The Test Center guide to rich Web app dev tools

Frameworks for rich Internet applications can be lightweight or heavyweight, open or closed, and almost anything in between

Rich Internet applications, or RIAs, comprise a spectrum of application types and technologies. The lightweight end of the spectrum has seen most of the attention in recent months, with Microsoft's Silverlight and Adobe's AIR (Application Integrated Runtime) getting attention as the new kids in town. But AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) is still where most of the lightweight action resides. And despite the recent focus on lightweight app dev, significant developer focus remains on the heavyweight tools in the Microsoft .Net and Sun Java worlds.

AJAX anchors the lightweight end

The lightweight tools are anchored by AJAX or Web 2.0 applications, which add richness and responsiveness to standard Web sites with asynchronous JavaScript libraries: that's the "AJA" part of "AJAX." The "X" stands for "XML," but these days XML is not the only data format used by such libraries; it's also common to see asynchronous data exchange in JSON, HTML, and plain text formats.

AJAX is powered by several technologies. One key piece is Dynamic HTML, a browser feature that allows JavaScript libraries to manipulate the contents of a page on the client, even after it has been initially displayed. Another key piece is XMLHttpRequest, which is a lightweight back channel to the server that JavaScript can call from the client.

AJAX is used to extend a wide variety of Web server application technologies. You can, of course, use it to enhance otherwise static HTML pages with data-driven content, but it's more customary to couple AJAX on the client with scripted Web servers. Ruby on Rails makes adding AJAX features especially easy. Microsoft ASP.Net AJAX, as the name implies, enhances ASP.Net sites with AJAX features, and includes Visual Studio integration; the Microsoft AJAX Library can also be used with other types of sites. Integrating AJAX libraries with Java/JSEE sites can be done manually with some effort, but tools and libraries such as the Google Web Toolkit, Tibco General Interface, and ThinkCAP JX make it much simpler.

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