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11/28/2006
12:32 PM
David Strom
David Strom
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Web 2.0: Ingredients For A Site Makeover

Putting up a few links and images doesn't cut it anymore. To bring your site into the Web 2.0 world, you need to know about Ajax, ActiveX, RSS, and other key technologies.





Web 2.0 Makeover


•  Long Tail

•  Ajax Deployment

•  Active X

•  Project Management

Web 2.0, The Long Tail, social networking, tagging, Ajax -- so many new catch phrases, but so little time to understand their value. Yet you ignore the new lingo at your own peril; enterprises that put up plain-Jane Web sites today risk turning away the more discerning browsing customer.

Consider that it just might be time to do a Web site makeover. However, matching your needs with the right Web 2.0 developer isn't an easy task. The problem is that nowadays, just putting up a page of links and a couple of images isn't engaging enough to attract visitors to your little spot of cyberspace.

"Google has lifted expectations for Web applications," said Bob Matsuoka, the CTO of RunTime Technologies, a Web tools and software company. Today's sites need more interaction and have more complexity.

Hiring Your Next
Web Developer
1. Find people who understand why they're building Web apps. The objective isn't to be "cool," but to solve business problems.
2. Look for good communication skills.
3. Seek out proven experience, with examples of previous apps.
4. Talk to users of the developer's work.
5. Make sure developers know they have to think as a team.
6. Keep the business and customer in constant communication.
7. Above all, be flexible and willing to learn new tools and evolve with them.
Tips from Jacob Good, senior consultant for software developer Inetium
Ajax -- or Asynchronous JavaScript and XML -- "is the 'new new thing' and I'm sure it will be used unnecessarily in a lot of instances until the hype dies down," said George Olsen, the principal of Interaction by Design, a user-experience, design, and consulting firm, with his tongue firmly in cheek.

More seriously, Jacob Good, a senior consultant for software developer Inetium, noted, "Ajax also gives the user a more familiar experience as the interfaces to [the] Web have typically been static and not as interactive."

But first, buyers beware. "The 'Web 2.0' label means little and is being used by unscrupulous marketers to dress up all sorts of vaguely Web-related technologies," said Tim Bray, director of Web technologies for Sun Microsystems. "The right question to ask is: 'What will it do for ME?' " Above all, as Matsuoka noted, you should, "embrace the Web as a new application interface with its own unique characteristics. Don't try to replicate desktop interfaces or printed brochures."

If you're considering a makeover, keep the following issues in mind. First, think about buying the right kinds of expertise versus building it yourself. The experts are split on this one, but most come down on the buying side when you don't have the skills in-house. "Unless you have a dedicated Web IT staff, look into leasing software as a service," suggested Martin Focazio, formerly director of sales and marketing for software vendor ScribeStudio, currently a strategist at MCD Partners in New York.

Next, deploy Ajax and its collection of technologies slowly. Replace any Active X portions with more open solutions when the time has come to update those portions of your site. Finally, know your programming team and manage them carefully.

Let's examine each of these issues in more detail:



Web 2.0 Makeover


•  Long Tail

•  Ajax Deployment

•  Active X

•  Project Management

Ajax Deployment: Not So Fast

The best advice is to deploy Ajax slowly. Ajax is more a collection of technologies that let a developer build interactive Web applications rather than any single one piece of code. Ajax combines several programming tools and interfaces including JavaScript, dynamic HTML (DHTML), Extensible Markup Language (XML), cascading style sheets (CSS), and the Document Object Model (DOM). That collection of tools can help bring about cost reductions and functional improvements.

"You will be able to interact more easily and get value from those interactions," said Tony Karrer, the CEO of TechEmpower, a Web software development firm. "Also, you will be able to piece together solutions from free or inexpensive services."

An interactive Web experience can be produced in any number of ways, including using Adobe's Flash animation plug-ins and even Active X controls. However, some developers are migrating toward Ajax components because of problems with the other technologies. Said Bray, speaking of an earlier project: "We tried to move part of our user interface to Flash, and while the results looked great, they had terrible usability, and we retreated to basic Dynamic HTML."

Information on Flash for beginners is located here. A more advanced tutorial is posted here.

Part of the Web's legacy is that it is stateless: A browser sends a message to a Web server, and the server responds some time later. Ajax helps to process user requests immediately and tie the request and response more closely, such as a user picks items to purchase and these items are added to a shopping cart.

Ajax has its advantages in helping to make the whole eCommerce experience more useful and usable. "Instead of users waiting for the entire screen to reload, Ajax allows selected parts of the screen to update. That really changes the paradigm of the Web -- it's no longer pages but screens that are much more similar to traditional applications," said Olsen. Brandon Adams, the chief operating officer for Browser Media, a Web tools and software design company. "The advantage is, when done well, the Ajax page can be a better UI experience than a traditional full page of HTML using submit/refresh."

Ajax also is particularly helpful with treating forms and lists. "We primarily use Ajax to allow refreshing of a subset of data on a Web form so that the entire form doesn't have to be reloaded," said Matsuoka. "Typically, we may use it to repopulate the contents of a drop-down list, combo list, or to validate data prior to form submissions." But, he adds, "Ajax is most effective when used with a light touch."

Above all, don't forget about sticking to standards. "Ajax coding is complicated enough, so doing things in standardized ways helps ensure that you're not creating spaghetti code that's impenetrable to anyone who didn't have a hand in writing it," said Olsen.

Finally, don't forget to do lots of testing with various browser configurations to make sure that everything is working. "There still are cross-browser issues," said Karrer. "I would still say that you want to choose carefully where you use Ajax."



Web 2.0 Makeover


•  Long Tail

•  Ajax Deployment

•  Active X

•  Project Management

Microsoft's Active X

Also of importance is ActiveX, the mainstay of many Web applications from the last decade. Many sites were sold on the coming Microsoft world domination and the growth in IE market as the sole browser for the world. Clearly, that hasn't happened, and it may be time to rip this out and become more pluralistic in your support of other browsers. Focazio said: "In many ways, we have to go Ajax, just to reach our corporate customers, because we're seeing flat-out bans on ActiveX, a pretty substantial move away from IE, and an increasing number of Mac systems." Look for one of the newer and more open solutions for presenting dynamic content, if you plan on offering additional enhancements in those places.

"Unfortunately, in the current iteration of our product, the standard was IE 5.0 and ActiveX controls," said Focazio. "This has been a big, big problem, and we're addressing it with a total rebuild. It was a big mistake."

Other Tools And Techniques If you don't have the in-house staff and skills to deal with all this technology alphabet soup, pick your battles carefully. If you have to finger one critical component in Ajax, then start with CSS or RSS. "Learning to write HTML in more of a CSS style approach rather than straight tables will help out in the long run. Tables send more data to the client, offer less style and control when you want to place elements at different locations on your page (with Ajax), and separate the data from the structural layout," said Good. RSS also is useful in keeping people current with a fast-changing site, such as for discussion threads, tracking price changes, and other quick-moving situations.

The new-style Web site isn't just about fancy dancing icons, either. Spend some time thinking about what kinds of data you intend to have, and where it will reside.

"A bigger challenge is integrating data from different sources: security data, business data, etc.," Matsuoka said. "Most small businesses don't have access to great ways to effectively publish their business data." And some larger corporations will have problems, too, particularly integrating different data sources into a coherent single place.

Web developers have found several simple ways to spice up content and make their sites more dynamic, said Kramer: "Use polls, surveys, RSS feeds, and tag rolls. Those can be easily added using free services and will keep your site fresh, with true value being provided to customers and partners."



Web 2.0 Makeover


•  Long Tail

•  Ajax Deployment

•  Active X

•  Project Management

Once you are finished coding, remember to check your work with any number of tools that are just a download away. "Fortunately, there are many validation and QA tools freely available on the Internet," said Bray. "Most notably, the W3C's HTML and CSS validators, and since anything Web 2.0-ish is going to have syndication feeds, [an important validator is] feedvalidator.org." (Additional validators are located here .

Don't forget about the other aspects of the new interactive Web, beyond all the alphabet soup. "To me, Ajax is a relatively small part of Web 2.0. I also include social aspects and smaller, lightweight components as keys to Web 2.0.," Karrer says. "This is where businesses are going to get real advantage."

Project Management

Our final tip is to make sure to manage your project. Just as with any other programming project, go into it with a small set of requirements, and understand where you are going before any code gets written.

"Most of the problems with missed schedules and budgets can be traced back to not having a clear idea of what was supposed to be built," Olsen said. "So I'd be suspicious of someone who talks about just skipping over that part of the process and diving straight into coding."

Our team of consultants couldn't stress this enough. "You really, really, really need to have a tight, small list of requirements and obsess over not letting it grow just because Google is doing something a bit more 'cool' with Ajax," said Focazio. "'Cool' translates into 'complicated' rather quickly." Adds Matsuoka: "Complex software development is more affordable than ever, but it still requires careful management."

When looking for a Web consultant, know whom you are hiring. (See sidebar.) "Everybody with a computer, Photoshop, and an HTML tool such as Dreamweaver thinks they're a Web developer," said Adams. "Very few are actually worth the money you are paying."

A good place to start is to know how to check references for any Web consultant that you hire. Consultants are everywhere, and it pays to vet them with care. "Phone the references, meet them, and talk to them," Focazio said. "Do NOT trust e-mail-only references." Bray agrees: "References, references, references. Reputations are not always right, but they are useful input."

Added Matsuoka: "You want to develop a culture of programming internally -- hire good managers, pay them well, document, plan for transitions -- or outsource to a company that has longevity."

Finally, have a progressive deliverable schedule. "Instead of waiting to get everything delivered at the end of a project, you can get the general designs earlier in the process and get feedback early and often about how well your developer is hitting the schedule," says Olsen.

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