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Pragmatic Ajax: A Web 2.0 Primer

Justin Gehtland, Ben Galbraith and Dion Almaer
Published by Pragmatic Bookshelf
304 pages
£ 20.99
Published: 25 April 2006
reviewed by Lindsay Marshall
   in the September 2006 issue (pdf), (html)

Flash, vim, ajax: why is there all this software named after the household cleaning products of my childhood?

Maybe's it's a Web 2.0 thing. Ajax certainly is. From 0-60 in about half a second, in fact so fast that there a considerable number of normally clued up people haven't heard of it even now. It shows what giving a slick name to an already existing technique can do for you. Indeed, the person who made up the name (Jesse James Garrett -- clearly from a long line of snappy namers) writes a foreword to the Ajax Hacks book. A foreword, that is in fact entirely pointless as all it says, ``I made up the name but I really know very little about what it involves''. However, as this is only a page long it isn't exactly a big issue. I have previously been rude about or at least dismissive of several volumes in the ``Hacks'' series, but this one is actually pretty good and there is a lot of useful code in it. The main trouble is that there is a lot of code involved and I just hope that it is all available for download somewhere as I wouldn't want to have to type it all in accurately - JavaScript can be a little tedious, especially when you are accessing DOM functions (I always get the capitalisation of the functions wrong is it document.getElementByID or document.getElementById?). But it covers all the major tool kits (Prototype, etc.) and has material for Rails programmers, so it presses all the right trendy buttons. Which is no bad thing. There is a lot in the book that competent programmers could generate themselves but why re-invent things? I will certainly be keeping this one on my desk.

Head Rush Ajax is rather a different container of crustaceans. I suspect that you will either hate it or love it. I haven't decide yet which side I am on, but I think I tend towards hate. This is, shall we say, an unconventional book. All images and handwritten typefaces and arrows, jokey asides - you know the sort of thing. It's not man pages that's for sure. Probably intended for young people. It even describes itself as ``A caffienated learning guide to the world of dynamic web pages''. I'm not really sure what that means to be honest. It's all a bit too myspace for me, but to be fair (and I am always fair), it covers lots of useful material and has good clear explanations of processes and protocols once you get under the surface. If you want to get grips with Ajaxy things and aren't put off by the presentation then this is probably worthwhile, but, first, don't buy it unseen, you really do need to look at it to see if it is for you and second, it is purely an introduction, it has no utility as a long term reference so you have weigh up the cost carefully.

The final book is much more conventional having chapters and such like, and it covers a lot of ground that both the other books cover: Prototype, Dojo, Google Maps API, asynchrony, JSON, XML. Again it's instructional in nature rather than a reference text and takes you carefully through lots and lots of code and HTML. It is probably pretty good for someone coming fresh to the ideas behind Ajax and trying to use them. However, for some reason I just don't like the book. It's one of the Pragmatic Programmers series and I have the other two books in this series and I don't like them either. There is something about the layout and style that I find off putting - the content is always spot on, it's the presentation that gets to me. An entirely irrational prejudice of course.

Of the three, as I said above, I will be keeping Ajax Hacks on my desk. I may dip into Pragmatic Ajax for some things that are not covered by Hacks, but Head Rush, well, I will probably try it out on one of my project students and see how they fair with it. I'm sure it's just an age thing. Just like the cleaning products.

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