21 May 2007

Web 2.0 AJAX portal start pages

In the TSSG we have been tracking a number of technologies that converge around the idea of the web browser as a flexible docking station for various applications. I am borrowing for a lot that my colleague Eamonn de Leastar has investigated for this posting. The source of these innovations stems from the desire to create a "My X", such as "My Netscape" or the Google customised home page.

You could say this trend for personalised portals started with the Netscape portal idea of the late 1990s that led to the original RSS 0.90 (Rich Site Summary) in 1999. See this History of RSS if you're interested in that journey. There are things before RSS 0.90, but they weren't called RSS (most importantly Dave Winner's Scripting News format). Since then the alternative Atom format has been developed and standardised in the IETF. This history is also linked to the early W3C semantic web standard RDF (Resource Description Framework), and some RSS versions are subsets of RDF.

So the basic idea was that these feed formats could be used to allow syndication and aggregation of content across many different types of content sources such as newspapers and later blogs, but including weather and other sorts of information flows.

The bigger picture with portals is to allow functionality to be bundled into widgets (small sets of functionality) that can allow a host platform to grow through the use of 3rd party information sources (mini-programs). So the feed is the basic low-level entry point here, a simple flow of textual data marked up with XML in RSS or Atom into headline, content and link to original source. The more complex widgets can then become the requirement becomes for a program rather than just an XML parser to allow the widget to function.

The other concept that has become very important recently has been client-side scripting sometimes called AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), though it doesn't necessarily require JavaScript or even XML to be branded AJAX. Basically it's about using clever client-side web programming techniques to improve the end-user experience, often by pre-fetching server-side data before the user explicitly requests it. Very clever AJAX solutions are emerging that can handle disconnection from the network for periods of time.

One alternative framework to JavaScript is that of Adobe Flash, most commonly associated with multimedia content, but now being used as a light deployment platform (to those with browsers with a Flash plug-in). The latest innovation here is Adobe's Apollo.

The most recent clutch of portal sites are showing some startling effects. Of particular interest where these two:

The former is very slick, the latter is intriguing - have a look at this calendar widget.

It looks like a standard calendar widget. However, look the four buttons along the top, one of them is "Copy to Desktop". i.e. If you have installed the Adobe Apollo engine on your PC (a flash host of some kind) then there is no distinction between these widgets appearing on your desktop or in your browser.

There is a somewhat similar effect in the latest meebo. The IM (Instant Messaging) client emulation has a button which apparently permits the IM window to escape from the browser and live on decoupled. It is in fact another browser instance - but so customised that it looks more or less like Exodus (the open IM Jabber client). No downloads required of course.

Finally, AB5k (Widgets for the World) is the first Java based widgets framework taking advantage of the major (perhaps Eclipse inspired) renovation and improvement of Swing these past 2-3 years. This is currently in pre-alpha but it might have potential once it gets going.

All of these seem a good bit more sophisticated that Google, Yahoo! or netvibes. Whether they are just toys or not remains to be seen...

Posted by mofoghlu at May 21, 2007 10:47 AM | TrackBack
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