Will I Need To Learn AJAX?

I want to learn AJAX, I really do. (What is AJAX?) It has the potential to dramatically simplify user interfaces in two ways: by reducing the number of pages needed to accomplish a particular task; by making it possible for web page elements to respond to user actions. One favorite example is the AJAX-powered login window, so that the user does not need to see an additional page in order to log in. Google Maps is an example of the second type, including zoom bars and a draggable map window.

I saw a few seconds of the Tour of California in person today. Though I found it remarkable that I could drive just 10 minutes to see the best American cyclists, I was not able to get to an uphill section of the course by the time the riders went by — that’s why I only saw them for a few seconds. More to the point, the Tour web site uses a lot of AJAX, most notably on their live Tour Tracker. If this is the new standard for web interfaces, I want to learn how to build them.

(Incidentally, SF Gate has a humorous and sarcastic article on bike race spectators. It nicely captures the fleeting nature of the viewing experience.)

I took a look at some AJAX code for the first time today. At first glance, it looks like a large volume of JavaScript to me. That’s bad news for my AJAX prospects, because I find JavaScript time-consuming and nonessential for my web script programming efforts. As a full time school tech director, I just don’t have the hours to spend on programming, so I squeeze in little projects here and there. PERL, PHP, and mySQL are okay, but JavaScript consistently does not make the list. It’s a completely different model from that which I am accustomed to, and the language seems more abstract to me. If I need to do a lot more of that to master AJAX, then it’s unlikely to happen.

Hopefully, the open source community will develop a library of generalized AJAX scripts to perform specific tasks, such as displaying a login window. Or, maybe someone will write a development environment for AJAX that will work as an effective crutch for people like me. Or perhaps I will learn AJAX just like I learned PERL, starting with published scripts and moving into more complex terrain from there. Or maybe my first idea is correct and I will not really need AJAX in order to continue to develop useful web scripts for my school. I just wish I could take my interaction design to that level.

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