In the 1990s, web browsers and web sites lacked the sophistication to provide a quick and responsive user experience. Online form entry could be tedious, since all the requested information had to be entered and then submitted to the web server. The form data was validated and if there were problems, the same form was again presented to the user. The flow of information and the resulting experience was choppy and disconnected, reflecting the stateless nature of HTTP.
Asynchronous loading of content really became practical when Java applets were introduced in the first version of the Java language in 1995. These allow compiled client-side code to load data asynchronously from the web server after a web page is loaded. In 1996, Internet Explorer introduced the IFrame element to HTML, which also enables this to be achieved. In 1999, Microsoft created the XMLHTTP ActiveX control in Internet Explorer 5, which is now supported by Mozilla, Safari, Opera and other browsers as the native XMLHttpRequest object. The utility of background HTTP requests to the server and asynchronous web technologies remained fairly obscure until Google made a wide deployment of Ajax with Gmail (2004) and Google Maps (2005).
The term “Ajax” was coined in 2005. Jesse James Garrett thought of the term “Ajax” while in the shower, when he realized the need for a shorthand term to represent the suite of technologies he was proposing to a client.
The term Ajax has come to represent a broad group of web technologies that can be used to implement a web application that communicates with a server in the background, without interfering with the current state of the page. In the article that coined the term Ajax, Jesse James Garrett explained that the following technologies are required:
- HTML or XHTML and CSS for presentation
- the Document Object Model for dynamic display of and interaction with data
- XML and XSLT for the interchange, and manipulation and display, of data, respectively
- the XMLHttpRequest object for asynchronous communication
Since then, however, there have been a number of developments in the technologies used in an Ajax application, and the definition of the term Ajax. In particular, it has been noted that:
- In many cases, related pages on a website consist of much content that is common between them. Using traditional methods, that content would have to be reloaded on every request. However, using Ajax, a web application can request only the content that needs to be updated, thus drastically reducing bandwidth usage and load time.
- The use of asynchronous requests allows the client’s Web browser UI to be more interactive and to respond quickly to inputs, and sections of pages can also be reloaded individually. Users may perceive the application to be faster or more responsive, even if the application has not changed on the server side.
- The use of Ajax can reduce connections to the server, since scripts and style sheets only have to be requested once.
- Owing to their dynamic nature, Ajax interfaces are often harder to develop when compared to static pages.
- Pages dynamically created using successive Ajax requests do not automatically register themselves with the browser’s history engine, so clicking the browser’s “back” button may not return the user to an earlier state of the Ajax-enabled page, but may instead return them to the last full page visited before it. Workarounds include the use of invisible IFrames to trigger changes in the browser’s history and changing the anchor portion of the URL (following a #) when Ajax is run and monitoring it for changes.
- Dynamic web page updates also make it difficult for a user to bookmark a particular state of the application. Solutions to this problem exist, many of which use the URL fragment identifier (the portion of a URL after the ‘#’) to keep track of, and allow users to return to, the application in a given state.
- The same origin policy prevents some Ajax techniques from being used across domains, although the W3C has a draft of the XMLHttpRequest object that would enable this functionality.
- Like other web technologies, Ajax has its own set of vulnerabilities that developers must address. Developers familiar with other web technologies may have to learn new testing and coding methods to write secure Ajax applications.
- Ajax-powered interfaces may dramatically increase the number of user-generated requests to web servers and their back-ends (databases, or other). This can lead to longer response times and/or additional hardware needs.