The Time Has Come – Mobile and Remote Viewing

AJAX provides the ability to offer complete accessibility to content regardless of location or device. This month will discuss the benefits of using AJAX to eliminate downloads, client-side dependencies, platform restrictions, and maintenance issues.

Simon Wieczner, Snowbound Software

July 17, 2009

The market is very excited about the potential of AJAX document viewing and review because it promises support-free access for a wide audience of low technology users including mobile and smartphone users as well as remote audiences dependent upon only a browser. The promise and the hype are great. With smartphones so ubiquitous and performance adequate for general document review, new audiences have sprung up for this method of accessing data.

Additionally with more Macintosh penetration, Linux laptops and desktops and even Google getting into the OS business, remote workers will need to access documents without concern for their preferred computing platform. Now is the time to review the reality and learn some of the guidelines for making this technology work for you.

With a new technology like AJAX, particularly when applied to document processing, it can be very easy for users to misunderstand how it operates, it strengths, it weaknesses, and its limits. Because of general lack of knowledge relating to tradeoffs, it is important for the product vendor to serve as the advisor for their customer in order to help them make the right choices.

How does this apply with respect to the promise of AJAX viewer technology? There are many varying definitions of AJAX as used in viewer technology. Primarily it means using an ordinary browser to receive Javascript from a web application server in order to provide the benefit of a client/server application, but without the download and installation of any application code other than some Javascript.

A standard browser has a lot of capability for display of HTML content but very little when it comes to manipulating the objects that are on view. Yet, the idea behind AJAX viewing is to minimize client requirements by using a standard browser and somehow providing it the ability to download documents for viewing and some manipulation.

The technology to do this relies on a lot of server processing that creates HTML pages and Javascript commands for working with those pages. With respect to document processing, the server components typically select and extract documents from a web repository and transform them to single-page JPEG or PNG images that can be viewed by the browser once downloaded. So, for example, a 100 page PDF document would be processed by the web component to get a single page that’s converted to PNG and downloaded to the client, along with generated HTML and Javascript to control the display and the manipulation functions.

Like all new technologies, there are a lot of people beating on the bandwagon of AJAX viewing. Not all of them have the same market or market requirements in mind so implementations and even fundamental definitions of what is AJAX can make it confusing to distinguish between the competitive choices.

Let’s look at what the benefits of AJAX viewing are supposed to provide:

  • AJAX Means
  • No application download
  • No installation process on the client
  • Platform requirement has to be nothing more specific than a browser
  • Easy support because it is expected that users know how to operate a browser
  • Easy maintenance – nothing required for or from the users. Only the servers require maintenance and that’s performed by IT staff.
  • Major processing is done on the server but some minor manipulations are done on the client in order to offload some processing from the server

What Else Do Corporate Users Handling Documents Want?

  • Security and Document protection
  • Thumbnails for easy document selection
  • Universal platform support on the server as well as the client – Java to run on UNIX or limit servers to Windows only
  • Minimal processing on the server as well – in order for the server to service the maximum number of users, you must minimize its processing as well
  • Scroll Bars – some purists believe that grabbing the document to pan and scroll is the only way to go but most document users really want to be able to scroll
  • Performance – Always a concern but given unknowns of user activities (how many times a user will need to zoom or rotate a document– which requires a download from the server - or load a different document ) this is an issue of major concern.
  • (The system must be tuned to the expected usage. Use case testing is absolutely necessary in order to configure the systems to meet usage demand. Recommendations for size of servers, the amount of RAM, download bandwidth and even server access to the document repository all need to be reviewed. )
  • Annotation – does this fit the definition? Not all will agree but at least for document processing, users really want to mark their documents and save them for later review.
  • Saving or editing the document (other than annotation) – also may not fit the definition but certain users want this capability.

Are All AJAX Branded Alternative Solutions truly AJAX?

One innovative company converts documents to Flash and downloads that. Benefits include speed of display and the ability to easily and quickly manipulate the document on the client. Disadvantages are that Flash must be installed on the client unless Flash or something similar comes standard with the browser, documents must be converted on the server to Flash before download and client side capabilities are limited by whatever Adobe had defined.

As originally published on ECM Connection, reprinted with permission.