Smoother Surfing

If you want to get a fix on the future of the Internet, have a look at Google's map site. At first glance it may not seem much different from its competitors. But once you type in an address and see your perspective move through the city, street by street, you'll notice something oddly pleasurable about the experience. For one thing, there's no hourglass icon. The change in perspective is seamless. There are no interruptions as your PC waits to download more data from the Web site. The same quality has helped make Google Earth, which pulls together satellite photographs from around the world, one of the biggest Web hits of the year. The easy and natural flow of information on these sites is so popular that a bevy of other U.S. businesses have sprung up to exploit them. If you're looking for an apartment, type the name of the neighborhood into Housingmaps.com and you'll be taken to an aerial map studded with virtual pushpins, one for each real-estate listing. If you want to know if your new neighborhood is safe, mapsexoffenders.com melds Google map information with the local registry of sex offenders and flags the address of every registered bad guy.

What's making all these smooth-scrolling Web applications possible is a technology called Ajax, a variety of computer programs that together make Web sites work as seamlessly as software running on your desktop PC. Although the technology has surfaced most visibly in Google's mapping Web sites, the innovation is not exclusive to Google. In a few months, Ajax has become the driving force behind new Web-based services such as Writely, a free word-processing program; NumSum, a spreadsheet site, and Voo2do, a site that does scheduling and calendar tasks. These Ajax-driven sites are causing a rethinking of the Web's relationship to PCs. Indeed, Ajax could make many PC-based software applications obsolete, and in the process turn much of the computer industry on its head.

Tech whizzes have been predicting for decades that data and computer software would migrate from the desktop to the Internet. As broadband Internet connections grew more commonplace, computers would become slimmer and lighter; they would lose their bulky hard drives and become primarily portals to the Internet and its servers, which would do most of the crunching for word processing, spreadsheet and other programs, as well as be a repository of data. Although the Web has brought some of this vision to fruition, a drawback has been the herky-jerky quality of Web connections, which occur when a PC waits for the server to dole out data. Ajax doesn't so much solve this problem as cover it up. By acting as a buffer between the Web server and the PC, Ajax artificially smooths out the Web experience and tricks you into thinking that there's no discontinuity. You can still scroll down through Google Earth's aerial views even though your PC hasn't finished loading the finer resolution photographs. As it turns out, this subtle difference is enough to change the psychology of Web surfing. Ajax doesn't speed up the data, but it makes the wait less frustrating.

So far, the number of Web-based applications is too small to challenge PC-based software. But the prospect of a shift away from the desktop has begun to worry the mandarins at Microsoft. With its near monopoly of the desktop, Microsoft was slow to see the change coming. "In the years following the [2001] antitrust settlement, and following the elimination of Netscape as a serious competitor, Microsoft has been a little bit adrift," says Jesse James Garrett, a founder of consulting firm Adaptive Path. Microsoft's chief technology officer, Ray Ozzie, admitted as much in an internal memo leaked in October: "We should've been leaders with all our Web properties in harnessing the potential of ajax."

The rise of Ajax is especially embarrassing to Microsoft because some of the key technology was invented there in 1997 but never went anywhere in the company. To be fair, the potential of Ajax wasn't obvious to anyone. Ajax (it stands for Asynchronous JavaScript+CSS+DOM+ XMLHttpRequest) is not a single invention; it's a fusion of computer programs developed at many different places, all in the public domain. Independent software developers first began to appreciate what these programs could do in combination about a year ago. Programmer Ethan Diamond, a founder of software firm Oddpost, used Ajax to give Web-based e-mail the feel of running on a desktop. "In 1999, I used to use [Microsoft's] Outlook Express at home, and Yahoo! e-mail when I was traveling," he says. "I wasn't using Yahoo at home because the interface wasn't up to Outlook's quality. But we decided that we could make something close to it with Ajax." Yahoo bought Oddpost in 2004, and Diamond is now developing an Ajax-based version of Yahoo mail. "Every single [e-mail] company is in competition to develop applications that use Ajax," he says.

Flickr, the popular photo-sharing Web site, uses Ajax to allow users to instantly add titles or descriptions to their photographs, to add photos to a collection of favorites, or to view the next, or previous, photo in a series. "I don't think Flickr would have caught on in the same way it did without the capabilities Ajax provides," says Stewart Butterfield, Flickr's founder and CEO. Ajax makes the site "not just faster, but cooler, more intuitive."

Ajax does more than simulate a desktop. It also enables Web sites to pull together information from different sources and present them--seamlessly--to the surfer. Housingmaps.com takes addresses of houses for sale from Craigslist and combines them with Google's maps. News & Bible (say4.com) matches keywords from the news to passages in the Bible. Dealmine.com aggregates discounts available from many sources.

No one thinks that Ajax is going to make desktop computing disappear entirely. Browsers still aren't able to do the kind of heavy-duty image or video processing that desktop programs like PhotoShop or Final Cut can. But desktop programming will likely be increasingly relegated to specialized tasks that need brute computing power. Some of Microsoft's key products--Word, Excel and so forth--may be vulnerable to competition from Ajax versions offered by other companies. Microsoft is responding by incorporating Ajax into its products. "Now that the cat is out of bag, so to speak, and Ajax is moving from an early adopter technology to something that's arousing the curiosity of the average user, our role... is to make sure that it's available to as broad an audience as possible," says Tim O'Brien, a group manager in Microsoft's Platform Strategy Group. Ozzie's memo, he says, was a wake-up call. Microsoft has launched its own Ajax-enabled mapping application, called Windows Live Local, and is developing a product, codenamed Atlas, that it says will make it easier to program in Ajax. It is also working on an Ajax version of Office, which would make its Word and Excel programs available as a service rather than stand-alone products.

The first battle of the Ajax wars, though, clearly goes to the likes of Google and Yahoo. "What Google did was create a really tasty recipe," says Garrett. "They used these technologies to create a more dynamic experience for the user." Your move, Microsoft.