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With the advent of Web 2.0 a new concept became the most sought-after technology for web applications. Popularized by Google’s GMail, rich internet applications or RIA very quickly became the need of the hour. At the heart of RI applications was JavaScript, a scripting language for the web, that was in existence long before Google was even born. Google, with its GMail, demonstrated what could be achieved with JavaScript and thus paved the way for the next generation of web applications.

JavaScript had its own problems. The biggest of them was probably cross-browser compatibility. Led by Microsoft through its Internet Explorer web browser, JavaScript quickly became a victim of non-standard usage. Microsoft, in order to prove its dominance over Netscape, supplied browser objects and functions that could be used to generate ‘cool’ effects in a web page easily. These were never ratified by any standards bodies. Since Microsoft was dominant on the desktop and also bundled IE with its Windows operating system, the exponential growth of IE in popularity apparently vindicated their arrogant violation of established standards. Netscape died under Microsoft’s onslaught and so did the standards of JavaScript. Developers started writing applications that were IE specific. It was not uncommon to see applications labeled “Best viewed in Microsoft Internet Explorer”.

The arrival of Mozilla’s Firefox web browser changed all this. Users, plagued by IE’s numerous vulnerabilities and instability, adapted to Firefox. Firefox implemented a more standards compliant version of JavaScript. So developers started writing rich applications that used standards compliant JavaScript. Even then there was one more problem with JavaScript and that came to the forefront due to RIAs. This was performance. 

Some of the leading vendors saw an opportunity in this short coming of JavaScript. Notable amongst them is Adobe and more recently Microsoft. Adobe’s Flash technology was initially meant to serve the multimedia needs of web applications. Flash was great for animations and effects, for video and audio playback, for slide shows and image manipulations, but it was never meant for rich internet applications. So enter Adobe Flex, a technology based on Flash, but offering widgets and controls for business applications. Cross-browser compatibility was achieved but at the cost of an added Flash plug-in. Not to be undone by Adobe, Microsoft entered into the fray with its Silverlight software. Silverlight did all the cools things that Flash did and also needed a plug-in to run. It seemed like JavaScript was doomed.

Mozilla and Google had different plans. Mozilla’s Firefox 3.1 browser, still in testing, and Google’s recent Chrome web browser breathed a new life into JavaScript applications. In Google Chrome, Google introduced the V8 JavaScript virtual machine that offered significant performance boosts for existing applications. Mozilla has incorporated the new TraceMonkey JavaScript engine that has reportedly achieved performance boosts of up to 85%!!! With these two products JavaScript is surely set to make a come back.

As things stand, JavaScript has overcome its two worst adversaries – cross browser compatibility and performance. With the availability of brilliant libraries like Yahoo UI Toolkit, Dojo toolkit, etc. that help ease development of RIAs, JavaScript is here to stay and the way to go for future applications. For a JavaScript performance comparison study click here.

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