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3/24/2006
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Microsoft And Eclipse: A Showdown For Ajax Leadership

Dueling Ajax efforts could determine who controls the user interface for interactive Web applications.

Web users are getting spoiled. Once they experience the Ajax-powered speed and interactivity of apps on Google or Flickr, click-and-wait Web interfaces won't cut it. Spurred by growing business interest, Microsoft and backers of Eclipse, the open source programmer's workbench, last week stepped up efforts to create Ajax-friendly tools for building interactive Web applications.


Milinkovich: Skip Vista, go directly to Eclipse.

Milinkovich: Skip Vista, go directly to Eclipse.

Photo by Jeffery Newbury
Unlike the mature technical standards for server-side software, tools and technologies for Web development are changing rapidly. Ajax is the symbol of emerging Web development, combining JavaScript and XML so that, instead of requiring round trips to a server each time a user wants new data, a browser's cache pre-fetches the information that might appear next. This leads to much faster interaction, with Google Maps among the star examples.

Eclipse leaders--which include IBM, Intel, Red Hat, and SAP--last week laid out the expansion of the developer's workbench into a platform that can compete with Microsoft in the enterprise. "Over the next three years, Microsoft will be very busy encouraging shops to move off of Win32 APIs and move to [Windows] Vista," said Mike Milinkovich, Eclipse Foundation's executive director, at the EclipseCon conference last week. Instead, he urged companies to consider adopting Eclipse's Rich Client Platform, a set of components that developers can use to put a highly interactive interface on enterprise desktop applications that, written once, can run on Windows, Linux, or Macintosh computers.

Eclipse Action

The Eclipse project is taking steps to provide an alternative to Microsoft's user-interface dominance. It agreed this month to consider an open source project, the Rich Ajax Platform, as a way of letting developers use Eclipse to provide interface components--including Windows-style menus, sliders, and drag-and-drop window expanders--to make Web applications more interactive in the browser window.

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And last month, IBM teamed with Google, Laszlo Systems, Mozilla, Novell, Oracle, Red Hat, and Yahoo to establish the Ajax Toolkit Framework, an open source project to build an Eclipse-based software system that makes it easier to use Ajax tools inside Eclipse. Ajax isn't easy to use. Google learned that as it tried to compose Google Maps and found the shadows under markers on the maps, or the driving lines for directions between two points, displayed differently depending on the browser used. "Google put a lot of effort into creating toolkits so we wouldn't have to worry about these details," says Bret Taylor, product manager for Google's developer products. In effect, Eclipse, with the help of heavyweights like Google, is trying to duplicate that effort to make Ajax easier for all businesses to use.

But Microsoft isn't asleep. Chairman Bill Gates, in the keynote speech at a Microsoft Web technologies conference last week, acknowledged that a new round of Web applications is coming. Web sites are becoming like components in conventional software that can be called with APIs and run like subroutines. "That's a powerful idea whose time has come," Gates said. "This is a new generation of software."

Microsoft last week released an updated test version of its own Ajax development tool, called Atlas, that creates standard JavaScript on an application's client side. Microsoft also has written server-side extensions to JavaScript to improve the way Ajax apps work on Windows computers, so software written in Atlas can interact with elements of Windows Vista. Specifically, Web apps built with Atlas will be able to interact with Vista's "gadgets," miniprograms such as calendars, instant messaging contacts, photo albums, and media-playing software. "We're looking at other enrichment scenarios where things can pop with Internet Explorer and Windows," says Brian Goldfarb, a Microsoft product manager for Web tools.



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