community around Yahoo! and their Flickr and del.icio.us platforms with associated APIs are looking like smarter acquisitions all the time.  Bill Scott also outlined some excellent general guidelines for Ajax that I think are vitally important, like offering clear invitational cues so that people are encouraged to try new things and explore new Ajax application features.  One of the problems with the onslaught of all this new browser software is that folks often don't have any idea how to recognize and start using the features they see, particularly since there are no user interface standards for Ajax software.  But with many of the patterns and design guidelines Scott offered, I do think complex Ajax software can become much more accessible and conventions will be developed.

David David Heinemeier Hansson at Real-World Ajax Seminar in New York CityDavid Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the runaway success of Ruby on Rails, the lightweight application framework, gave probably one of the most engaging and entertaining talks I've seen at a conference.  Titled Beyond the Rocket Surgeons with Ajax on Rails, David turned in an edgy and smart performance that ranged across the Web application design landcsape.  Saying Ajax is the most important wave for the Web in years, he lambasted the sorry state of browsers, the underworld of older browsers, that though dying, still trips up Ajax application developers.  He also went over some of the really good things about the browser programming model including innerHtml, eval(), and other goodness.  He then gave one of his now-famous fascinating demonstrations of the simplicity and power of Ruby on Rails that makes the common uses easy and pushes out the complexity into the edge cases that are less common.  By some estimates, Ruby on Rails has captured almost 20% marketshare in the Web application space and, despite some inevitable skepticism, it's definitely one of the important frameworks to watch since it makes the bigger problems of Ajax Web application development nearly go away.  David also went over the some of the amazing new capabilities of Ruby on Rails 1.1 including the new Ruby to JavaScript compiler.  I also had a lengthy taped conversation with David after his presentation and he produced some other interesting facts like Ruby on Rails is hosting all of 37signals 400,000 Web application users on just 13 servers, showing that dynamic languages can indeed scale.

Much more, to come soon...

There were so many more sessions that I'll have to cover them in another post in a day or two.  There were terrific product demonstrations of things like the Ajax tool Backbase by CEO Jouk Pleister, TIBCO's General Interface by Kevin Hackman, Sahil Malik of Telerik and their Ajax framework, Rob Gonda, Editor-in-Chief of the Ajax Developer's Journal and much more.  I'm saving the big development products in particular for the next post to talk about the intriguing trend of traditional businesses seemingly getting quite interested in Ajax, particularly around the new SOA/Client concept

Finally, there was an Ajax Power Panel discussion with the audience at the end of the day (which I was on) that quite interesting, though we were all quite tired of course by that time, the seminar having gone on almost 12 hours straight at that point.  In any case, this Ajax conference has apparently become so popular that there are now three more dates this year on both the east and west coast and it looks like I'll be at all or most of them.  Hope to see you there!

Disclaimer: Note that I am an invited delegate to the conference but I can vouch for it as a really good way to hear from and meet the folks shaping the next generation of the Web today.

posted Tuesday, 14 March 2006

More Stories By RIA News Desk

Ever since Google popularized a smarter, more responsive and interactive Web experience by using AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript + XML) for its Google Maps & Gmail applications, SYS-CON's RIA News Desk has been covering every aspect of Rich Internet Applications and those creating and deploying them. If you have breaking RIA news, please send it to [email protected] to share your product and company news coverage with AJAXWorld readers.

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