Enterprise AJAX

There’s something very interesting going on right now in the enterprise software world. For the first time since the invention of the personal computer, the UI paradigm being used by coders building business applications is richer and more powerful than the approach being used by coders building consumer applications (which usually get all the glory). There has never been a better time to be in an enterprise UI developer.

I realize that that’s a bold statement. Everyone knows that enterprise software is a cesspool of mediocrity. “Enterprise software” is typically more expensive and less functional than almost any other class of software you could mention.The big vendors of enterprise software (SAP and Oracle) have a reputation for interfaces that are truly awful. Meanwhile, rapid innovation is happening in the consumer space, mostly focused around “Web 2.0” startups building all kinds of amazing stuff (from web-based word processors to amazing map applications). So how could enterprise software possibly be ahead of the AJAX whiz-kids of the consumer world?
If you look at the AJAX that is being used in a consumer context, you’ll see the following:
*trivial editing of the existing html being displayed to the user (the Ta-da list update trick)
*control of the users attention using simple animations (the “yellow fade technique”
*simple optimizations of page loading, like downloading sidebars AFTER the main page loads (the way technorati does)
*a lot of rocket science that only google is able to pull off
(There are exceptions to this, and I will address that in a follow-up article).
Is all this really so exciting? Well to us geeks maybe. It’s certainly cool and important. But it’s simultaneously not very revolutionary (many of the greatest AJAX triumphs have been minor tweeks to standard form-based UIs) and too revolutionary (new UI paradigms are being invented on the fly, and users are having to become familiar with them at a rapid pace, which is a bad omen).
Contrast that to what UI toolkit vendors targeting the enterprise and corporate IT markets:
And the open source toolkits that evolved in a corporate IT context
What all these toolkits offer is desktop-like interactivity in a browser-based user interface, This means the ability to develop client-server style applications (with tree views, data grids, menu bars, etc) that run through a browser without plugins. Applications that are just like users are used to using on their desktop, but that do not require installation (since they are web based).
This is not as “sexy” as the consumer AJAX work that is getting all the attention right now, because there’s less innovation in UI paradigm. The jump from client-server to AJAX can be achieved without major UI redesign, as a straightforward port to the browser. On the other hand, there are a lot of advantages to this approach to application development. An extremely high level of interactivity is pushed into the client using this model (through heavy use of drag and drop, more interactive widgets like data grids, tree views, and accordions). Traditional software actually works pretty well at minimizing latency and giving maximum information density and control to the user. Why reinvent the wheel (and retrain your entire user base)?
The upshot of this is that enterprise software developers are in the cat-birds seat. For the first time in their careers, they are positioned to be developing applications that have cutting-edge UI, way better than what is currently being developed for the consumer market. Vendors are targeting enterprise developers with tools to make doing this as easy as possible. Business models are also falling into place: hosted business models (like salesforce.com) have been proven in the enterprise space, and are a perfect fit for zero-deployment rich applications. If you’re doing UI development in enterprise software and you’re not building something really cool, do something about it. This might be your only chance to be truly cutting edge!
Look for a follow-up post on the first stirrings of awareness of this phenomenon among the consumer powerhouses (big hint: it ain’t google!).

4 thoughts on “Enterprise AJAX

  1. Jack October 1, 2005 / 3:03 pm

    Interesting post, Jonathan — thanks.
    Where, if at all, do you see SWF figuring into this renaissance of enterprise GUIs?

  2. jon October 1, 2005 / 4:04 pm

    Short answer: data visualization.
    Longer answer:I see a real divide between the platforms that are targeting the enterpise space (for internal IT of for enterprise software) and the platforms that are targeting the consumer space.
    David Tempkin (of Laszlo) writes and talks a lot about the concept of “Cinematic UI”. Both FLEX and OpenLaszlo seem more targeted towards this kind of high visual impact, animated-transition oriented UI that controls users attention and keeps them engaged. The eye candy adds measurable business value on the consumer side much more than the business side, wherre the value is more associated with the raw efficiency of the UI (minimizing system latency and data entry effort, as measured by GOMS analysis).
    I don’t see swf fitting into conventional data entry business applications very much. Where I think it shines is in data OUTPUT (visualizations, executive dashboards, stuff like that).
    Macromedia describes the following three markets as sweet spots for swf applications.
    *data dashboards
    *guided selling
    *business process automation
    So I guess I’m sceptical about the “business process automation” bullet point.

  3. Matthias October 4, 2005 / 7:08 am

    @Jack: Why “renaissance of enterprise GUIs”? Where do you see analogies?

    @Jon: agree with “data visualization”. Flash has the better drawing facility even with client side processing and manipulation of that. Serverside Flash gains more appreciation, because of framework that implement an abstract layer for programmers. Flash was long time a designer playground. With Flex and OpenLaszlo it becomes accessible for programmers, too. I a former discussion there was the size issue, where you saw flash behind html+js. With pure Actionscript widget libraries like ActionStep and EnFlash there’s another alternative raising. Hold an eye on Actionscript 2.0 and MTASC.

  4. Andrew October 5, 2005 / 7:33 am

    You mentioned SAP as a one of those companies which produce really awful UIs. Although I agree that the typical SAP GUI is pretty bad, the NetWeaver Portal has a much better UI and, surprise, heavily uses AJAX principles.

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