Ajax sets off tools race

Established development software makers look to get a leg up in the trendy Web development arena.

The growing popularity of interactive Web sites has set off a race among software companies, each pitching their own development toolkit.

Among these is Sun Microsystems, which on Tuesday released Java Studio Creator 2, a free tool for building Web applications that promises to speed up Ajax-style development. IBM is getting into the fray too, with an announcement expected next week of its plans for selling tools that tap Ajax and for building a community of developers around these.

The term Ajax was coined last February to describe a combination of Web technologies, including JavaScript and XML. More and more developers are using these grouped tools to add interactivity to Web sites and to do away with the limitations of the first generation of browsers.

Now established providers of development tools, known as "integrated development environments," have taken note of how trendy Ajax is.

"It's just a matter of months before all major IDEs, including Eclipse, support Ajax development," Burton Group analyst Richard Monson-Haefel said. "It's just too big of a low-hanging fruit."

In the past year, a number of high-profile Web services, such as Gmail and Microsoft's Virtual Earth, have built their front end using Ajax. The technology allows people to drag and drop items around and create "mash-ups" that pull information from different Web sites.

Those early examples have been followed by several smaller companies that use Ajax to deliver applications, such as word processing or to-do lists, over the Web.

That popularity has spurred some major development software makers into action. Microsoft, a heavyweight example, was quick to jump on the Ajax bandwagon. Last year, it announced plans to create an Ajax toolkit, code-named Atlas, which works with its flagship tool Visual Studio. A early version of Atlas was released in December.

IBM also has become involved. It has the upcoming Ajax strategy, and last week it proposed the Ajax Toolkit Framework project to be considered for inclusion by Eclipse. The open-source foundation, which has seen broad industry support from tool vendors, aims to create a framework for building Ajax tools. That proposal has the support of Java vendors BEA Systems and Oracle, as well as Yahoo, Linux distributor Red Hat, PHP tool provider Zend Technologies and others.

In addition, there are a handful of specialized IDE vendors and about four dozen open-source projects focused on making Ajax developers more productive, Monson-Haefel said.

The analyst added that the rush of established vendors to Ajax will benefit Web developers--and the Web sites they write--because "one of the weaknesses of Ajax is lack of tooling." Within 18 months, he predicts that programmers will be able to assume support for Ajax-style development in most tools.

"Rich" Internet applications
One of the reasons that Ajax is gaining interest is because Web users are yearning for a more interactive look and feel, analysts and industry executives said.

There are already a number of methods for building so-called "rich" Internet applications, which approximate the look and feel of native Windows or Macintosh applications in a Web browser. Options include Adobe Systems' Flash, Microsoft's Web development line, and Java applets.

Forrest Key, who heads up the Microsoft group working on front-end development technologies, said there has been a resurgence in Web development. He said that companies are investing more to create a better user experience on the Web, one that will make a difference in people's lives.

As an example, Key said he recently used his mobile phone to access Microsoft's Virtual Earth mapping service to find the location of a restaurant.

"That was possible not because of new infrastructure technology that suddenly emerged (but) because the usability is now really compelling," he said.

The rise of Ajax is also being aided by the adoption of Web standards in most modern browsers. In theory, that ensures that one application will work the same on any Web-enabled machine.

"The real power of Ajax is not so much in its (technical) innovation. Its real power is in the adoption model--it's predictable. Browsers will have the capabilities to use it, and you can deliver it anywhere," said Danny Sabbah, general manager of IBM's Rational Software development tools division.

Sabbah said that IBM is building several frameworks, or IDE add-ins, for simplifying the process of writing Ajax-style Web applications. The company intends to build that tooling into its Rational Eclipse-based tools for Web development and Web portal development.

Mix and match
In the past few years, developers and designers who used JavaScript and other Web technologies sought out specialized tools, said Burton Group's Monson-Haefel.

As use of Ajax becomes more widespread, development tool companies that cater to mainstream programmers, rather than front-end designers, will likely become the prime Ajax tool suppliers, he said.

"Developers that used JavaScript and CSS (cascading style sheets) and the like a few years ago were all client-side Web developers. Now we're seeing Ajax being deployed on the server side by application developers who tend to use Java and the like," Monson-Haefel said.

He expects that Microsoft, Eclipse-based wares, and several specialized tool companies will dominate the market within a few years.

John Loiacono, Sun's executive vice president of software, said the strategy at Java creator Sun is to embrace Ajax and scripting languages. The release of Java Studio Creator 2 demonstrates that the company can mix Java with scripting languages within a single product, he said.

"A lot of people said this will kill Java, but have you ever tried to build a mission-critical application with Ajax? You can't," Loiacono said. "The point is you use different tools for different purposes."

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