Tools of the trade: the six best JavaScript toolkits

Regular readers will know that Ian Wrigley and I write this column on alternate months. We used to work together, but Ian moved to the USA several years ago and we don’t meet very often nowadays.

Tools of the trade: the six best JavaScript toolkits

Ian was in the UK a couple of weeks ago so we met for a few drinks, and something that he told me then has resonated ever since and bizarrely influenced the way I look at things. Part of Ian’s job is training, and he said that he often tells his students about the web company we founded 15 years ago, and how it’s still going.

Then he tells them this makes it one of the oldest web companies in the world. While that’s true, I’d never thought about it that way.

From one standpoint it could be almost depressing that our company is 15 years old and we’re still in the same business

From one standpoint it could be almost depressing that our company is 15 years old and we’re still in the same business. But although we may be nominally in the same business, the way we work has changed immensely during that time.

When we started our “innovation” was to employ CGI programs to generate dynamic web pages: we wrote C programs that sifted through flat files containing content and bundled it all up into HTML pages.

To us this wasn’t a real innovation, but by industry standards back then – when most companies were still building large websites as collections of single pages written by hand – it probably was.

We stopped writing C programs to generate web pages years ago, but I think we’ve continued to do things that are ahead of the mainstream. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt it’s that not all innovations go well, but our ability to be clever when necessary has helped us survive.

15 years of JavaScript

However, this column isn’t a history of our company; it’s about open-source JavaScript toolkits for web development. What’s the connection?

Well, the memories that Ian jogged include the fact that JavaScript itself is now 15 years old. It first appeared in a beta release of Netscape Navigator in 1995, and was included in Internet Explorer 3.

What’s most interesting is that it took ten years for it to be used for anything remotely interesting. It was probably Google Maps that finally showed what JavaScript code running inside a browser could do.

Prior to that, most developers – ourselves included – shunned JavaScript while chanting the accepted wisdom: “There’s no point writing something that doesn’t work if the user has turned off JavaScript.” I doubt anyone turns it off any more, because if they do virtually no modern website will work properly.

If JavaScript is so essential to the modern website, what does that mean for web developers? Well, it means you need to be able to write JavaScript, but it doesn’t mean you have to keep re-inventing the wheel.

I doubt anyone turns JavaScript off any more, because if they do virtually no modern website will work properly

If your client wants their website to work like Google Instant, you’ll have to employ a toolkit that has the appropriate behaviours built into it, rather than writing it for yourself.

That makes this a good time to look at what JavaScript toolkits are available nowadays. It’s also worth noting that JavaScript toolkits can be used to create web apps for phones and pads.

Recent changes to JavaScript mean you can now store information in databases via the client browser, which open up all sorts of possibilities: essentially, a website can now be a web app and behave like a real app and actually store data on your machine. There are far too many JavaScript libraries to cover them all, so I’ve picked out a few favourites.

Prototype

Most people think that using JavaScript in their websites will help them create a cool user interface, but that isn’t what Prototype does.

Prototype provides a framework that brings different implementations of JavaScript up to the same level and gives the developer a consistent method of writing their own JavaScript applications and frameworks.

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