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DHTML is not AJAX!

March 7th, 2008
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AJAX seems to be getting grossly confused with interactive DHTML(JavaScript, DOM, CSS and HTML). This confusion has got to stop. It’s making me dizzy!

Okay, so I’m looking at this cool feature on the web. The CEO/CTO comes up behind me and starts looking too. “No problem”, I think to myself. Then he starts going off about how AJAX is cool (just because it says AJAX on the page), and how we should use it for something and how it’s such a great technology and that people have barely scratched the surface. Whoah dude… calm down! Something similar has happened to me a handful of times since then, all by very competent technology persons. 

When did really creative JavaScript work suddenly get mistaken for AJAX? It’s very clear to me that what AJAX actually is has been a fairly fuzzy picture for most people. Let me make this as clear as I possibly can. 

AJAX stands for Asynchronous JavaScript And XML. No more, no less. This denotes the ability to use JavaScript, with XML as the communication protocol, to send and retrieve data from another location (i.e. server) arbitrarily, as needed. This communication happens over an HTTP protocol. That’s it, that is AJAX. There really isn’t a whole lot more to it. Yeah, you can monitor your connections, have fancy functions that handle communication, process data in a particular way. Pure AJAX, according to the name would also ONLY use XML for communcation. However, it has been accepted to use plain strings and name-value pairs as well, when they were more suitable. I am okay with this as this still refers to the process of communication and the added flexibility is good.

What gets under my collar is when people start looking at all that flashy, dynamic interaction and call it AJAX. Certainly, AJAX has made it possible to manipulate data and objects in a MUCH more dynamic way. You are no longer stuck with static page data on your website, giving you much more to work with. However, calling this AJAX would be like calling it “SOAP”, or “XMLRPC”, or for the truly technology impaired, “ethernet”, just because it came through that little wire in the back of the computer. Perhaps you could could do what my 5 year old does and just call every web page you look at “Firefox” (insert desired browser name) just because you are in that program when you see it (I have actually had clients do this, so don’t laugh too hard). 

What needs to be made clear is the distinction between DHTML and AJAX. AJAX is simply another data layer which provides information. DHTML is ability to take that information and do all kinds of flashy, cool and very useful things with it. DHTML and AJAX can actually be used without the other. 

So, next time you see a very cool web application that is very visually impressive, make sure to give credit where credit is due. Give props to his ability to use AJAX, but appreciate his ability to make it useful and interactive. Understand the difference.

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