Obstacles to developing web apps ‘critical issue’

They must be overcome, conference attendees say

Obstacles to developing web applications was a critical issue on the minds of Java developers at TheServerside Java Symposium held recently in Las Vegas.

Web application development technologies include scripting offerings such as AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript plus XML), and frameworks such as JavaServer Faces, Struts and Tapestry. During an opening interactive session, audience members and panelists focused primarily on issues with AJAX, although a need to boost programmer productivity in Java in general was also cited.

One attendee predicted AJAX and POJOs (Plain Old Java Objects) would make a big difference to the building of web applications. Also, symposium panellist Patrick Linskey, an engineer at BEA Systems, predicted that in 2006, someone will find a meaningful way to wire up a server-side AJAX framework with a non-browser-based client side.

“That’s where I think Web 2.0 starts to get really interesting,” says Linskey, who used to be the CTO at SolarMetric, which was acquired by BEA.

But another audience member questioned the viability of running multiple AJAX applications in a browser, which can result in crashes.

“How much can you load into a browser?” the attendee asked.

A rush to AJAX was also a concern. “We’ve noticed major architectural decisions that were very poorly thought out,” because of rushing to AJAX, an audience member says.

AJAX also lacks good tools, according to panellist Cedric Beust of Google. “Writing AJAX applications is a lot more challenging than writing client applications mostly because of the tools,” Beust says.

Panellist Hani Sulieman, CTO of Formicary, says he favours the desktop. “In terms of richness of experience, I think the desktop is way superior to the browser,” Hani says.

The Ruby on Rails open source web framework featuring AJAX did not get wholehearted endorsement, with an audience member saying it lacked maturity.

The quality of error messages is non-existent, for example, the audience member says.

AJAX technologies are not new, says Craig McLanahan, a Sun Microsystems staff engineer, in a subsequent presentation at the conference.

But what is new is a synergy between the ability to have XMLHttpRequest implementations in browsers and robust DHTML (Dynamic HTML) and JavaScript implementations.

Speaking on the issue of web frameworks, developers face five principal issues in choosing one, according to McLanahan. These include:

• Modelling of page navigation decisions

• Provisions for accessing model-tier data

• Representations of static and dynamic mark-up

• Mapping incoming requests to business logic

• Whether the framework has a user interface component model.

“What’s interesting about web frameworks in particular is, when you step back from all the details, most of the frameworks are dealing with exactly the same set of issues,” McLanahan says.

Providing updates on some noteworthy frameworks, McLanahan says JavaServer Faces 1.2 is almost final and cleans up incompatibilities with JavaServer Pages technology.

The Shale 1.2 framework is being readied for released in alpha form, he says.

Web application frameworks have addressed usability limitations in low-level, standard APIs and encouraged better architectures by separating concerns, McLanahan says.

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