Jesse James Garrett of Adaptive Path wrote up an introduction to Ajax, the methodology from which dynamic Web apps such as Gmail are built.
I have to confess, I loved asynchronous server interaction from the first time I tried it.
Eight years ago.
Yes, back on September 30, 1997, when IE 4.0 was released, it came with the Tabular Data Control, a little widget which let you pull down new, live data from the server asynchronously. I was developing Expedia’s IE 4 Channel at the time, so I had the chance to fool around with the TDC in mid-’97. By the end of my time at Microsoft, I was slapping that control just about anywhere I could find space: bug trackers, ski area tickers, maybe a bathroom wall or two. (Sidebar: first person to name the technology used in Channels which led in part to both a W3C activity and a syndication format with so many daddies it needs a paternity test wins a cookie.)
In other words, it seems to me, having seen the light only long enough to have to follow it to this point, Ajax is a methodology that practically invents itself. It’s like finding a car and inventing roads. You almost can’t not think of the application. It’s good stuff, from an interaction designer’s perspective: it’s an anabolic version of the cookie, a flexible state object that can be manipulated and fired back and forth at will, with little or no latency. In lay terms, that’s wicked cool.
Unfortunately for us, it’s also inaccessible as all getout. Even in 2005, assistive technologies like screen readers get serious heartburn when it comes to just about anything we call “dynamic HTML.” It doesn’t know what of this asynchronous content crossing the transom is relevant to the user, and how to deliver it meaningfully to the user. Do they want to announce every line of a ticker script automatically, while the user is trying to read other content? Nope. Bad idea. But they sure do want to know when they have a new Gmail message. What is currently in the DOM is pretty easy to render to users, but real-time changes to the DOM are still essentially black magic.
Before this is the Cool New Technology Everyone Uses, all of the browser vendors, Web devs, and assistive technologies are going to need to get some more stuff nailed down before this methodology is anywhere near directly accessible. I guess that if you need to point at someone and say, “that’s your job,” that would be me.
Damn. I sure do love sticking myself with action items.