Friday, February 02, 2007

"Bootstrapping Web2.0": BCS SPA, 31-JAN-2007

According to presenter Adrian Van Emmenis this was "a brief, superficial and opinionated look at web technology past, present and future." In reality it was a splendid broadside against the current state of web development, with a quick scoot through AJAX, RIA, etc tacked on the end. Van did put up a big BETA! sign, presumably to cover any inaccuracies or problems with timing (very Web2.0).

Ninety minutes of splenetics runs the risk of boredom but Van did his best make his rant entertaining. His Powerpoint was lovely to look at (even though it broke all the rules - too many slides, too many words, too much animation). The SPA Players (Van with Immo Huneke) did a skit set in a greengrocers to illustrate the problems that the Back button poses for e-commerce. And he has a lovely turn of phrase, for instance, describing Java Server Pages as "a blizzard of punctuation".

So, according to Van, what is wrong with Web1.0?
  • The REST model is suitable for static pages but inappropriate for dynamic or stateful transactions.
  • Browsers are all different and broken.
  • Developers are confused about when to use GET and POST, when to use buttons and links.
  • CSS is a nightmare; furthermore it is used by non-programmers who teach themselves from books written by non-programmers.
  • Page refresh/back button/browser caching cause problems within transactions, which often result in users being confronted with unhelpful error messages (POSTDATA)
  • Browsers are all different and broken.

There are toolkits available to make lifer easier (PHP, JSP, ASP, Ruby On Rails, .Net, Django, etc, etc) but in Van's analysis they all suffer from one major problem: they try to work with HTML pages, but inserting their own markup. This is a mistake because HTML is not a good programming language.

At last, Web2.0

Of course, we all know that Web2.0 is made of badgers paws but the engine driving it is AJAX. This is just a catchy rebranding of some JavaScript routines and the use of XmlHttpRequest. I hadn't appreciated before, but it is the latter thing which is crucial to the improved user experience, because it allows post calls to communicate with the web server without causing a page refresh. Consequently the page can be altered dynamically without breaking the transaction.

AJAX on its own is (apparently) complicated. So there are lots of AJAX toolkits springing up. These all seem to have their own library and markup language, and some require plug-ins too. The key thing is, AJAX is still basically fiddling with markup. In Van's opinion a more sensible solution would be to have the pages abstracted into a stack of widgets stored on the server. Events should be communicated from the browser to the server, the changes calculated there and the resultant HTML returned to the browser as a delta. I had a spooky feeling as I listened to Van because this is the model for Oracle web-deployed Forms, which is being junked in favour of Java Server Faces with added AJAX sprinkles.

Oracle Forms uses an applet to achieve this marvel. Applets are very Web0.5 and never really took off. There are a number of reasons for this but the biggest hurdle remains the problem of installing a Java browser plug-in, which is harder than the equivalent task for Flash. Partly this was due to the wrangles between Microsoft and Sun, but Oracle didn't help their cause by insisting on the Jiniator plug-in. These proprietary issues show why Oracle, like so many others, are attracted by the promise of open standards.

No discussion of Web2.0 would be complete without a swipe at some of the more vacuous offerings. Van introduced us to Zebo, a site where you can list everything you own and then network with other people who own the same things. Brilliant! Although, for a demonstration of Web2.0's potential to generate revenue out of nothing in its purest form check out this Business2.0 interview with Richard Rosenblatt, the man who sold MySpace to Rupert Murdoch for $$$.


There is a very cool albeit evangelical video about Web2.0 on (where else) YouTube. pdp has posted a perceptive retort to this video on his GNUCitizen blog, stressing the cross-scripting perils of Web2.0.


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