Sunday, July 09, 2006

New challenges for the J2EE web developer

Recent technologies such as Java Server Faces and AJAX are causing a positive earthquake in the Java web technologies arena. As far as I can see, the first victim is the Struts framework: just an year ago it was the de-facto standard for a generic J2EE web application and was backed by a good support my many different IDEs, now it looks like nobody is starting a Struts project any more.

The leading factor for establishing a prevalence of JSF over Struts has been the pursuit of productivity, which was the weak point of many web application frameworks. Overall team efficiency paid a double fee to open source standards:
  • high development speed were achievable after a long training: the stack of competencies necessary to a generic web developer was definitely too high and fragmented (Servlets, Java Server Pages, tag libraries, HTTP, HTML, MVC and the framework in use).

  • Integration with IDEs has never been good: first it comes the framework and then comes some form of support from the IDE, but far from being sufficient. So the standard situation is to have the IDE perform some sort of trivial task for you and then start digging in runtime case mismatch error in some XML file (I guess you know what I mean)

JSF nowadays starts straight from the IDE offering a developer a way to efficiently design web application in a way that has been forgotten for a long time (most developers I know find still more productive to manually edit web pages or tags instead of delegating it to the IDE). After a couple of projects, our experience shows that JSF impacts positively on development speed, so …goodbye Struts.

Re-enter usability
In the meanwhile, components are evolving, exploiting possibilities allowed by the AJAX technology. A new level of interactivity is possible for the web platform where it has been neglected for years (with some niche exceptions like ActiveX, Flash etc.), particularly in the enterprise software field, where you don’t have to attract users to your software (“I pay my employees to w-o-r-k, not to have a satisfactory user experience”).

Now the situation is different: in this scenario a web software can be comparable to a fat client in term of interactivity and usability. The problem is that web developers have been working without these possibilities for years (forced to choose only between combos and radio buttons) forgetting what an easy-to-use user interface should be. The move to a new paradigm has been taken only on the technology side, but doing “the same old stuff” with a new framework is only half of the job: the other half is using the new tools to produce better software.

The following months will tell if this will be achieved by improving developer’s awareness of man-machine interaction mechanism or having software analysts provide a more detailed level of specifications in the early stages of the project.

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