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Tools You Can't Live Without and the Soviet Bread Line

Posted by edort on March 24, 2007 at 12:43 PM PDT

This is my second blog entry from the ServerSide Java Symposium. In my first blog I ended with the statement that I've already learned a few things and hope to learn a lot more. Well I did. What I learned over the next few hours was that if you're going to do Ajax applications, you better have good tools. I also learned that channeling almost 600 people through two lunch buffet lines makes for a pretty long wait to get food.

O.K. O.K., the second of those items seems pretty grouchy. Actually I did pick up some interesting things, some of which came in a technical talk, enticing titled " Ajax and JavaScript: Down and Dirty." What I expected here was a heavy duty technical talk -- delving deep into code. Indeed there were some code examples, but I found the talk high level enough to come way with some general notions about how to effectively develop Ajax applications.

The speaker for this session was Justin Gehtland. Justin is the co-founder of a consultancy called Relevance, the author of several books, an in-demand speaker, and also the developer of an open-source development framework called Streamlined.

Justin mentioned a number of things that were particularly interesting to me. Some of them are:

  • 90% of all Ajax applications started out as standard HTML applications.
  • Under the hood, Ajax is just a web request that doesn't force a page to refresh itself.
  • There are two radically different concerns that you need to have when you develop an Ajax application: what the client looks like and what you put across the wire.
  • If you're an Ajax developer there are a set of tools you can't afford not to have.

Yup -- he used the dreaded double negative in that statement, but Gehtland made an excellent point. If you don't have the right tools for developing Ajax apps, you're not going to do Ajax apps -- at least not well or quickly. Gehtland said that Firefox is a must-have tool (at least for him) " because it has the best 'toys' for developers." Gehtland said that IE is catching up, but other tools such as Safari are nowhere close. And what are those toys? Gehtland listed these:

  • Firebug. This tool allows you to see what messages get sent to the server and what the server sends back. Gehtland said that this is a very important feature because sometimes in testing you get no results so you really need to see what's going on under the covers. Firebug also has a JavaScript debugger and an HTML inspector. Gehtland said "If I didn't have Firebug I'd just give up."
  • Cross check. This is an open-source toolkit that has an emulation environment for every major browser. Gehtland pointed out that the biggest problem in testing JavaScript code is that no two runtime environments for JavaScript are alike. Cross check solves that problem because of its emulators.
  • Web developer toolbar. This toolbar provides a variety of neat functions such as editing CSS in place and validating HTML.
  • .

Gehtland also spent a good amount of time in this talk covering the three things that can be sent back across the wire in response to a JavaScript request: HTML, structured data such as JSON, and JavaScript. He also discussed when to use each of these approaches and why.

I thought this was a very good talk and Gehtland was a very good speaker. I think I'll do a web search and see if I can find some other pearls of Ajax-JavaScript wisdom from Mr. Gehtland.

Now for the Soviet breadline ... After Gehtland's talk, the 150+ folks attending the session piled into the hallway to hit the buffet lunch (which BTW was sponsored by Sun). Two buffet tables awaited. What also awaited were two lines of more than 350 people. It almost seemed like there were more people in the lunch lines than attended the sessions. Maybe folks registered for the conference just for the food (not!). Needless to say, it took me about half an hour to get to the food. I would have chucked the idea and gone to a food vendor, but I got into an interesting conversation with someone waiting in line next to me. It seems he's a development manager for a software company. One of the interesting things he told me was that that he used to go to JavaOne Conferences, but he found that they got too big. Bigness led to some logistical problems. He said that unless you got a hotel room near the sessions you wanted to attend you sometimes found that you couldn't get to them on time. I hadn't heard this before. I don't know if this is a real problem or not. Although with the growing number of registrants to the JavaOne Conference in recent years, this might be an issue that needs to be addressed by the folks who run this year's Conference.