AOL Bets Big on AJAX

An AOL executive says AJAX helps the online mega-community run and empowers developers to use the company's platform to build their own Web applications.

BOSTON—America Online, the creator of one of the largest online communities, has done so with the help of Asynchronous JavaScript and XML technology, a company executive said.

In a keynote at The AJAX Experience conference here, William Morris, vice president of products and technology, who works at AOLs Silicon Valley campus in Mountain View, Calif., said AJAX technologies and AJAX-style development has been a cornerstone of AOLs advancement on the Web.

For his part, Morris said AJAX is one of the underlying design principles used by AOL to create the companys most popular applications and services that are used by millions of people around the world.

Indeed, the company is looking ahead and helping to build accessibility standards for AJAX, Morris said. The companys future direction also includes continued work with open-source technologies and standards bodies, as well as working to develop, consume and publish microformats, he said.

Microformats are markups that enable expression of semantics in an HTML (or XHTML) Web page.

One of the new initiatives AOL is working on is its new Web AIM (AOLs Instant Messenger) APIs, Morris said. The Web AIM APIs allow easy and seamless integration of AIM functionality into Web pages, he said.

The Web AIM, also known as WIM, provides a distributed, instant community, and helps to create an instant network by matching users with people on their Buddy List, Morris said.

Moreover, the technology is "great for the enterprise and intranet and Internet," he said. It features lightweight deployment, and is implemented using JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) and URL-based APIs, he said.

And service-level access allows developers to customize how the AIM experience is integrated, Morris added.

"You can do mashups using the new Web AIM API, and you can embed a buddy list anywhere on the page," Morris said. "AIM is very highly used in the enterprise," and this gives enterprise developers an opportunity to build the AIM experience directly into enterprise applications using AJAX technology, he said.

This expands on OpenAIM, which the company announced earlier this year. However, OpenAIM was restricted to desktop applications and did not cover Web sites, intranets or online communities.

Morris said a beta version of the technology would be available in November.

Meanwhile, AOL enables developers to use a variety of APIs or AIM plug-ins as well as APIs from its various units—such as Mapquest, AOL Music Now, Boxely, AOL Video, AOL Pictures, and Userplane, among others—to build applications, Morris said.

The enormity of AOLs community requires a versatile infrastructure, he said. AOL sees 113 million domestic monthly unique visitors, 52 billion domestic monthly page views, and sends 2 billion instant messages across its network a day.

"Imagine the kind of technology solutions and creativity that allows sending 2 billions IMs a day," Morris said.

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In terms of languages and development environments, AOL uses Java, JSP (JavaServer Pages), Servlets, J2EE (Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition), C and C++, Microsofts .Net platform, C# and AJAX for browser and front-end development, he said.

AOL has nearly a dozen products that use AJAX or AJAX-like technologies, Morris said. "Weve focused on applications, but beneath them we have AJAX technology."

Morris said AOLs use of AJAX technology goes back to the 1999-2000 time frame, when AOL acquired a company called iAmaze.

IAmaze was a small San Francisco startup company specializing in dynamic HTML Web application development. The company went on to produce a suite of four applications: Presenter, a presentation tool; Author, a word-processor; and Chat and Calendar, which are considered to be among the first generation of interactive Web applications based on AJAX.

Morris said the iAmaze team went on to become known as DIG (Dynamic Interface Group) within AOL and they were responsible for the DHTML user interface in such products as AOL Webmail, AOL Calendar AOL/Netscape Radio, MusicNet and AIM Express.

Morris said overall the AOL DIG framework was used as a common platform to build Web applications. In 2005, AOL used AJAX for its popular photo sharing service—AOL Pictures. And this year the company began using the popular Dojo Toolkit (an AJAX developer toolkit) for AIM Pages and many other products within AOL, he said.

Morris said AOL chose to use AJAX and DHTML because "We wanted experiences that closely mirrored client experiences. Mail is a key application—high scale, high usage—and we wanted updates without refreshes. Media is another key app, and we wanted an environment thats as dynamic as the content and media."

However, the move to AJAX was not without challenges. "At first we mimicked the AOL client experience too closely," he said. And although generic platforms were built, they also got too intertwined (both technology and teams) with individual products, Morris said.

In addition, AOL ran into difficulty building a platform at the same time as building out its products, he said. Cross-browser capabilities also became a concern, as did performance and "Back" button issues.

And a major challenge was finding qualified AJAX developers, Morris said.

Yet, AOL prevailed in its AJAX thrust and is now a major contributor to the Dojo Foundation and in fact uses Dojo on large-scale applications such as AIM Pages and the "I Am Alpha" site, which is a place for developers and designers to learn how to create their own modules and themes, test them and upload them to AIM Pages.

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