Microsoft Web 2.0 Developers Go Live with Atlas

 
 
By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2006-03-20
 
 
 

Microsoft Web 2.0 Developers Go Live with Atlas


Microsoft is highlighting its upcoming tool for AJAX-style development, code-named Atlas, at its Mix conference in Las Vegas this week with the announcement of a new Community Technology Preview and Go-Live license for the technology. Some early Atlas users, meanwhile, have already shared their experiences with the tool with eWEEK.

Arthur Wait, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based independent Web design and application development consultant, said he has started to use Atlas on a Web site he developed for The Planning Shop, a book publisher in Palo Alto, Calif.

The site was originally developed for internal use to allow authors and the publishing company to both track the performance of their own books on Amazon.com and research the historical performance of competitive books and categories of books from other publishers, Wait said.

"We do this by downloading the Amazon Sales Rank for several hundred thousand books every night and store them in our database," he said. This site is now available to the public at www.TitleZ.com.

"A big part of our goal in releasing TitleZ publicly has been to make the site as usable as possible," Wait said. "There are other sales number tools out there for publishers [most notably, Nielsens BookScan], but in addition to being extremely expensive for smaller publishers, they are very difficult to use. To be useful and competitive, we felt we needed to provide an offering that would be easy and obvious, even for non-numbers-oriented people."

Click here to read more about Microsofts announcement of its March CTP release of Atlas.

So, Wait said, he started integrating Atlas into the site recently, entirely for the purpose of enhancing usability. "Just about every call made to our server from TitleZ requires a trip to both our database and a trip out to Amazons Web service," he said. "Because this can be a relatively time-consuming process, weve done everything we can to make this feel as fast as possible.

"So we gather data incrementally—when a user runs a search, we return only high-level information about each book. Then, when they want further details on a particular title, we run a more elaborate search, build a chart, etc.

"Moreover, searches conducted on the TitleZ search page are now handled via Atlas without a page refresh," Wait said. And button clicks for "bookmarking" a title for later retrieval are also handled via Atlas, he said. "The result is a much snappier feel to the site, even though the back-end technology hasnt gotten any faster," Wait added.

Omar Al Zabir, a developer for Pageflakes.com, said he "started with the first preview of Atlas, which was quite enough for our personalized desktop—www.Pageflakes.com. The feature we liked most was the ability to generate JavaScript classes out of Web service references. Atlas presented a very comfortable way to call server-side functions on the same page and methods on Web services. The page method call feature of Atlas especially made authenticated calls to the server a breeze. Pageflakes framework development became quite easier because of this feature.

"Another great thing we liked about Atlas was the ability to use its entire feature from JavaScript instead of using a declarative approach," he said. "Due to the nature of our framework, it was essential for us to use pure a JavaScript-based approach instead of a declarative approach and at that moment, Atlas was the one offering the features we needed."

Pageflakes is developed and operated by Friendix, of Ludwigsburg, Germany.

Al Zabir said Atlas greatest strength is its integration with Microsofts Visual Studio and ASP.Net 2.0. "Its really surprising how easily a really complex site can be developed using Atlas and ASP.Net 2.0 together," he said.

"Both offer great feature sets and integrate so well with each other that when we look at other AJAX [Asynchronous JavaScript and XML] tools in the market nowadays, we can clearly see it was a wise decision to choose Atlas for Pageflakes," he added. "Atlas greatest power is its ability to use a good portion of ASP.Net 2.0 features from the client side like authentication, profile, page method call, etc., and also some really useful client-side controls."

Wait agreed with Al Zabir about Atlas capabilities on the integration front.

"While there are lots of libraries out there that are making it easier to develop AJAX-oriented sites, Atlas is the first one Ive come across that integrates really well into existing sites—weve been able to start adding AJAX functionality to TitleZ without rewriting much of anything," Wait said. "This is extremely powerful. It also means that for new sites, I wont necessarily have to make a lot of AJAX-oriented design decisions up front. I know that Ill have flexibility with how I create my interfaces."

Next Page: Atlas "spans a range of capabilities."

Page 2


Rockford "Rocky" Lhotka, principal technology evangelist at Magenic Technologies, said Magenic has been doing prototyping internally and for customers, using AJAX-style technologies, and "one of the ones weve been using is Atlas."

Lhotka said Atlas "spans a range of capabilities, providing a low-level programmatic library in the browser, a more abstract and often more productive declarative programming model, and perhaps most useful is the integration with ASP.Net 2.0 to allow developers to add dynamic client-side interaction purely by using new server-side ASP.Net controls."

Moreover, Lhotka said his companys prototypes have primarily focused on providing a higher level of interactivity to the user within the browser.

"Many people choose the browser for wide reach, but still really want to provide a Windows-like experience for their users," he said. "Atlas is a good step toward achieving that goal. Obviously, the browser is still a long way from a rich client, but using Atlas weve been able to provide field-by-field validation of data as the user tabs off each field, which is a big issue for user productivity.

"Also, weve been able to radically reduce the number of page refreshes, which makes Web pages feel much more like a Windows application, leading to happier users and more productivity."

Lhotka said the three key strengths of Atlas "are that it is reasonably browser independent—working with both IE [Internet Explorer] and Firefox—and that it integrates into the existing ASP.Net and Visual Studio development models, and finally that it is so flexible."

Hamid Shojaee, president of Axosoft, of Scottsdale, Ariz., which produces Squeet.com, a free e-mail RSS reader, said, "Atlas has allowed us to quickly add rich, client-side UI to many areas of squeet.com. Squeet is an RSS-to-e-mail service where subscriptions are managed on the Web, but the RSS feeds that are subscribed to are delivered via e-mail.

"We have a number of features in Squeet.com now, including a Feed Preview functionality that is driven by Atlas. Additionally, all of the grid-based list views in the application use Atlas to allow for quick execution of paging and sorting, improving the performance of these operations by 500 to 600 percent."

Shojaee said normally implementing AJAX-enabled features is a very developer-demanding and time-consuming activity, which is why most people stay away from it, and which is partly why Axosoft had stayed away from it.

However, "with Atlas, the development time and complexity of AJAX is dramatically reduced, so it takes away the hurdles normally associated with AJAX development. It provides a very rich set of controls and features that improve the user experience with very little code."

Is Microsofts Atlas tool the answer to AJAXs challenges? Click here to read more.

Brian Goldfarb, lead product manager for Web Platform and Tools at Microsoft, said Atlas is a tool developers can use to provide competitive advantage to their enterprise. "Look and feel and emotional connection between a piece of software and the user is becoming a competitive differentiator," Goldfarb said.

Moreover, he noted that "tools for AJAX-style development are pretty immature, so what were trying to do is make AJAX-style development simple and productive."

Keith Smith, senior product manager for Web Platform and Tools, said Microsoft felt the March CTP has progressed the Atlas software enough to provide users with a limited Go-Live license to enable developers to put sites they have been building with Atlas into production. Smith said Microsoft typically does not issue a Go-Live license until the Beta 2 stage of a product.

Smith said the March CTP of Atlas delivers better integration with ASP.Net and bridging to aggregate Web services from third parties. The March CTP also provides additional Atlas server controls for more dynamic user interface functionality.

"Microsoft has done a good job of abstracting away much of the complexity associated with AJAX implementation—but, of course, at times Id like to get back under the hood to do some customization," Wait said.

"Im hoping that theyll provide us with a way to hook into certain Atlas events as they occur, allowing me to provide better feedback to users about whats going on during an AJAX call. Some of that is there already, but I think theres room for improvement in terms of ease of use for the developer in those areas."

Meanwhile, Al Zabir said, "Some of the drawbacks of Atlas include lack of complete support for Opera and Safari browsers, large framework which is always downloaded on the client on each page visit, and some problems with exception handling, which sometimes gives no clue about the source of the problem but just an error message."

However, "the part that needs most improvement is the documentation of Atlas, which is now quite inadequate," he said.

Other developers agreed about the documentation, but noted that for a product not yet in beta they did not expect complete documentation.

"Certainly one thing is clear—even with Atlas, the browsers capabilities simply dont match those of Windows itself," Lhotka said. "The more you want your Web pages to act like Windows, the more expensive it becomes. Atlas helps ease some of that cost and pain, but my feeling is that ultimately Atlas is a bridge between simple HTML and WPF [Windows Presentation Foundation], filling an important niche."

Goldfarb said Atlas will be part of Orcas, the code name for the next version of Visual Studio.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis in Web services.

Rocket Fuel