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AJAX overload

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Years ago SUN proclaimed that the network was the computer. Nowadays, one can also say that the Web page is the application, thanks to AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript And XML). When I think of creating an application, my first instinct is to create it as a Web application. I have been using that approach for some years now. Not only Web applications are easier to create, they offer a kind of interoperability that perhaps no other platform can rival. All a user need is a Web browser, and they can run the application.

The Web is an inherently stateless technology. Generally that means that each Web page is independent of other pages, even within the same application. There are of course several ways to retain and store (persist) data as users are passed around various pages. In this fashion each action causes a new page to be loaded as the user navigates the application. That makes the pages less interactive than other types of applications. To address the interactivity issue, technologies such as Java applets and Flash have been used to make the process more fluid. Eventually DHTML reached a point where pages could be manipulated using JavaScript responding to users' action. The final piece of the puzzle was the XMLHttpRequest object, through which Web pages could communicate to the Web server in an out-of-band model, updating data without making a full round-trip back to the server and refreshing the page. The technology was dubbed AJAX and ushered in a new era of Web, known as Web 2.0.

AJAX has been a great leap forward in Web applications. The problem however is that many sites have now gone overboard with it shifting the burden of processing to the client browsers. On the surface this is a welcome change, but there is a drawback when applications rely too heavily on the client side. Many sites that employ AJAX and DHTML end up with slow and unresponsive pages. While bits and pieces of a page are being loaded and formatted from various sources, users must wait until the whole page is rendered before they can proceed.

In many cases, those pages go into a frozen state until all components are properly loaded and formatted and many don't respond to user inputs while completing their tasks. The problem is not widespread yet, but as many sites begin to deploy AJAX, those Web pages will begin to crawl wearing users' patience thin. One notable example is Microsoft live. The site looks great, but the site's home page takes an inordinately long time load. At times I have just abandoned the page while it attempts to load its various parts.

AJAX is a great tool for making Web pages more interactive and flexible. But there is a point where too much technology can hinder usage instead of helping usability. Sites shouldn't just throw in new technologies indiscriminately hoping that users would come in droves. In the end, if a site proves too slow and unresponsive, users would just get turned off, no matter how bleeding-edge.
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