Thursday, May 11, 2006

10 Business Reasons to Use AJAX

I'm not sure where on the hype curve we are with AJAX, but one of the open question for businesses is: why and where should you consider using AJAX? I give ten places, in declining order of urgency, where the use of AJAX should be considered. Most of this innovation will be undertaken without all of the "it's the web!" hype of the dotcom boom. Don't expect to see "AJAX Inside" labels on product packaging. Expect businesses instead to emphasize the improved functionality, usability and solutions that their RIA software provides.

  1. ASP's with existing applications. This ship has already sailed. The ASP's include GMail and Yahoo Mail, but extend to places like,, and so on. The lower the switching costs, as in the case of email services, the more vulnerable you are to being overtaken by your slicker, more usable AJAX enabled competition. The argument for the consumers of ASP's is simple: reduced labor costs. If you can save 30 seconds on each operation, the ROI is easy to see.
  2. ISV's that have products with web-based interfaces. AJAX has already disturbed the world of portals, with drag-and-drop portlets eliminating the need for clunky layout and content pages. But here the opportunities are vast, covering everything from dashboard and monitoring apps with async updates, OLAP tools with drill-down capabilities, Document Management apps with improved browsing, viewing and search, Workflow and BPM tools with improved diagramming, etc.
  3. ISV's that have products without web-based interfaces. Some applications just didn't translate well to the web. They had rich, direct manipulation interfaces, or some other features that just couldn't be translated into a forms-and-reports webapp. On the development front, modeling tools, which hove lived on the desktop or in client/sever land, are a possible target, as are other products where collaboration may make up for the lack of convenience of an application that requires a network connection to work. Desktop productivity applications, e.g. spreadsheets, word processors, and so on, have been seeing a lot of activity in the development of AJAX, but there I think that the collaborative spreadsheet may be the way to go. Product managers need to analyze whether their previously protected apps now need to put a web face on. That and the next item...
  4. ISV's whose products can now be ASP'd. We've already mentioned the desktop productivity apps as an area of AJAX activity. And anything that can be turned into an AJAX app can also be ASP'd. But the real question is, if you build it, will they come? Desktop productivity apps are not the best candidates for this opportunity if collaboration isn't involved. PowerPoint or other presentation apps that are typically used in environments where connectivity is uncertain will certainly not make the cut. But applications that are used occasionally -- some of Adobe's product line comes to mind: Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. -- and have a big price tag, may be a good fit.
  5. E-commerce. There is the argument that AJAX can help your customers accomplish their tasks more quickly and result in less cart abandonment. The real reason may be credibility, however. This Stanford study back from 2002 shows that credibility is tied to visual design rather than content. If your web site looks like something from last year, you're likely to fall behind in consumer perception. Old Navy has already put some AJAX enable shopping enhancements in place, as have Gap and Banana Republic. Look for other e-tailers to follow their lead.
  6. Financial services. Certainly some of the same credibility arguments apply to Financial Services as they do to E-Commerce, so does Jakob Nielsen's argument for the competitive advantage of usability. The financial services industry has long adopted rich interaction and async update in spots, like ETrade's flash stock information widget. But look for banking, insurance and other providers who offer complex products to adopt the RIA experience offered by AJAX.
  7. Tool makers. Technically not a use of AJAX, but closely related. IDE's, frameworks. There's lots of activity on this front. TibCO has entered the the fray with it's GI product, and it does incorporate AJAX -- it runs in the browser. Expect all of the big IDE and tool makers to add support for AJAX if they haven't already. Expect all of the app server vendors to add AJAX support. Same for the web servers, messaging middleware, etc.
  8. Infrastructure providers. Again not technically a use of AJAX, but closely related. Expect a big explosion of new AJAX supporting infrastructure software. Firewalls, load balancers and other network appliances will need to be retooled to meet the new performance needs and profiles of AJAX applications.
  9. Community site providers. The line between forums and chat, bookmarks and collaboration is blurring. Usability, credibility are again part of competitive advantage in this space. Yes, the network effect is the strongest factor, and a nifty AJAX upstart isn't going to dislodge Myspace, but for smaller, less well established community categories, it still could be a factor.
  10. Content providers/Media. This category includes newspapers, magazines, online news sites, etc. This category is a tough call, as it illustrates the conflict between the old web technology and ways of doing things and the new AJAX technology. On the one hand, news and media sites have a proven, bookmarkable, searchable page model that works well with their advertising-driven business model. The bell-weather of newspapers, the NYT, has limited their improvements to collaborative filtering and enhanced multimedia resources, while the WSJ has added some AJAX enabled selection-based search, so the movement here seems somewhat tepid at the moment. Look for improvements that enhance but don't fundamentally change the user experience.

Right now the hype of AJAX hasn't resulted in a whole lot of activity in the corporate ranks. Product managers are wisely keeping their powder dry and waiting for the technology to mature. But the pressure to respond to competition will ultimately drive a wave to retooling -- in the 10 places above and elsewhere.