Homer’s Iliad has two Greek heros named Ajax. One is the giant king of Salamis, known as Ajax the Greater. The other is the prince of Locris, and called Ajax the Lesser (though, presumably, not to his face).

It looks like Microsoft’s Atlas project (named after another mythological figure) is more like AJAX the Greater. Atlas, now formally called the ASP.NET AJAX, is finally available in as a real beta. It’s been a long time coming.

To me, at least, a lot of AJAX development seems to be overly complex, with a lot of that complexity involved with plumbing, not buiness logic. Since it’s all new ground, there aren’t best practice, and the tools and runtimes are mainly “1.0” products, at best. Automation is rudimentary at best on most platforms.

Atlas, by contrast, cuts out a lot of the complexity, largely because it’s based on ASP.NET. The lack of portability cuts down the plumbing requirements. That’s one reason why ASP.NET, in general, makes Web app development straightforward. While it’s less scalable than Java EE for big projects, ASP.NET AJAX a heck of a lot easier to work with, because so much is already done for you on the tightly integrated Microsoft stack.

Assuming that you’re happy to work with ASP.NET, it’s been hard to find fault with the Community Technology Preview versions of Atlas, which have been more solid than Microsoft’s usual early efforts.

In fact, Microsoft’s initial support for both IE and Firefox has been praiseworthy. With the first formal betas, they’ve now extended their non-Microsoft browser support to Apple’s Safari, which is a welcome move, albeit a minor one.

What’s available today are two separate downloads from Microsoft. The first download contains the core ASP.NET AJAX 2.0 extensions and accompanying AJAX library, which is a fairly mature toolset — you can work with it today and feel confident that it’s not going to break when Atlas goes G.A. The other is a CTP of a lot of additional library features that are useful, but not required (see the feature matrix in Microsoft’s white paper).

Atlas — ahem, ASP.NET AJAX — has justifiably been criticised because it’s taking a long time. But then again, everything from Microsoft (from SQL Server 2005 to Team System to Windows Vista) takes forever. Inch by inch, step by step. But despite the delays, I think it’s a robust implementation, and worth the wait.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick