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AJAX on the Enterprise

In Star Trek, Scotty ­ James Montgomery Scott ­was my favorite character, perhaps inevitably

In Star Trek, Scotty ­ James Montgomery Scott ­ was my favorite character, perhaps inevitably. Spock was always the cool and collected uber-genius, inscrutable and forced into an emotional straightjacket, and while the parallels to the real politik of the time are obvious, to me Spock has always been the epitome of the pure ivory tower researcher. Scotty, on the other hand, was the enginee , in many ways the ultimate hacker. Spock may have been able to tell you what properties of dilithium would induce warp speed, but Scotty knew exactly how to crack the damn crystals in such a way as to eke out that last 0.5 warp factor necessary to escape the baddies chasing the Enterprise.

Scotty knew about estimates ­ and how much you could pad an estimate to insure that you got the correct time necessary to complete your work down to the minute. He was not above a brawl or two, but when it came right down to it, a vacation was the time it woul take to get to that stack of Linux magazines from 2215 that you've been putting aside for the last five years and just read.

The Enterprise needed Scotty far more than it needed Kirk or Spock or even McCoy, yet he was always little more than an odd bit player, the one who was never on the bridge...unless he was repairing one of the computer panels that everyone else kept falling into every time the gravitational system failed, which usually didn't happen because of anything that Scotty did, but because Kirk seemed to have absolutely no sense of restraint or the cost involved in replacing one of those warp nacelles. And AJAX...let me tell you about AJAX on the Enterprise...

I...oh, I'm sorry...this piece should have been about AJAX in the enterprise. Oops...Um, okay, the slides are already prepared, and I'm going to be in serious trouble if I have to take this thing from scratch in front of such an august group of people as yourselves...so how about letting me tell you a little bit about AJAX on the Enterprise, and we'll see if maybe, just maybe, there are a few nuggets of wisdom (or at least crystals of dilithium) that we can extract from all this when dealing with the issues of AJAX in the enterprise.

AJAX: The Five-Year Mission
In the introduction to the early Star Trek episodes, the hope of NBC (or at least Gene Roddenberry) was fairly clear ­ the Enterprise was on a five-year mission. Unfortunately for them, they managed to get through only three before the axe fell (and not surprisingly, when Patrick Stewart's stentorian tones introduced The Next Generation two decades later, it had become the "Ongoing Mission").

However, I believe that that there was something about that five-year bit that's actually pretty important in the here and now. In the 1960s, Central Planning was as much a part of the American economy as it was the old pre-peristroika Soviet economy, and the five-year plan described what was often taken as a convenient metric for how far one could plan before things became too unpredictable.

Five years also seems to be about the lifespan that it takes for "major" technologies to go from being a good idea to becoming foundational. (Note that this differs fairly significantly from product marketing lifecycles, which seem to have about a three-year cycle from inception to obsolescence). I believe that we're at one of those interesting transitional points where things are really changing in radical ways, the end of one "five-year mission" and the beginning of another, waiting only for Picard to make it so.

Five years ago, several very interesting things were happening, both in software and in business in general. The tech sector was collapsing, warp shields blowing left, right, and center. Now, to someone who's weathered a few of these five-year plans, the tech sector collapsing was really nothing new ­ it's an industry that's built on promises of miracles and every so often the bill comes due. People invest in tech hoping for outsized gains are generally deluding themselves ­ tech always underperforms in the short-term, and overperforms in the long, but in ways that few people can really imagine.

However, in spite of, or more likely because of, this effort, people who had been hoarding their cool ideas to capitalize from the next Bay Area VC suddenly found themselves unemployed and sitting in their parents' spare bedroom with time on their hands while they waited for some response ‹ ANY response ‹ from an employer. So they did what computer people always do when the next boom becomes the next bust ­ they began to network.

Standards groups that companies had been rushing to get something out the door began to slow down and actually start to take some time thinking about those standards. Several good ones came out between 2000 and 2002 ­ XSLT, XPath, XML Schema (well, maybe not schema), XForms, XHTML, DocBook (just for a break from the 25th letter of the alphabet), SVG, ebXML, RDF, and a whole host of specialized industry-specific languages from XBRL to MathML to HumanML (yup, it's up there in OASIS ­ I was a member of that working group for a while).

Meanwhile, Linus Torvald's pet project went from an interesting hobbyist effort to looking like a standard itself, accreting stillborn commercial products that were given new life in the long tail, reinforcing the notion believed by most programmers (and espoused quietly by Scotty himself more than once) that if you get two developers communicating with one another, you get something more than twice as good as what each can develop separately, that three tend to add value proportionately, and so forth.


More Stories By Kurt Cagle

Kurt Cagle is a developer and author, with nearly 20 books to his name and several dozen articles. He writes about Web technologies, open source, Java, and .NET programming issues. He has also worked with Microsoft and others to develop white papers on these technologies. He is the owner of Cagle Communications and a co-author of Real-World AJAX: Secrets of the Masters (SYS-CON books, 2006).

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