UKOLN AHDS An Introduction to AJAX

What Is AJAX?

Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) is an umbrella term for a collection of Web development technologies used to create interactive Web applications, mostly W3C standards (the XMLHttpRequest specification is developed by WHATWG [1]:

Since data can be sent and retrieved without requiring the user to reload an entire Web page, small amounts of data can be transferred as and when required. Moreover, page elements can be dynamically refreshed at any level of granularity to reflect this. An AJAX application performs in a similar way to local applications residing on a user's machine, resulting in a user experience that may differ from traditional Web browsing.

The Origins of AJAX

Recent examples of AJAX usage include Gmail [2], Flickr [3] and 24SevenOffice [4]. It is largely due to these and other prominent sites that AJAX has become popular only relatively recently - the technology has been available for some time. One precursor was dynamic HTML (DHTML), which twinned HTML with CSS and JavaScript but suffered from cross-browser compatibility issues. The major technical barrier was a common method for asynchronous data exchange; many variations are possible, such as the use of an "iframe" for data storage or JavaScript Object Notation for data transmission, but the wide availability of the XMLHttpRequest object has made it a popular solution. AJAX is not a technology, rather, the term refers to a proposed set of methods using a number of existing technologies. As yet, there is no firm AJAX standard, although the recent establishment of the Open AJAX group [5], supported by major industry figures such as IBM and Google, suggests that one will become available soon.

Using AJAX

AJAX applications can benefit both the user and the developer. Web applications can respond much more quickly to many types of user interaction and avoid repeatedly sending unchanged information across the network. Also, because AJAX technologies are open, they are supported in all JavaScript-enabled browsers, regardless of operating system - however, implementation differences of the XMLHttpRequest between browsers cause some issues, some using an ActiveX object, others providing a native implementation. The upcoming W3C 'Document Object Model (DOM) Level 3 Load and Save Specification' [6] provides a standardised solution, but the current solution has become a de facto standard and is therefore likely to be supported in future browsers.

Although the techniques within AJAX are relatively mature, the overall approach is still fairly new and there has been criticism of the usability of its applications; further information on this subject is available in the Ajax and Usability QA Focus briefing document [7]. One of the major causes for concern is that JavaScript needs to be enabled in the browser for AJAX applications to work. This setting is out of the developer's control and statistics show that currently 10% of browsers have JavaScript turned off [8]. This is often for accessibility reasons or to avoid scripted viruses.


The popularity of AJAX is due to the many advantages of the technology, but several pitfalls remain related to the informality of the standard, its disadvantages and limitations, potential usability issues and the idiosyncrasies of various browsers and platforms. However, the level of interest from industry groups and communities means that it is undergoing active and rapid development in all these areas.


  1. Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group,
  2. GMail,
  3. Flickr,
  4. 24SevenOffice,
  5. The Open AJAX group,
  6. Document Object Model (DOM) Level 3 Load and Save Specification, W3C,
  7. AJAX and Usability, QA Focus briefing document,
  8. W3Schools Browser Statistics,