Google Pioneers Use Old Microsoft Tools In New Web Programs
By Lee Gomes Wall Street Journal
March 14, 2005; Page B1
Meet Ajax, the technology powerhouse. For years, it has been living indolently on your computer, never really doing much of anything.
In the past few months, though, computer programmers, most notably those at Google, have begun to wake up Ajax and put it to work. And as a result, the computer industry may never be the same.
To see what they are capable of, go to maps.google.com, zoom into a location, click inside the map and then drag the image around. It's Ajax that is moving the map for you, scrolling it much faster than you're probably used to on the Web.
Browsers have been getting and displaying information since the Web began. What's new is that Ajax lets them do so in a speedier way. In the past, to change even a small part of a Web page required reloading the entire page. But Ajax knows to fetch only the part of the screen that needs changing -- like the edges of the Google map window as you move around.
Because less information is being sent from the main server, things move more quickly. That takes Ajax applications a big step toward the Holy Grail of having the kinds of speed and responsiveness in Web-based programs that's usually associated only with desktop software, like Microsoft Office.
Sealing the Ajax deal for many programmers is the fact that everything required for it is standard, generic software that isn't owned by any company and that exists in every browser. It's as if someone discovered how, just by doing a little welding in a car engine, you could double the car's gasoline mileage.
The term Ajax was coined last month by Jesse James Garrett, of the San Francisco Web consulting firm Adaptive Path. He came up with the pseudo-acronym in the shower while searching for a shorthand way to explain to clients how the recent offerings by Google can perform so robustly.
Google, notes Mr. Garrett, isn't the first to use Ajax. Pieces can be seen on Netflix, the film-rental site, and Flickr, a photo-sharing site. But Google has done the most with it, betting the farm on Ajax not only for Maps but also for its Gmail free e-mail service and several other offerings. (Not all Google software uses Ajax; its popular Toolbar, for example, doesn't.)
Google is also one of the most closely watched technology companies on Earth, so now that it has shown that Ajax can result in powerful applications used daily by millions of people, software programmers everywhere are getting excited.
The winners here are anyone who wants to build a new generation of Internet programs, especially Google, which hasn't been shy about moving into areas previously connected with Microsoft.
Another potential loser, of course, is Microsoft, which doesn't much like the fact that its upstart rival Google is setting the agenda for the world's computer programmers -- and in such an offhanded way at that. (Google is way too cool for anything as gauche as news releases; it usually just puts new programs on its Web site and waits for the world to beat a path to its door. Much of the explication of Google's innovative work was done by outside programmers like Jim Ley in London and Philip Lindsay in New Zealand.)
There is a barn-sized irony in all this. Many of the Ajax technologies were developed by Microsoft, back when it was fighting Sun over Java. At the time, Microsoft was beefing up Internet Explorer to make it a rival to Java. Now those tools exist everywhere, even in the hands of Microsoft rivals.
The obvious question is how far programmers at Google or elsewhere can go with Ajax. Specifically, can they build Ajax versions of Word or Excel, thus threatening half of Microsoft's revenue? Of course, schemes to take down Microsoft are as old as the hills. And Microsoft has long argued that it has so many years of intense development in Office that a newcomer couldn't easily duplicate the familiar Office user experience, certainly not in a Web application, even a newfangled one.
Maybe this time, though, the technology pieces for a successful challenge are finally in place. Disk storage, for one, is now so cheap that it would cost Google mere pennies to store all of the average person's word-processing files.
Google, naturally, isn't saying what it will do next. And when you talk to its programmers, like Paul Buchheit, the brains behind Gmail, they say all they're doing is writing cool programs, the sort they themselves enjoy using.
It's as though any discussion of the larger strategic uses of their software would be somehow, well, unseemly. You can bet, though, that Bill Gates wouldn't be so coy.
================================ George Antunes, Political Science Dept University of Houston; Houston, TX 77204 Voice: 713-743-3923 Fax: 713-743-3927 antunes at uh dot edu
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