The Ajax Experience, Oct 23-25, Boston, MA

Below are random thoughts on three days in Boston at The Ajax Experience. I gave a talk titled Ajax in the Enterprise.

… AOL was giving away T-shirts by the hundreds, in solid, bright colors with words like “Geek” or “2.0” on them. Some conferencegoers walked away with several, which wasn’t discouraged – there seemed to be an endless supply. Every time I walked by the booth I wanted (“want” isn’t the right word, it’s more the primal lust for free stuff) to grab a shirt or two, when the last thing in the world I need is more T-shirts. Eight years ago when I moved I gave 99 shirts, most of them unworn, to the Salvation Army. These were garish and ugly, and trying in AOL’s typically disingenuous way to plug into geek culture. Plus, there’s the associated guilt of all those unopened CDs taking up landfill space. Hence the little cartoon angel on my right shoulder. Of course, the little cartoon devil on my left shoulder made himself heard: “Dude, it’s FREE! Don’t be such a Herb! If you don’t take one, someone else will get it. You’ve earned it. And dude: it’s FREE!” So it went, and every walk past the AOL booth became an
exercise in self-denial of something I didn’t actually want at all, and the thimbleful of pride I felt on passing by empty-handed made me feel like some sort of lame modern-day ascetic.

… speaking of AOL (I don’t mean to pick on AOL, even the newly warm and fuzzy AOL, but they make it really easy), one of their minions gave a keynote during which he screened a movie where they went up to people on the street or in the grocery store and asked them what they thought “Ajax” was. And OH MY GAWD (the voice here should be Dr Cox from Scrubs), they thought it was a cleanser! What a bunch of losers!

Crikey.

… really regret my get-out-of-Dodge trip planning, which made me miss Brendan Eich’s closing keynote on Javascript 2.

… “stack” is the new “solution”.

Selenium, a product for doing functional client testing in an Ajax environment, got a lot of buzz. Our QA team is looking into it. They’ve had to pound on Mercury’s QTP pretty hard to get it to work with our client, and I’m hoping Selenium will be way more straightforward.

… the booths from some of the sponsors such as Google, Sun, and Ask were more focused on recruiting than on demos, always a sign of a technology on its way up.

… after the experts’ panel on Monday night, I headed to the hotel bar and met up with the Netflix crew. As a longtime Netflix member, I couldn’t resist rattling on about what I liked and disliked about their site and service. Not only did they listen – brave souls – they bought me beer. The more beer I had in me, the more clever and insightful I became, and I think they caught on to that.

The Netflix UI makes for a great case study in how going from HTML to Ajax can improve the user experience.

… there is a bewildering array of Ajax toolkits out there, and at least two of the presentations were overviews of frameworks. The space has exploded, and sooner rather than later, it will contract. Documentation, often overlooked, will be key to adoption. It’s hard to bet against Dojo, with its breadth, careful design, and technical impressiveness. I heard good things about jQuery, and YUI looks clean. For all-Java shops there’s GWT, and possibly DWR.

… My ad hoc plan of attack, and reviews, in order of attendance:

Leveraging Ajax for Enterprise Application Development – mostly good content, somewhat awkwardly delivered. Best part was practical tips for shops coming up to speed on Ajax.

Javascript Exposed: There’s a Real Programming Language in There (Pt 1), by Glenn Vanderburg – had intended to go to Mahemoff’s talk on design patterns, but he didn’t make it to the conference. Glenn’s an engaging presenter, which eased
the fact that it was mostly a tutorial of what you’d find in the O’Reilly book. Glenn did a good job of focusing on important bits of the language that are often glossed, and I really liked his lists of what he believes the language designers got right and wrong.

Ruining the User Experience, by Aaron Gustafson – the scope of this presentation was smaller than I had hoped. From the summary, I thought it would cover UI idioms that have been made possible by Ajax but which don’t improve the user experience, but it was almost all about what to do when Javascript is disabled.

Frameworks Guide, by Nathaniel Schutta – came to this one as a refugee from a TIBCO-centric talk on building desktop-like apps in Ajax. It was good to get an overview, delivered capably and neutrally, since having developed our own toolkit I’m not familiar with others.

Intro to Dojo / Dojo in Depth, by Alex Russell – Dojo looks pretty awesome, and Alex is super-smart. Dojo obviously goes beyond Ajax, and even within Ajax it offers much more than widgets and neat effects. Their event system, the new SVG/VML support, and XhrIframeRequest were highlights. I’ll be looking soon into using its package system to leverage deferred loading of ZCS components.

IE7: From Ajax to RSS and More: How to Take Full Advantage, by Chris Wilson – acutally: quite: interesting. IE7 will make app developers very happy, and app maintainers very unhappy. It’s really frightening to think of the untold numbers of websites out there that rely on the many ways in which IE6 is broken (insert truism about reaping what you sow). As much grief as they deservedly get, MS appears to be committing to standards as far as its browser goes (thank you, market forces). Best news for me is that they fixed the garbage collector, so memory no longer leaks at the drop of a hat. They also fixed the SELECT element’s behavior with regard to z-index, the gzip caching problem, and untold CSS bugs.

JSON: The X in Ajax, by Douglas Crockford – the case for JSON is a strong one, as XML is often overkill for shuttling data around. I love its simplicity and compactness. Of particular interest: JSONRequest and a proposed MODULE tag to address cross-domain security issues. Near the end there was an odd moment when John Resig (jQuery) posed a reasonable-sounding question about whether JSON performance scales well across large datasets when compared with XML, and the immediate response was “Next question.” Not sure what to conclude from that.

Designing for Ajax, by Bill Scott – bailed on a performance talk that turned out to be Gomez-centric and came here. Great presentation. Bill used Yahoo as well as other sites to point out good and bad Ajax-enabled interaction patterns. Makes me want to check out the Yahoo design patterns library.

Case Study: Building Great UI, the Netflix Way, by Sean Kane – everyone loves Hypnotoad, I mean Netflix. What was interesting here (aside from the obvious fascination with the service) was how extensively they test in UI labs with regular folks before rolling out changes, often trying out several possible versions of a UI feature. It would be nice if we could eventually get real-world
data like that.

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