Windows Live, Ajax

· by Steve · Read in about 3 min · (504 Words)

Is it me, or does ‘Windows Live’ cry out for an exclamation mark at the end? This is Microsoft’s new initiative of online, dynamic services in their attempt to take on the Googles and Yahoos of this world in the online space. You can see a small demo site here.

Now, let’s be clear about terms. When I say ‘new’, I mean ‘new to Microsoft’ - since the concept of a user-customisable portal system, pulling in content such as RSS feeds, shared documents and webmail, and paying for it through either subscription or advertising is very very old indeed. Been there, done that. I happen to dislike using online portal systems run by third parties, which have the nefarious ability to do things like scan the content of my email for potential marketing information (please don’t tell me you didn’t know GMail / Hotmail / Yahoo could do that) - if I want a persistent online repository, I do it using my own servers that I control. But even so, this concept is almost as old as the World Wide Web, and certainly nothing to get excited about. I was extremely underwhelmed by the beta site above, it doesn’t even come close to alternatives that have been around for some time already. And MS expect you to use this, with it’s inherent bias towards other MS solutions (echewing open source in particular) in preference to other more functional systems already available? Someone is having a laugh.

The other fad of late is AJAX, which stands for Asynchronous Javascript And XML. It’s all about making websites more responsive by using client-side scripting to dynamically alter the page, and to communicate asynchronously with the web server using XML in the background. It’s technically nothing new - we’ve been able to do this for years, but the techniques have previously been quite ad-hoc, and AJAX brings some standard, accepted techniques to the table. Anyone using Google’s ancilliary services such as GMail, Google Maps and even Google Groups (if you’re registered) use this and it works well. I do have one reservation about it though - I’ve always avoided modifying content significantly (rather than just simple things like hiding / showing sections) through Javascript due to accessibility issues. People with impaired sight are likely to be using a screen reader, and modiying the content on the fly confuses screen readers no end. So really, making use of AJAX to the extent that really justifies it inherently means that you’d be breaking accessiblity (which you can actually be sued for under anti-distrimination laws in the UK), and as such you’d have to provide a non-AJAX version of the site for those people you’d otherwise be excluding (which incidentally would also give you a version for those who had Javascript disabled). Some people already do this sort of thing for flash / non-flash versions of their sites, so I guess it’s nothing new, but it’s something to consider whilst surfing the current propaganda wave that AJAX is riding right now.