OpenAjax Moves To Center Of Web 2.0 World

The OpenAjax Alliance, formed last year by a group of two dozen vendors led by IBM, gained an influential new member this week: Microsoft. The move gives the alliance a critical mass of most of the software industry's power players, including Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Google, Adobe, SAP and the Eclipse Foundation. Now counting 73 members, the group will meet this week at IBM's offices to hash out its priorities and projects; a detailed agenda is posted on OpenAjax's Web site.

AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language) has generated tremendous buzz, but it's an amorphous, complicated set of technologies philosophically linked to a broad pack of modern Web development techniques. Still, attendees at the AjaxWorld Conference said they're seeing tangible results as developers take advantage of an expanding set of tools and best-practices knowledge for elegant Web development.

"There was kind of a training-wheels approach for several years," said Joshua Gertzen, principal architect of Web application development framework ThinWire, during a panel discussion on the evolution of "rich Web" applications. "About two years ago, we reached a tipping point where a lot came together at the same time. With Google Maps and Gmail, Google showed a wide audience what was really possible."

Industry participants are now looking to OpenAjax to drive standardization and collaborative efforts. "There's a real feeling of convergence and momentum," said Simon Walmsley, vice president of sales at streaming data software developer Lightstreamer, a new member of the group.

Sponsored post

The catalyst for OpenAjax's creation was several founders' desire for a forum to foster communication and collaboration among companies working on Ajax tooling. One of the group's first tangible projects grew from that goal: the OpenAjax Hub, a component for enabling interoperability among hetrogeneous Ajax libraries. At this week's meeting, the group will finalize plans for completion of the OpenAjax Hub and set its next stack of technical and marketing priorities.

OpenAjax's challenge will be keeping its diverse membership aligned on common aims.

"It's really hard to get a lot of different companies to make progress together," acknowledged Jon Ferraiolo, an IBM Web architect and the organization's acting director. "So far, we're doing really well, given the nature of the effort. There's so many companies who want AJAX to work -- and there's a lot of history, and idealism tempered by realism. People have gone through the wars in the past regarding standards activities."

Of course, different stakeholders have their own diverse ways of working toward the shared target of advancing Web development. AjaxWorld was stocked with vendors showing off their own twists on AJAX and related development tools and practices. Microsoft had a booth highlighting its forthcoming Expression Web development and design software, a new software line aimed at a market segment Adobe currently dominates. Meanwhile, Adobe had a big presence to showcase its Flex development tools and fledgling Apollo rich-application development kit and runtime, which went into alpha release this week.

AJAX is something of a VHS to Flex's Betamax, said Todd Cieplinski, CEO of Web development services firm Universal Mind, a Westfield, Mass.-based Adobe partner. He's delighted with what Universal Mind has been able to do recently with Adobe's technology stack, which had a major overhaul this year.

A demo project Universal Mind had on display illustrated the power of AJAX-like development. A prototype for an incident-reporting system for the San Francisco police department, the demo application allowed users to zoom around a map interface, zeroing in on specific geographies for details on recently reported crimes. Officers will be able to take advantage of an intuitive, visually appealing interface for departmental data. Eventually, using Apollo, Cieplinski expects that Universal Mind will be able to construct an offline client allowing traveling officers to take with them a synchronized copy of the data, accessible through the same interface.

Throughout AjaxWorld, attendees echoed Cieplinski's assessment that Web development is edging into a new era. But rapid change comes with pain points: Two years ago, developers complained about the lack of AJAX tooling. Now, the problem is a diverse profusion of tools. OpenAjax's Ferraiolo estimated that there are now around 200 available AJAX toolkits and a score of AJAX IDEs (integrated development environments).

Testing tools ISV Froglogic grapples daily with the ramifications of that tooling explosion. A lack of standardization means Froglogic has to do a lot of custom work to adapt to the different libraries in use on each different client project, CEO Harri Porten said.

"We have to put a lot of resources into supporting as many as possible, and hope that we've covered whatever ends up sticking," Porten said. "At least the custom work gets fed back into the product."

If OpenAjax succeeds in streamlining AJAX work throughout the industry, such problems could soon start receding. A dozen vendors participated in the group's recent "InteropFest 2007" initiative, a trial rollout of the organization's OpenAjax Hub and first, basic interoperability test case.

"There's still a lot of adjustments to make because we get smarter with every meeting," Ferraiolo said about the group's evolution. "This week, we'll review where we stand, decide what we should we doing going forward and assign priorities."