AJAX not yet the norm, but retailers report success

Retailers are using AJAX technology on their web sites

New research suggests that few large retailers are using AJAX technology on their Web sites, but at least a few companies using AJAX techniques to create interactive Web pages say they have been able to improve customer experience while avoiding prohibitive startup costs.

AJAX, a set of scripting components known as Asynchronous JavaScript + XML, is used to build Web services that act like desktop applications. The advantage for users is that AJAX-based pages allow you to access new functions without reloading a Web page.

The makers of Gliffy , an online program that lets users draw and share diagrams, used an open source platform called OpenLaszlo to help them build their site.

"They make it so much easier to do development," Gliffy President and co-founder Chris Kohlhardt says of Laszlo and similar toolkits. "We have two guys who were able to build this entire thing using just Laszlo and their brains, and now we have a profitable company in a matter of two years." The use of Laszlo cost nothing, so salary was the only major expense, according to Kohlhardt, who is based in San Francisco.

"We're so much different than a static Web page," he says. "You can actually create pictures within your Web browser."

Brulant , an Ohio firm that does marketing and Web site design, recently examined the Web sites created by 115 of the top 200 Internet retailers and found that only one in four were using some type of AJAX technique. Only 6 percent were using advanced AJAX techniques, the firm says.

Blockbuster , Hollywood Video and Amazon.com are among those leading the way in AJAX, says Mark Fodor, a partner at Brulant who performed the study.

Hollywood Video's site, for example, allows users to rate movies from one to five stars and place films in a wish list without having to reload a page. The idea is to create a program that can run on its own within a Web browser, says David Temkin, co-founder of Laszlo Systems.

"It's just now becoming popular. It's not mainstream," he says. When you click on an option within a site built with AJAX, or a similar type of site known as a rich Internet application (RIA), "certain things happen that may not go back to the server at all," he says. "You're running a little program in the browser so it can do things on its own. When it does go back to the server it's not to get a whole new document."

Wal-Mart and H&R Block are among the companies using Laszlo to build AJAX capabilities. Most companies that use AJAX are just scraping the surface, and no one has perfected a checkout process that can be done without reloading any pages, Fodor says.

There are challenges posed by AJAX and it should not be used in every type of Web page, according to a white paper by Interakt, Web design company owned by Adobe.

Building an application with AJAX can be expensive and take more time than building a traditional Web program, the company states. There are unanswered questions about security and user privacy, and a big concern with AJAX is accessibility for disabled people because not all browsers completely support JavaScript or the XMLHttpRequest object, the Interakt white paper states. Another problem for users is that the way AJAX-based programs load content onto pages makes it difficult to create bookmarks in a Web browser. AJAX pages can change without the URL being updated, so a bookmark may not save the exact state of a page.

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