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11/4/2005
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Java Meets Its Match

Scripting languages such as Ajax and PHP are challenging Java and making it easier to quickly develop and prototype Web-services apps

Back in 1998, when the Web was just starting to upend retail, publishing, software development, and other fields, the chief technology officers at IBM and BEA Systems were hashing out the details for a new version of Java for business software development. The Java computer language changed the way PC software, emergent Web sites, and the back-room systems that powered them were written. And the Java 2 Enterprise Edition technology that IBM's Rod Smith and BEA's Scott Dietzen created with their counterparts at Sun Microsystems, which created Java, became a standard in business computing.

PHP is "a great situational app," IBM VP Smith says.

PHP is "a great situational app," IBM VP Smith says.
Today what most excites Smith, now a VP of emerging technology in IBM's software group, and Dietzen, president and CTO at E-mail startup Zimbra Inc., is a set of technologies that's starting to offset Java's dominance. Scripting languages--simpler, faster to write, albeit less powerful and precise than Java or Microsoft's .Net--are showing up all over the Internet, letting developers create applications on shorter deadlines and for more specific purposes than Java's design allows. The resurgent popularity of JavaScript, part of the Ajax software stack that powers popular sites including Google Maps and Yahoo's Flickr, is setting a standard for how Web sites should look and respond to users' actions.

At the same time, PHP has emerged from the back room. The 11-year-old scripting language used by a third of the Internet's sites to quickly pull data and display it on Web pages is ushering in a new class of "situational software" that can be written and deployed quickly, used for a short period of time, then discarded.

IBM's consulting group created the Jobs4Recovery.com site, which lists help-wanted ads for jobs in Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in about four days using PHP. "It's a great situational app," Smith says. "We'll see more and more software written that way." At a PHP conference in Burlingame, Calif., last month, Smith demonstrated during a keynote speech a Wiki Web site, which lets users create and edit content in a Web browser. The site lets developers collaborate to create PHP software that can quickly incorporate data from Google's Maps site and the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration by dragging and dropping Wiki tags to create a running program within minutes. Using Java, building even a simple app could take a couple of weeks, Smith says. "I don't want to invest six months of development for software I need tomorrow."


Zimbra, Dietzen's startup, uses Ajax in its e-mail technologies.

Zimbra, Dietzen's startup, uses Ajax in its e-mail technologies.
Dietzen's startup Zimbra last month released a test version of its Zimbra Collaboration Suite E-mail software that uses the Ajax technologies--JavaScript, Dynamic HTML, and XMLHttpRequest--for time-saving user interface features. Mousing over a URL in an E-mail message shows a preview of the site. Hovering the cursor over a date or the words "next Friday" flips open a calendar view. Instead of refreshing entire pages each time a user takes an action, Ajax pre-fetches code and stores it in the browser, so changes can be rendered quickly, in a way that feels like desktop software.

Zimbra has released an Ajax toolkit so customers can add new functionality, such as the ability to send a Web-services request to Oracle software to take action on an order by clicking on its reference number inside an E-mail. But using Ajax isn't easy, Dietzen says. "Ajax programmers today have to be rocket scientists," he says.

Scripting languages are creating development communities, have moved from the grassroots programming ranks and into the minds of IT decision-makers, and fit in with a business trend of rapidly releasing and updating software on the Web faster than conventional programming cycles have allowed. Developers also are finding ways to use Web-services technologies to create appli- cations that run over multiple machines across the Internet to deliver unique content to users. Integration with Java and .Net software using Web services is improving, too. But until recently there has been a shortage of packaged tools that can put Ajax within the grasp of average developers. Now that may be changing.

IBM last month released a plug-in to its popular Eclipse development tools workbench for coding using PHP as a way to improve developer productivity by making it possible to write, test, and debug PHP and Java code that need to interact from within the same integrated development environment. Eclipse is the basis for tools from IBM, Borland, and Macromedia. IBM has 20 engineers working full-time on PHP and plans to post its Wiki PHP development tool on its alphaWorks Web site.

Microsoft this week will release Visual Web Developer 2005, a freely downloadable "express edition" of its new Visual Studio 2005 development tools suite, that will work in conjunction with an Ajax programming tool code-named Atlas that it has been testing. Atlas lets developers flip between text editor and design views, includes code for transferring data from the client to the server, and is a way to take chunks of code and save them as reusable components. Atlas also will add native support for Web services to XMLHttpRequest, a core component of Ajax that Microsoft created in the 1990s.


Andreessen joined PHP-startup Zend Technologies' board of directors this fall.

Andreessen joined PHP-startup Zend Technologies' board of directors this fall.
According to Scott Guthrie, a Microsoft product unit manager who runs the engineering team that builds the company's Web technologies, Atlas could help standardize the code libraries and APIs developers use to write Ajax apps and make it easier to import pre-built online maps, a calendar, and user logon functions into Ajax sites--from Windows and MSN, of course. Debugging Ajax apps for different browsers also is notoriously tricky--something Guthrie says Atlas can simplify.

Marc Andreessen, chairman of Opsware Inc. and founder of Netscape Communications, gave Silicon Valley startup Zend Technologies Inc. a boost in September when he joined the company's board, saying PHP had replaced Java as the ideal programming language for the Web. Zend sells development tools and support for PHP, and its founders are leaders of the open-source PHP project.

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