January 9, 2006

ThinkCAP goes open source

Author: Tina Gasperson

Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, or AJAX, a technique for creating interactive Web applications, has exploded onto the Web development scene, gaining popularity so quickly that some developers are lagging behind in their skills. To address the need for faster AJAX development, lots of companies and developer communities are coming up with Rapid Application Development (RAD) platforms for AJAX. One of those platforms, ThinkCAP JX Framework, combines more than two dozen open source libraries, and the "framework" portion of the application has just been released under the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL).

These days, businesses and end-users alike expect fast loading, yet highly interactive and complex Web pages and applications, and software developers are scrambling to keep up with those demands. Web sites that used to be coded strictly in HTML now are inadequate without CSS, JavaScript, DHTML, XML, server-side scripting, or some combination of these techniques.

That's what AJAX is, a combination of HTML or XHTML and CSS, JavaScript, and either an XMLHttpRequest or an iFrame object to communicate with the server. AJAX is popular because it can eliminate the need to completely refresh the page in the browser when requested data is delivered from the remote server, making those server-side applications run fast and smooth, almost like a local application. New information updates smaller blocks of the displayed page without affecting the rest of the page, and server calculations happen in the background, or "asynchronously" while the user is happily interacting with other elements of the page.

Still, AJAX presents challenges, because programming in JavaScript is notoriously labor-intensive. In an article entitled AJAX: Dawn of a New Developer, author Dave Johnson calls coding in JavaScript "a tedious and error-prone endeavor." Not only that, but a complex array of coding skills is necessary to incorporate all the components of an AJAX Web application. But to help developers overcome the challenges of tedium in coding, there are RADs, platforms that automate many repetitive coding tasks, for just about every programming language and technique. AJAX hasn't been overlooked.

Although many open source and/or free frameworks for AJAX development already exist, Clearnova, the creator of the ThinkCAP JX Framework, says its product is the only Java RAD for AJAX. That, combined with the ability to create rich Internet applications without being a JavaScript expert, are qualities that make ThinkCAP desirable, says Clearnova's VP of strategy Steven Benfield. "Our beta testers told us that they don't want to have to pay royalties and deal with proprietary runtimes, so we wanted to release the product as open source," he says.

It's not a giant leap, according to Benfield. The ThinkCAP JX Framework already integrates about twenty-five open source frameworks and engines, including Struts, Hibernate, JavaTidy, Jakarta, and, perhaps most relevant, prototype.js and script.aculo.us, the AJAX libraries used by Ruby on Rails, another popular open source development tool that is similar to ThinkCAP JX Framework.

"Ruby has some cool features but I'd categorize it as more of a 4GL vs. a RAD environment," says Benfield. ThinkCAP JX Framework adds visual controls, transaction support, and three-tier event models, without having to re-write code, he says, and reduces development times by 25%.

In addition to GPL licensing, ThinkCAP JX Framework is also available under a royalty-free commercial license for developers who want to distribute or sell binaries of modified versions of ThinkCAP but keep the code to themselves. That license costs $2,000 per developer.

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