Q&A: Microsoft Touts New Ajax Tools

<i>InformationWeek</i> 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.

Tony Kontzer, Contributor

November 19, 2005

7 Min Read

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? Goldfarb: Today, the Ajax approach to Web development is incredibly difficult. This is in large part because there is a lack of tooling and infrastructure. In addition there are a number of general compatibility issues across different browsers and operating systems that developers are forced to address. Essentially, creating an Ajax Web application today is rocket science and our goal is to help provide a great platform and improved tooling. There's an 'as good as it gets" notion of Web user experience due to browser restrictions and development complexity, which is why our goal with Atlas is to offer the best implementation of AJAX- style programming available.

InformationWeek: What's the profile of a business or Web site that's ripe to benefit from Ajax?

Goldfarb: I'm not sure there is a specific "profile" that is ripe to benefit from Ajax. It comes down to experience -- if a business wants to provide customers with a superior level of interaction on the Web, Ajax style programming with Atlas is one way to accomplish that. If it is on Windows, Windows Presentation Foundation and our new set of experience focused technologies for Windows Vista will enable that. Is it customer facing? Then you want it to be the best it can possibly be. Is it internal? Well, if it is hard to use it will take employees more time to accomplish tasks, and that costs money. The opportunities for better experiences to help businesses both internally and externally are abundant and I fully expect over the long term we are going to see experience become more of a focal point in the development lifecycle. Our goal is to make user experience a foremost tenet in application development.

InformationWeek: A lot of high-profile sites have no immediate plans to test out Ajax, and some haven't even heard of it. Are they missing the boat?

Goldfarb: Ajax has received a lot of attention in the press recently, and while it does provide some options for creating Web applications that deliver a better user experience, it is not the only option for delivering such applications. In the developer division at Microsoft our goal has always been to provide developers with easy-to-use and productive tools, such as Visual Studio, that enable them to create applications that target the Web, Windows or mobile. This way they can create applications that best suit the needs of their users.

InformationWeek: What are some of the key adoptions of Ajax that you're aware of in the marketplace today, and what's interesting about each of them?

Goldfarb: There are a few sites cropping up that are leveraging some aspects of Ajax development to improve their experiences-- these include msn.com and Hotmail, Gmail and the Google start page, MSN Virtual Earth, and Sidestep. What is interesting is the experience they deliver for each individual unique scenario. Ajax has offered a level of differentiation, and I think we will continue to see creative uses of the technology on the Web as it becomes easier to adopt.

InformationWeek: What's your crystal-ball outlook for Ajax and other programming tools that are or will be modeled after it?

Goldfarb: Ajax itself is a development style, and today there aren't many tools available, which is why Ajax development is so difficult. When I look into my crystal-ball, which I admit is not always very clear, I see a larger focus on generally better experiences. Ajax is just a component of the story. Businesses are already starting to see tangible value out of better experiences. The ROI studies will come, but the anecdotal evidence is there. If it is easier to use, employees can be more productive"and productivity is a good thing. If customers love it, they'll come back, and if it's easy to use, they'll come back. My crystal-ball says it is about differentiating offerings, standing out from the crowd, and providing awesome experiences"and that need will drive the technology.

Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights