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Ajax with PHP 5

Andrew Curioso
Published by O'Reilly Media
0-596-51403-4 56 pages
£ $9.99
Published: May 2007
reviewed by Lindsay Marshall
   in the September 2007 issue (pdf), (html)

I have to confess that I feel a rant coming on. Possibly two rants. Recently it has looked to me very much as though the O'Reilly juggernaut is slowing down and perhaps wobbling a bit: there seem to be rather too many, to put it politely, ``niche'' books on their list at the moment. You know the sort of thing I mean: ``Facebook mashups with ruby on rails'', ``JSON hacks for Jaiku''. It does look like they have a program that perms topics together and then they get someone to write the book. Ajax with PHP 5 is exactly this kind of book. Now, don't get me wrong, the technical content is excellent, all bases covered, and the braces are in the right place in the code too. However, I just can't see the point. There are dozens of web pages covering most aspects of the material, and, what's actually more important, is that most people don't need to know the kind of low level detail that is presented.

The author develops Ajax things starting at the bare metal and working up. Which is fine if you want the minimum of code in your application, but, in reality, 95% of people are going to grab one of the packages like jQuery or prototype where someone has done all the hard spade work already and just use the facilities provided. It isn't as if the low level details are even that interesting! There are some slightly hairy error modes, but basically you ship some data off to your web server, wait for a reply and process any data returned. Yes, you can use JSON or XML to code it all, but a lot of the time this is overkill.

Basically I just can't work out who the audience for this Short Cut is, but it does what it says in its title so if it sounds like it is for you, I can recommend it.

My other rant is about the whole Ajax/Web 2.0 bandwagon. (BTW why do web technologies and cleaning products seem to share a namespace -- Ajax, Flash -- I feel an urge to introduce one called Vim or Omo). Again, I am not knocking the technology which is fine and is, after all, just technology. The endless hype is getting a bit tiresome though, especially as there have been almost no interesting advances recently. Dressing up your web page with a few fades and slideshows is not going to make it that much better (not that it isn't a lot of fun doing just that, but that is not the point).

The trouble with Adding Ajax is that it tries to cover far too much stuff in a fairly short book. The pages are dense with code (brackets in the wrong place, grrrr), HTML and CSS and so are just hard to read. There are discussions of several of the JavaScript packages but not in enough detail to make full use of them, and indeed as the author says in a footnote, this is an area where things are changing fast (note, I said interesting advances above, new packages are generally not inherently interesting). In fact there is almost no coverage of jQuery which is rapidly becoming very popular indeed (it's the one I use, so that proves it). Again, most people will pick an appropriate package and start with its documentation and sample code and go from there.

The author really has a good go at covering everything from basic Ajax to mashups with web services right throught to SVG and canvas, but I could feel my brain slowly melting as I read through it all. I just didn't need to know all this stuff nor to have to look at all that Courier set code. And once again I have to say, as I always seem to be saying in reviews recently, I just don't know who this is aimed at. A bit hard for the absolute beginner, but the more knowledgeable will have found most of the ideas on the web already.

O'Reilly publish nearly all of the essential books that any self-respecting developer owns (and keeps up to date too) but the deeper reaches of the catalogue are getting murky and I do think they need to tighten things up a bit.

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