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The purpose of this post is to try to explain AJAX the way I understand it. To me,
AJAX is not some complicated technology that you need to go out and buy books to
learn. Rather, it is simply two or more web pages, and a couple of simple Javascript
functions.I have come to hate the term AJAX. It seems every time I mention AJAX, either
developers get nervous, or account managers get excited. Neither situation benefits me.
Actually, I’ve pretty much stopped using the term at all. Depending on my audience, I’ll
make up different terms. Like when I’m talking to Java developers, I’ll say “we need to do
a back end call” and that doesn’t freak them out, but telling them we need to do an AJAX
call makes them sweat.

Hopefully, if enough people read posts like this, the mystery and glamor will be removed
from the term AJAX. So, lets get to the de-mystification.

First, lets dissect the name itself. A.J.A.X.


A = Asynchronous


J = Javascript


A = And


X = XML

Most developers reading this will feel pretty comfortable with the Javascript part.
It’s the asynchronous and the XML parts that make most people nervous. They really
shouldn’t. I’ll briefly describe each, then we’ll put it all together.

Asynchronous simply means “lets open another URL without changing or reloading the page.”
Picture it like this… You are reading a blog post, and you come across a link to another page.
You don’t want to stop reading, so you right click the link and open it in a new window or another
tab right? Now you continue reading the page you were on. Asynchronous simply means we are doing
something else without disturbing the page we are viewing.

Javascript, we all know what that is I hope. If you don’t, then you should probably be reading
some other sites first (intro to Javascript).
Now, the purpose of this post is to make AJAX easy to write, and easy to understand, so we are
going to use Javascript tools that make our job a lot easier. Whenever I write AJAX code, I always use
the Prototype Javascript framework.
Go ahead and download it, we’ll talk more about it later, just know that it has most of the Javascript
we will need built in.

Before I get into XML, and what it is, I would like to note that AJAX doesn’t even need XML to work.
For those who can’t or won’t use XML, don’t worry, you can still write useful AJAX code without it, but
please continue reading and maybe you will decide that you can use XML after all. It does make AJAX a
lot easier, but like I said, it’s not necessary.

XML shouldn’t be scary, but many people just don’t know what it is. If you’ve got this far and you
aren’t totally confused, then you probably know how to write HTML. HTML and XML should not necessarily
be compared, but they are similar in how they are written. XML is written using ‘tags’ similar to HTML.
And XML tags need to be “balanced” just like HTML should be. Following is some simple HTML:

<html>
  <head>
    <title>sample</title>
  </head>
  <body>
    <div>something</div>
  </body>
</html>

Most people will recognize this as the most basic of HTML code, but what you may not know is that
this could also be valid XML code as well. I mentioned the word “balanced” earlier. In the sample
above, you will notice that each tag has a corresponding ending tag like <html></html>.
That is what balanced means. That is probably the most important concept in XML. Unlike HTML, we don’t
necessarily use XML for presentation, XML is normally used more like a database. For example, if the
code above were an XML file, and we wanted to think of it as data, we could say that the <html>
section could be the database itself, the <head> section could represent a table in that database,
the <title> section could represent a column in that table and the word “sample” would be the value
of that column. If it were a database, we could query it something like this…

select title
from html.head

We could spend a great deal of time explaining XML, but lets just says that its basic function is to
store data and to define what that data means. So, in the example above, the word “sample” means, and
we know this because of the XML tags we use to surround it, it is the ‘title’ of the ‘head’ of the ‘html’ file.

I’ll write one more sample XML just for clarification because I think I’ve spent too much time on
this subject already, but I think one more sample will be helpful in describing just how easy XML is.
Lets say we want to get a list of books. We could represent that list of books with XML.

<books>  
  <book>     
    <title>The Shining</title>     
    <author>Stephen King</author>     
    <ISBN>0743437497</ISBN>     
  </book>     
  <book>     
    <title>Fahrenheit 451</title>     
    <author>Ray Bradbury</author>     
    <ISBN>9506440298</ISBN>     
  </book>     
</books>

From that example, XML should be pretty self explanatory. And that is the real point of XML.

That concludes “AJAX Fast and Easy – part one”. In part two, we will build a basic HTML file
and make an AJAX call to another basic HTML file, leaving the XML part out of the equation.

UPDATE:


Ajax Fast and Easy – part two is now available

 



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6 Responses to “AJAX Fast and Easy – part one”
 

Very insightful…I feel like I can code!

Matt Levy wrote on February 20th, 2008 at 3:47 pm

 

[…] AJAX Fast and Easy – part one […]

 

[…] AJAX Fast and Easy – part one […]

 

[…] In AJAX Fast and Easy – part one, we defined AJAX and decided it wasn’t really that complicated. In AJAX Fast and Easy – part two, we created an index.html file, a backendHTML.html file and we downloaded the Prototype Javascript framework. We put them all together and made some ajax magic happen. However, in part 2 we left out all the junk about XML, and all we really did was display the ajax results as an alert. Not too useful, but it proved the point and it was pretty fun. […]

 

[…] AJAX Fast and Easy – part one » position:relative – a Web and Now blog Hopefully, if enough people read posts like this, the mystery and glamor will be removed from the term AJAX. So, lets get to the de-mystification. […]

 

[…] AJAX Fast and Easy – part one » position:relative – a Web and Now blog Hopefully, if enough people read posts like this, the mystery and glamor will be removed from the term AJAX. So, lets get to the de-mystification. […]