Web developers’ common complaint with browser-based
applications is its stateless nature. That is, once data is requested and
delivered from a server, the connection is lost; any subsequent data requests
require a new connection. While there are various ways to cache data on the
client side via cookies or with proprietary technologies like ASP.NET, the XMLHttpRequest object offers a standards-based approach to
reduce response time.

XML in the browser

The XMLHttpRequest object is the
crux of the AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript + XML)
development paradigm, but we can hardly consider it new. Microsoft first
implemented the XMLHttpRequest object in IE 5 for
Windows as an ActiveX object. The Mozilla project
implemented a compatible native version for Mozilla
1.0 (and Netscape 7), with Apple joining the fray in Safari 1.2. Its inclusion
in the W3C’s
DOM specification
makes it a standard for Web development.

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The XMLHttpRequest object allows
JavaScript to make HTTP requests without reloading a page. In essence, HTTP
requests are made with responses received in the background, while the user
continues to work—completely unaware of the background processing since there
are no visible interruptions. This is a godsend to developers, resulting in a
response user interface with the ability to ferry data to the server in real


The XMLHttpRequest object contains
a small number of methods, as I outline below:

  • abort(): Stops the current request.
  • getAllResponseHeaders(): Returns a string that contains
    the complete set of header labels and values.
  • getResponseHeader(“name”): Returns the
    string value for the specified header label.
  • open(“method”, “url”, asyncflag, “username”,”password”): Performs setup
    functions for an upcoming request, and allows you to designate the URL,
    method (usually get or post), and optional parameters for the async flag, username, and password.
  • send(content): Transmits the request
    (set up by the open method). The optional content parameter may contain
    string or DOM formatted data.
  • setRequestHeader(“label”, “value”):
    Allows you to assign label/value pairs to be sent with a request (via the
    send method).

The optional third parameter of the open method is a Boolean
value that controls whether you should handle the upcoming transaction
asynchronously; this is where the asynchronous portion of the AJAX acronym
enters the picture. The default behavior (true) is to act asynchronously, which
means that script processing carries on immediately after invoking the send()
method without waiting for a response. If you set this value to false, however,
the script waits for the request to be sent and for a response to arrive from
the server.


Network or server issues may cause problems that result in a
script hanging, so waiting for a response before continuing processing is not
always the best idea. It is safer to send asynchronously and design your code
around the onreadystatechange event for the request
object, as outlined in the following list of properties of the XMLHttpRequest object:

  • onreadystatechange: Event handler for an event that
    fires at every state change.
  • readyState: The status of the object (0 = unitialized, 1 = loading, 2 = loaded, 3 = interactive,
    4 = complete).
  • responseText: A string representation of the
    data returned by the server.
  • responseXML: The DOM representation of the
    data returned by the server.
  • status: The numeric code for the server
    request—the HTTP status code.
  • statusText: The string message accompanying
    the numeric status code.

Using the XMLHttpRequest object’s
methods and properties, you can send requests in the background, while the user
continues to use the application.

See the object in action

There are two ways to utilize the XMLHttpRequest
object in your JavaScript code. Here’s the IE approach:

varreq = new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP");

and here’s the non-IE approach:

varreq = new XMLHttpRequest();

For this reason, you may want to include code to create an
object instance based on the browser you’re using, as the following code

if (window.XMLHttpRequest) {
req = new XMLHttpRequest();
} else if (window.ActiveXObject) {
req = new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP");

This creates an instance of the XMLHttpRequest
class based upon the browser. The code to put the object to work is the same
after the object is instantiated.

In Listing A, the
Web page uses ASP.NET to perform a telephone number lookup for a company name
entered in the text box (I used the standard SQL Server Northwind
database). The text field’s JavaScript onblur event
triggers the lookup.

A few notes on the HTML page:

  • The getTelephone JavaScript method handles working with
    the XMLHttpRequest object. It creates the object
    (depending on the browser), and posts the value passed to it (from text
    field) to the ASP.NET page.
  • The
    return value of the XMLHttpRequest object (responseText property) is used to determine if no data
    or an error was returned.
  • The
    text field’s onblur event ties it to the JavaScript
    function, which is called when the user tabs or clicks off the field.

The XMLHttpRequest object calls
the ASP.NET code in
Listing B. The ASP.NET page is simple; it uses the value passed to the
page via the QueryString variable to locate matching
data in the SQL Server database and then return either the matching data or an
error if an exception is encountered.

This example uses a backend ASP.NET page, but it could use
any development language. In addition, the backend page does not have to use
the same development language or platform as the page calling it since it is
simply using the returned data. The backend page could be a Web service as

Staying connected

The example demonstrates the elegance and simplicity of
using the XMLHttpRequest object, which also opens the
door to many other uses that can improve the user experience. A few of the many
other applications include the following:

  • Save
    data instantly without clicking a button.
  • Instant
    shopping cart management allows items to be added, removed, or edited.
  • Bring
    server-side data validation to the browser.
  • Translate
    a word as it is typed.

More to come

While this week’s example demonstrated the basics of the heart and soul of the AJAX approach—the XMLHttpRequest object—next week we will dive further into AJAX and the XMLHttpRequest object by returning and utilizing XML-formatted data.

Tony Patton began his professional career as an application developer earning Java, VB, Lotus, and XML certifications to bolster his knowledge.

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