Ajax Tools
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Feature: AJAX - Asynchronous JavaScript and XML tools are proliferating
Motivation: Lots of this is predicated on the notion that the Web is standardizing
Extra: See our quick AJAX book reviews and link resources

Since february of 2005 there has been a flood of coverage on AJAX technologies, applications and tools. It is not hard to credit properly a specific event which triggered the sudden upsurge in AJAX technologies- the February 2005 posting by Jesse James Garret at Adaptive Path that got the AJAX name coined and spawned a great deal of interest in AJAX applications and technologies.

When examined in this new light, applications like Google's GMail, Flickr.com album website and Google's Maps certainly put the lie to two important notions. First, it is nonsense that the Web interface is at the utter mercy of network latency and all that could be done to diminish those costs had been done. Second, it had been baldly stated that the Web interface could not come close to matching the range and power of GUI components available on the desktop. The fact that these notions were being fostered by Microsoft, one of the inventors of a key component of AJAX technology, XMLHTTP, just adds a bitter irony. It is doubly so because Microsoft put all its pioneering DHTML/AJAX technology into a deep 4-6 year sleep until AJAX methods starting bursting very successfully on the scene largely through the efforts of others.

Now Microsoft is trying to claim paternal leadership of AJAX and touting its upcoming Atlas environ as a leading AJAX tool. Don't be fooled. The only claim that Atlas will have to interoperability and cross platform capabilities is that it "may run in the major browsers". As well, Atlas has deep server-side dependencies on ASP.NET and other .NET lock-ins. Atlas is hardly a cross platform, Web 2.0 tool. But that raises the question what tools are available for true Web 2.0 cross platform use.

Flowering of AJAX Development Tools

As can be seen on our AJAX Resources web page, there has been an absolute flowering of resources for AJAX development. Many of the tools and libraries are free and many are open source as well. See the list here.

AJAX Development and Tools

Ever since Netscape folded and Borland threw in the towel on IntraBuilder, there has not been a complete IDE for JavaScript. Now some may claim that Macromedia's Dreamweaver or ActiveState's Komodo are JavaSCript IDE's. True the support color coding and may even have a JavaSCript debugger; but they are clearly missing such major IDE features as code completion, development wizards, and most notably visual drag and drop design with database connectivity.

Now other developers will say that such tools as Adobe Acrobat Designer and Abobe/Macromedia Flash and Flex are full visual design enabled IDEs which support JavaScript. Flash ActionScript 2 is very close to the JavaScript 2.0 standard less the very important E4X extensions that considerably simplify XML processing. But Flash ActionScript has so many extensions for animation and graphics and is not yet designed to be used to pickup Web page oriented JavaScripts. Ditto for Acrobat Designer which uses a specialized JavaScript geared for use in PDF contexts and not the broader Web page JavaScripting.

But with the greater interest in all things AJAX there has been a rush to market of a number of packages that first deliver AJAX-aware JavaScripting and now full IDE capabilities including support for Java JSP, JSF and J2EE apps. This will make the current RIA-Rich Interface Application race a lot more interesting because solutions such as pure AJAX or pure Flash or Pure Java may find themselves up against solutions that integrate the technologies innovatively to meet the tough 6A's GUI standard. The following are a summary of some of the more interesting tools.

Backbase
Sample of Backbase AJAX Portal

Backbase is an example of a AJAX enhanced editing and debugging tool. Backbase's AJAX developer tools run within the browser (debugging) and has plug-ins for Eclipse and Dreamweaver which provide code completion & syntax highlighting. Backbase has extensive templates and widgets for GUI components as shown in the screenshot above that allows for very robust GUI interactions on the client without incurring the cost of network roundtrips as might be the case for JSF or ASP and other classic Web language tools.

Backbase runs in all the popular browsers and server-side utilities run on Linux, Windows, and several flavors of Unix. The server-side utilities can be used with ASP, Cold Fusion, JSP, PHP and other server side scripting tools. Check with Backbase for details on .NET and Java interfaces. Finally there is a free Community edition for personal use (non-commercial and non-institutional purposes). It includes the Backbase Presentation Client (BPC) and Developer Tools.

Bindows
Does this look like a classic Windows app ? You betcha! Does it have a complete set of integrated components, the ability to interface to a wide array of backend systems, and great operational response times ? Yes, yes, and yes. Now the bummer. Bindows works in many but not all browsers - missing in action are Safari and Opera among others. C'est dommage - otherwise this would be on top of the list of AJAX tools.

Also like Backbase, Bindows offers a set of tools and utilities to create their apps - but there is even less for debugging and like Backbase no Visual drag and drop IDE. So coders here will need to be GUI and event programming savvy. But at $695, the look and feel is absolutely professional Windows in a browser.

Clearnova ThinkCap JX

Think of ThinkCAP JX from Clearnova as where Sun's Java Studio Creator will want to be. Although still in beta, the product offers to Eclipse developers a whole array of tools to add AJAX capabilities to a Java and J2EE development environ. The advantage that ThinkCAP has is that they have used a component framework on the client side from the get go. This allows tem to adapt to the AJAX model more quickly. The result is a series of developer designers in Eclipse that

The screen shot above is of the Forms Designer, but the ThinkCAP Workbench starts from a Visual Page Flow Designer through Dataview and Query Designers to Rapid Unit Test and Visual Debugging which automate and expedite the test and debug cycle. Clearly with ThinkCAP developers are committed to a Java+JavaScript n-tier solution; but the tool is very data source promiscuous - supporting one of the widest array of Application servers: Websphere, Weblogic, Tomcat, JBoss, Jetty, Sun, Resin, Geronimo, Sybase EAS, and Oracle while linking to a broad range of databases through JDBC, JMS, Web Services, EJBs, POJOs,

Genuitec MyEclipse
Genuitec adds to its MyEclipse IDE AJAX savvy. This will include more AJAX-based templates to its pre-existing JavaScript editing capabilities as seen in the screenshot to the left. Content Assist and Code Outline capabilities will be aware of AJAX library routines. In addition debugging of JavaScript will also be enabled. This is another example of a JSP/JSF/Struts vendor incorporating AJAX into their product's Java IDE. Genuitec promises more AJAX capabilities over the next few quarters. At $49.95 per year, users can hardly go wrong as they get a complete modeling, database, XML+Java+JavaScript development environ built in the Eclipse framework. Users can then incorporate other popular Eclipse plugins such as Actuate's Report Writer or Abobe/Macromedia upcoming FlexBuilder.

Isomorphic

We have described Ismorphic earlier in our coverage of RIA-Rich Internet Applications before the transition to AJAX had taken place. What Isomorphic has done since then is to add more widgets particularly in the BI area (see screenshot above), more browser support, and better performance at start-u and with large data movements. This latter point is important, because Isomorphic compresses and can encrypt the data such that data refreshes become much less burdensome than even ASP or JSP grid pages.

Finally, consider the fact that Isomorphic has been in the business since 2000, they have been able to add a lot of polish to their suite of widgets as well as expand their backend speed and connectivity. The developer tools are not quite drag and drop easy- but do expedite. A must look for AJAX development.

JackBe
jackbe
JackBe is one of the first AJAX developers to bootstrap its own AJAX methods and widgets to build a complete AJAX GUI Builder. Others like Ismorphic and Backbase are headed in that direction while Microsoft and Sun and ClearNova bring in Visual Studio, NetBeans and Eclipse for for a desktop approach. But JackBe is no slouch having a full range of GUI widgets, cross platform and cross browser (including Safari, Firefox and Netscape)delivery. On the server side, JackBe supports Web Services/SOA, J2EE, .NET plus SQL databases. So the basic message is very good.

Like Mozilla with XUL, Macromedia with Flex's MXML, and Microsoft with Vista/WPF's XAML, JackBe has JBML as its GUI markup language. eventually, there will be an XSLT program to help translate between these often very similar XML GUI coding schemes. Jackbe certainly has both the familiar core Web forms widgets plus a broad selection of advanced widgets like spreadsheet, sliders, charts+Graphs, calendar controls, data grid tables, etc. In fact like Isomorphic, one of the keys to JackBe is the API's data integration including compression of network data movement. In sum, despite a hefty price tag, JackBe is a must see AJAX tool.

Tibco General Interface - The very first words for the Tibco General Interface description on John Udell's weblog (click the small screenshot) tells the whole story - " we have our own complete intermediate object layer, with our own DOM, our own Events ... which targets Internet Explorer ... but now we are working on Mozilla/Firefox". But good luck Safari, Konqueror, Opera and other browsers. Yes, the IDE for General Interface is impressive - but the framework is on the proprietary margins like Neuron Data was in the desktop GUI field - very attractive functionality and cross platform. But the premium price (Tibco is taking the same route) plus enough non-standard API and components consigned Neuron Data to this memorabilia site. I would be from Missouri, deep in the Ozarks, on this one.




TopNotch Web Resources:
AJAX Matters - news and reviews website on all things
AJAX Patterns - is all resources and links going into a book AJAX Design Patterns
SoftwareassheWrote - Blog of Mike Mahemoff which looks at AJAX development and patterns
See our own complete AJAX resources page.


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