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Q&A: Microsoft Touts New Ajax Tools

InformationWeek talks to Microsoft Product Manager Brian Goldfarb about the trendy new Web technology called Ajax, and Microsoft's plans for tools to make Ajax development easier.

Think of how responsive Google Maps or GMail are, and imagine that kind of performance on your corporate intranet or your B2B extranet. That's what Microsoft hopes to deliver with development tools built on Ajax.

Ajax, or Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, is the technology underlying Google Maps, GMail, Microsoft's own MSN.com and Hotmail, and other highly responsive applications on the Web. It's a conglomeration of technologies that cover everything from presentation and object modeling to data interchange and retrieval. Microsoft thinks Ajax apps are too hard to build, and the company's Web platform team is trying to demystify Ajax with the development of an easier-to-use Ajax-style programming technology code-named "Atlas" that it's planning to bring to market during the first half of 2006. A prototype of the technology is available here.)

InformationWeek's Tony Kontzer recently caught up with Brian Goldfarb, Microsoft's product manager overseeing the development of Atlas. An edited version of the E-mail interview follows.

InformationWeek: Tell me about Microsoft's strategic approach to using and promoting Ajax-- why is getting developers to start writing Web apps using Ajax important, and what is Atlas all about?

Goldfarb: First of all, we need to understand the need driving the interest in Ajax, which as a style of Web development bears its roots in what Microsoft invented almost 8 years ago with IE4 (DHTML) and IE5 (XMLHttp). Most of what is fueling the interest, in this somewhat old technology, has been frustration around how to create richer applications on the Web. Recently I think two important things happened to revitalize interest in Ajax. First, a wider number of browsers have provided support for the technologies developers need for Ajax- style development, and second, there has been a new focus and interest in delivering better user experiences for customers.

Microsoft is distinctly focused on driving richer user experiences on the Web through to the client and devices for our customers. For the Web there are two challenges to this. The first is the limitation of application development within the browser, and the second is development complexity. When looking at the Ajax approach to Web development, we realized this was way more difficult than it needed to be. As a result, we created Atlas to help make Ajax- style development easier, and more approachable for a broader range of developers. We believe that Atlas will be as good as is gets on the browser and will enable the broad masses of developers to easily take their Web applications to the next level. To me, the most important part of our strategy with Atlas is to the take the rocket science out of Ajax and make it easier for our customers to create more compelling experiences on the Web.

InformationWeek: What do you see as the key business benefits to Ajax-powered Web sites?

Goldfarb: In simple terms, Ajax enables better user experiences on the Web, which can help businesses gain a competitive advantage. User experience is beyond a pretty interface. It's about the emotional connection that users have when they use an application, leading to brand loyalty and more. Richer experiences are able to provide big business benefits and I think you'll see that more and more in the years to come. Technologies like Atlas are all about helping businesses build more compelling experiences to help them differentiate their businesses.

From a technical perspective, compared to traditional web apps, the primary advantages of Ajax-style Web applications include more interactive user interfaces by executing code on the client, automatic updates without requiring the user to refresh the page, and better performance from fewer round trips to the server, among many others. Ajax-style development enables developers to optimize the user experience by gaining more control over what happens on the client versus the server.

InformationWeek: What are the barriers to Ajax adoption? How difficult are the technologies to work with?

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