Ajax spurs Web rebirth for desktop apps

Watch out, Office. New tools and techniques are fueling a surge in hosted versions of traditional PC software.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
6 min read
A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
Slicker development techniques like Ajax, a way of building interactive browser-based applications, are fueling a surge in consumer Web applications.

These new techniques are even reviving efforts to create what was once considered impractical: online alternatives to Microsoft Office.

The launch of high-profile Web services, notably Google Maps, which provided a noticeably better user experience than traditional Web sites, helped publicize the Ajax technique. Now, dozens of start-up companies are using it to create hosted versions of desktop applications, from word processors to project management software.

But rather than simply replicate Microsoft Office online, many of these Web applications, sometimes referred to as Web 2.0, focus on publishing and sharing information over the Net.

The base Ajax technology--which uses the JavaScript language and other Web standards--was invented in the 1990s.

But not until recently--around the time the term Ajax was coined in February--have a large number of developers and entrepreneurs grasped the new opportunities Ajax presented, according to analysts and entrepreneurs.

Google's use of Ajax this year helped demonstrate how Web applications could rival the look and feel of existing desktop applications. And wider adoption of Web standards in browsers has given developers some assurance that Ajax applications will run on most PCs.

"When Ajax came out earlier this year, companies started sprouting up everywhere," said Richard Monson-Haefel, a Burton Group analyst. "These start-up companies with smart developers can take Ajax and without any constraints some (tool) vendor set up, can do anything they imagine."

Interactive Web pages built with multimedia tools such as Macromedia's Flash and Flex have been around for years. These so-called rich Internet application tools will continue to exist for sophisticated tasks, but Ajax fits the need for simpler jobs, like adding interactivity to an existing Web site, Monson-Haefel said.

The ability to build a better Web is paving the way for hosted services funded by advertising or subscriptions. That's a shift from the traditional desktop software model where customers pay an up-front fee to install software onto a single machine.

Microsoft, the dominant supplier of desktop software, is moving aggressively, if belatedly, into Web-based application services.

The company realigned its business units around software services and in November launched the Live.com initiative, which includes many services stemming from its MSN division. Many of these Live.com services, such as Hotmail (to be called Windows Live Mail), rely on a revamped front end built using Ajax.

Ajax Office?
The growing use of Ajax--and Microsoft's embrace of services--has spurred discussion of Web-based Microsoft Office replacements. Some companies have already done online productivity applications, but are now making Web-based communication an integral part of their offerings.

For example, Writely is an online word processor. But the greater value of the system is the ease with which people can collaborate and share their Web pages, said Sam Schillace, co-founder of the four-person outfit, Upstartle, which created Writely.com.

"In the last four or five months after we launched, people said we were crazy. Why would anyone edit a document in a browser?" Schillace said. "Now you see Microsoft and Google doing the same. So we've gone from crazy to conventional wisdom in six months."

Google has decided to dedicate some of its workers to the OpenOffice open-source project, which has led to speculation that it will offer a hosted productivity suite.

Microsoft, meanwhile, hasn't announced plans to offer a fully hosted version of Office. The company last month said that it plans a new service called Office Live for small businesses to track customer accounts or manage contacts. But that service will augment, not replace, Office. Office Live will come in both ad-based and subscription versions, Microsoft said.

Another start-up that has been building Web-based Office-style applications is Silveroffice, creator of gOffice. This site offers word processing and printing and intends to soon launch an online spreadsheet and presentation software. A service to convert documents to Adobe Systems PDF format is planned for January, said Kevin Warnock, founder and CEO.

gOffice applications are free to users and funded by ads. The company intends to offer subscriptions for customers, particularly  

Correction: This article incorrectly described the origins of Ajax technology. Ajax came from a number of sources, including Microsoft.
businesses, that don't want ads, Warnock said. The number of registered users is in the "five figures," but the company hopes to grow to 2 million users, with many expected to be outside the U.S.

Still, displacing Microsoft Office is not the company's goal.

"I think (gOffice) can hold a natural place alongside an Office suite in perpetuity. They don't have to beat out the other," Warnock said. He noted that people still use Web-based email, such as Hotmail or GMail, even though Microsoft's Outlook is pre-installed on many PCs.

Using Ajax and a Web-delivery model is allowing his start-up, with about 15 employees, to "bootstrap" the company, he said. "It's just a pragmatic way of getting out in front of a large number of people without raising money," Warnock said.

Business and consumer
Writely, gOffice and other Web-based productivity applications, such as 37signals' to-do list and personal information management tool, or Web-based instant-messaging applications are aimed primarily at consumers. But IT executives and analysts say the impact of Ajax-style browser development will be felt in the business world as well.

A business could add more interactivity to an existing corporate Web site with Ajax and use XML-based data transfers to create "mash-ups" that pull information from different sources. For example, a real-estate Web site could pull information on schools and present it with house listings, noted Monson-Haefel.

Scott Dietzen, chief technology officer of e-mail and calendaring start-up Zimbra, expects Ajax to have a significant impact on business-to-business applications, such as financial services and telecommunications customers that demand a richer user interface. Zimbra's business-oriented products use Ajax extensively for data exchange, allowing a calendar entry, for example, to show a meeting location on Google Maps.

One corporate customer, Iconix Pharmaceuticals, has used Ajax with a toolkit from General Interface, a company later bought by integration software provider Tibco. Iconix built an application to give technicians at pharmaceutical companies a massive database and a sophisticated front end for tracking the effects of drugs on people.

Using Ajax, the company was able to build a complex user interface and connect to different data sources. Being Web-based means the product can be delivered over the Internet or installed on-premise, said Alan Roter, Iconix vice president of informatics.

"If we didn't use a Web-based UI (user interface), we would have to use a thick client and implement some type of client-server interface, as well as all the work to do the rendering. The advantage of being Web-based is that there is zero install, which is great," Roter said.

Roter said that Tibco's Ajax tools are slick, making the development time faster than with other languages. But, by and large, Ajax tooling still is not as mature as well-established products, according to analysts.

Monson-Haefel said the market "ecosystem" for commercial Ajax tools is immature. He expects Ajax eventually will become a mainstream development technique like Macromedia's offerings from Adobe or Microsoft's tools.

In the meantime, Writely's Schillace predicted that the growing popularity of Ajax will result in an excess of interactive features on Web pages. Indeed, some executives and analysts have feared a backlash against the over-application of Ajax techniques, resulting in highly interactive but poorly designed Web pages.

"Ajax is not a panacea," said Zimbra's Dietzen, noting that some applications, such as complex spreadsheets or presentations, demand desktop storage. "It's excellent for enriching traditional Web apps that need it. But not all Web applications need to have a richer UI. For the ones that do, Ajax is by far the best choice."