Exploring AJAX

When I first started it, my online photo gallery started out simply as a set of interlinked HTML pages. Over time, I discovered frames (yes, them!) and started to make use of JavaScript to make the slideshows slicker. In those days, I was working off free webspace provided by my ISP and client-side scripting was the only tool that I had for enhancing functionality. Having tired of the vagaries of client-side scripting -- the browser wars were in full swing and incompatibilities reigned supreme, I went with paid hosting in order to get access to tools like Perl and PHP for server-side processing; their flexibility compared to JavaScript was a breath of fresh air to me and I am still a fan of the server-side approach.

The journey that I have just described is one that I now know was followed by a lot of website builders around the same time. Nevertheless, I have still held onto JavaScript for some things, particularly for updating the DOM as part of making the pages more responsive to user interaction. In the last few years, a hybrid approach has been gaining currency: AJAX. This offers the ability to modify parts of a page without needing to reload the whole thing and that has generated a considerable amount of interest among web application developers.

The world of AJAX is evidently a complex one though the underlying principle can be explained in simple terms. The essential idea is that you use JavaScript to call a server-side script, PHP is as good an example as any, that returns either text or XML that can be used to update part of a web page in situ without the need to reload it as per the traditional way of working. It has opened up so many possibilities from the interface design point of view that AJAX became a hot topic that still receives much attention today. One bugbear is efficiency because I have seem an AJAX application lock up a PC with a little help from IE6. There will always remain times where server-side processing is the best route and that needs to balanced against the client-side and vice versa.

Like its forbear DHTML, AJAX is really a development approach using a number of different technologies in combination. The DHTML elements such as (X)HTML, CSS, DOM and JavaScript are very much part of the AJAX world but server-side elements such as HTTP, PHP, MySQL and XML are also very much part of the fabric of the landscape. In fact, while AJAX can use plain text as the transfer format, XML is the one implied by the AJAX acronym and XSLT is used to transform XML in HTML. However, AJAX is not limited to the aforementioned technologies; for instance, I cannot see why Perl cannot play a role in place of PHP and ASP can be used for the same things.

Even in these standards-compliant days, browser support for AJAX remains diverse, to say the least, and it is akin to having MSIE in one corner and the rest in the other. Mind you, Microsoft did introduce the tools in the first place but they used ActiveX and Mozilla created a new object type rather than continue this method of operation. Given that ActiveX is a Windows-only technology, I can see why Mozilla did what they did and it is a sensible decision. In fact, IE7 appears to have picked up the Mozilla way of doing things.

Even with the apparent convergence, there will continue to be a need for the AJAX JavaScript libraries that are currently out there. Incidentally, Adobe has included one called Spry with Dreamweaver CS3. Nevertheless, I still like to find out how things work at the basic level and feel somewhat obstructed when I cannot do this. I remember perusing Wrox’s Professional AJAX and found the constant references to the associated function library rather grating; the writing style didn’t help either.

My taking a more granular approach has got me reading SAMS Teach Yourself AJAX in 10 Minutes as a means for getting my foot in the door. As with their Teach Yourself … in 24 Hours series, the title is a little misleading since there are 22 lessons of 10 minutes in duration (the 24 Hours moniker refers to there being 24 lessons, each of one hour in length). Anything composed of 10 minute lessons, even 22 of them, is never going to be comprehensive but, as a means for getting started, I have to say that the approach seems effective on the basis of this volume. It has certainly whet my appetite for giving AJAX a go and it’ll be interesting to see how things progress from here.

Adobe CS3 Tryouts

After what feels like an age, Adobe has finally seen fit to allow you to download tryouts of CS3 components and editions from their website. Bizarrely, they are offering to send you a demo DVD of one of the CS3 Web Premium and Design Premium editions on payment of $9.99; I assumed that this is U.S. only. I am not sure that I have heard of anyone charging for tryouts before, though I do remember Microsoft talking about levying a modest charge for downloading beta versions of the likes of Windows Vista and Office 2007.

Return to Elements

After a session with Photoshop CS2 and a preview of CS3’s capabilities, I went and got myself a permanent copy of Elements 5 after seeing the similarities between Scott Kelby’s books on Elements 5 and CS2. In any event, I fail to justify the cost of CS2 with CS3 being imminent and the attractions of Elements 5 were too much to ignore. I may yet go for CS3 but I’ll stick with Elements 5 for now.

The similarities between the different members of the PhotoShop family are eerie. Once I got used to finding some things in different places from where they are in CS2, I quickly found myself at home in Elements. The biggest miss that I found was the lack of an adjustment layer for the curves adjustment. Otherwise, everything else is as I would hope to find it and the sliders for curves adjustment in Elements make up for the absence of an associated adjustment layer. Bicubic resampling, an enhancement since Photoshop 7, is as per CS2 and my new workflow worked without too many changes. I took advantage of Kelby’s advice when using Camera Raw and used the Adjust Sharpness feature in place of the Unsharp Mask to get what I perceive to be good results. Everything seemed to work fine for the test digital photo that I was processing for my other blog. I am not totally abandoning my examinations of Elements’ big brother though; the smart layers feature looks interesting, especially for non-destructive sharpening.

Adobe CS3 Launch

Last night, I sat through part of Adobe’s CS3 launch and must admit that I came away intrigued. Products from the Macromedia stable have been very much brought under the Adobe umbrella and progressed to boot. One of these that attracts my interest in Dreamweaver and Adobe is promoting its AJAX capabilities (using the Spry library), its browser compatibility checking facility and integration with Photoshop, among other things. Dreamweaver’s CSS support also gets taken forward. In addition, Dreamweaver can now integrate with Adobe Bridge and Adobe Device Central. The latter allows you to preview how your site might look on a plethora of WAP-enabled mobile phones while the latter, unless I have been missing something, seems to have become a media manager supporting all of CS3 and not just Photoshop.

Speaking of Photoshop, this now gets such new features as smart filters, I think of these as adjustment layers for things like sharpening, monochrome conversion and much more. Raw image processing now has a non-destructive element and Photoshop Lightroom is being touted as a companion for the main Photoshop. Speaking of new additions to the Photoshop family, there is a new Extended edition for those working with digital imaging with a 3D aspect and this is targeted at scientists, engineers, medical professionals and others. It seems that data analysis and interpretation is becoming part of the Photoshop remit now as well.

Dreamweaver and Photoshop are the components of the suite in which I have most interest but I also note that Contribute now has blogging capabilities; it would be interesting to see how these work, especially given Word 2007’s support for blogging tools like WordPress and Blogger. Another member of note is Version Cue, adding version control to the mix and making CS3 more like a group of platforms than collections of applications.

Unsurprisingly, the changes are rung out for the rest of the suite with integration being a major theme and this very much encompasses Flash too. The sight of an image selection being copied straight into Dreamweaver was wondrous in its own way and rendering of Photoshop files into 3D images was also something to behold. The latter was used to demonstrate the optimisations that have been added for the Mac platform, a major selling point apparently.

I suppose that the outstanding question is this: do I buy into all of this? It’s a good question because the computer enthusiast seems to be getting something of a sidelining lately. And that seems to the impression left by Windows Vista in its giving the appearance that Microsoft is trying to be system administrator to the world. There is no doubt but CS3 is very grown up now and centred around work flows and processes. These have always been professional tools and the present level of sophistication and pricing* very much reflects this. That said, enthusiasts like me have been known to use them too, at least for learning purposes. The latter point may yet cause me to get my hands on Photoshop CS3 with its powerful tools for digital imaging but Dreamweaver is another story. It doesn’t fit what how I work now so this is an upgrade that I may give a miss, as impressive as it looks. For a learning experience, I might download a demo but that would a separate matter from updating my web presence. This time next month may tell a tale…

*Pricing remains the bugbear for the U.K. market that it always has been. At the present exchange rates, we should be getting a much better deal on Adobe products that we do. For instance, Amazon.com has the Web Premium CS3 suite from Macromedia Studio 8 priced at $493.99 while it is £513.99 on Amazon.co.uk. Using the exchange rate current as I write this, £1 buying $1.96605, the U.K. price is a whopping $1010.53 in U.S. terms. To me, this looks like price gouging and Microsoft has been slated for this too. I wonder what will be said to Adobe on this one.

Is Photoshop CS3 imminent?

We have seen the beta come out, an unprecedented move for Adobe, and now we are hearing about the new professional editions of Photoshop: Photoshop CS3 for digital imaging and Photoshop CS3 Extended with tools for processing digital video. Together with Photoshop Lightroom for digital photography and Photoshop Elements for the consumer market, it seems that Photoshop is moving from a single application to becoming a big family of them. Adobe are hosting an online launch for the CS3 suite on March 27th so the appearance on the market of the new Photoshop must be very imminent. In the light of this, I think I’ll hold off on a decision to purchase either Elements 5 or its CS2 until I have tried out the latter’s successor.

Update: I’ve just perused both  .Net’s and Advanced Photoshop’s initial appraisals of Photoshop CS3 and they seemed impressed so it should be worth a look then. Another tempting idea is to have a taste of Lightroom so I went and downloaded the 30 day trial version. I may well have a go with it in my own time; I’m not wanting to install it and let the 30 days run out before I get to use it in anger.