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Open Source JavaScript and Big Business

Why companies get involved with open source JavaScript development frameworks

February 17, 2007

One of the biggest recent changes in client-side web development was the "rediscovery" of JavaScript and its rapid rise to popularity as one of the hottest development techniques around. That rekindled interest in a programming language first introduced into web browsers 12 years ago seems to be linked to the much-hyped Ajax technology, of which it is an essential component. The JavaScript-related coding tools, programming community and development approaches have experienced a surge of activity and new ideas. Internet and technology companies that previously regarded the language as a somehow limited, although ubiquitous, web scripting technology, are now leading and participating in a number of open source projects centered on JavaScript.

One of the things that changed about JavaScript development was the appearance of collections of code that could be used for rapid web development. Previously, the enthusiast webmaster and professional developer alike were left with their skills and their trusty text editor to create interactive webpages. Yes, you could copy and paste snippets of readily available code, but that was nowhere near the functionalities provided today by a number of JavaScript frameworks. A novice can easily add to a webpage flashy menus and animations using Script.aculo.us or jQuery; a professional can use the same frameworks to create a business-oriented Ajax application.

One of the first "new wave" open source JavaScript libraries that found its way into professional web design and development was Prototype, which was released in February 2005 under the MIT license. Roughly 70kB in size, Prototype provides for easy Ajax development and extends the DOM, thus saving time and effort when writing the code for that next killer Web 2.0 app. Prototype is used in a number of online collaboration and project management projects, created and hosted by Chicago-based 37 signals: a company that is also noted for releasing the Ruby on Rails development framework, which itself includes the Prototype library.

By way of its incorporation into other JavaScript projects like Script.aculo.us and Rico, today Prototype is used in uncounted thousands of webpages.

Another popular JavaScript library is released and maintained by none other then search engine pioneer Yahoo!. In October 2006, the company announced the Yahoo! User Interface Library (YUI) -- an open-source JavaScript library for building richly interactive web applications using techniques such as Ajax, DHTML and DOM scripting. YUI also includes many CSS resources. Anyone who chooses YUI as the tool of choice also benefits from the provided documentation and the community at Yahoo! Developer Network. The library  is available under the BSD License.

Yet another open JavaScript framework that has the support of technology giants is the Dojo Toolkit, which was started by Alex Russell in 2004 and is dual-licensed under the BSD License and the Academic Free License. Like the YUI, Dojo Toolkit makes handling Ajax easier and comes supplemented by CSS resources.

Both Sun Microsytems and IBM are involved in the Dojo foundation -- the non-profit organization that guides and promotes the project. As part of the Dojo Toolkit project, Sun announced it will be contributing AJAX widgets, helping with internationalization efforts and refining documentation. IBM said their donation will "extend the data model already in the Dojo toolkit and provide a foundation architecture and Web-based tools for the industry." Dojo is not the only JavaScript framework that gets contributions by IBM, though; there have been reports of sponsorship for jQuery. According to Dojo author Alex Russel, the participation of big companies makes possible "an even broader adoption of dynamic web interfaces, even for users that have traditionally not benefited from them."

Google also have their own Ajax development project, called Google Web Toolkit (GWT). While GWT is not strictly a JavaScript library like the ones listed above, it resembles them by its manner of certification and intended usage: GWT is an open source framework (Apache 2.0 license), intended for developers of web applications. What GWT actually does is "translating" Java programs into JavaScript for the web.

These are only a few of the latest JavaScript-centric projects, and the company names associated with them strike respect. All of the companies have history as technology innovators, and all of them are dependent on either the internet or networking technologies. What, then, is their interest in open source JavaScript?

First off, it is fairly straightforward that you get good publicity by contributing and releasing open source code. PR departments will do their magic, and people will say, "There, this company gives back to the community." But it is naive to think that good publicity is the only reason for open source involvement; rather, at some point many web developers will be putting their money into more complex, professional-grade development platforms (or application servers, or code editors), and the contributing companies will be there to provide them, complete or ready to be integrated with the popular JavaScript frameworks.  Thus, participation in open source projects gives companies more chances for widespread adoption of their products and services. Also, notice that none of the reviewed libraries is restricted by a "copyleft" license, and therefore can be brought back into the fold of proprietary software, after they have been to left to play for a while into the open source field. Finally, the companies have probably come to the realization that once the genie is out of the bottle and your competition is flirting with open source, you have no choice but to follow, and give programmers the right to experiment with the code.

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