Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Ajax + Web 2.0: Build Your Free Personal Public News Aggregator With BackBase

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Though little discussed and attracting yet too little attention for its critical importance is the issue of how we can consume and digest news when we have so many news sources and content to tap into.

One way to go at that is to start aggregating and filtering out what is not relevant to you, by either selecting a few resources that do this job for you (by aggregating, selecting and filtering news items on specific topics or themes - just like some top bloggers do - or you can start doing it yourself.

click to view

I myself publish over 30 different news channels which are available as RSS feeds on different sites. But even for expert web readers finding all these feeds and making sense of this ocean of content I publish is not an easy task.

For these reasons and for my desire to test, experiment and evaluate first-hand new media technologies that allow individuals to communicate more effectively, I have spent some time exploring and testing one of the most interesting web-based readers and aggregators I have seen so far.

Completely Ajax-based, this news feed aggregator does in my humble opinion an outstanding job of bringing together in one web page my most relevant content while providing easy and direct access to it.

And further than that, it not only looks slick, it works fast, it updates in real-time, it integrates printing and emailing of any news item it displays, it adjusts in one click to your layout preferences, but it also archives each and every news item I publish and it provides a super-cool advanced search function which allows searches across all of my sites and feeds as well as the capability to save any such search as an RSS feed.

That means that from now on, you can create any custom RSS feed of Robin Good's contents by personalizing it to output ONLY the type of news you want to see from me.

Thanks to BackBase, a great Web 2.0 company based in Amsterdam, Holland, what I though was going to remain an expensive dream to assign to an external consultant has suddenly become reality at next to no cost.

BackBase has been building its Ajax scripts library since long before the buzzword spread far and wide and it continues to produce some of the more interesting results I have seen this far.

BackBase provides customization and technically advanced solutions that allow online publishers and entrepreneurs to step up their content serving format, their online applications or their delivery of news content on the Web into a highly enjoyable, usable and accessible solution.

Thanks to Ajax well thought out design plans and a strong sensitivity for effective interaction design, BackBase offers a wide showcase of applications in which its expertise and technology can make a deep difference.

Infoworld wrote about them recently:

"The good news is that the BackBase architects have a talent for elegant solutions, unlike the cluster of committees that produced the current mess called JavaScript. The event mechanism is straightforward and the XML provides a good amount of discipline."

As you can see from my own implementation of BackBase free scripts (thanks to the technical support of Vladislav Bailovic), their competence and expertise on this front is definitely notable.

BackBase offers in fact the scripts needed to create your own non-commercial web-based Ajax news reader/aggregator online and completely free.

On the other hand it offers licensing of the same to those who want to use it for strict commercial purposes. Licensing costs can vary from $1000 to several thousands depending on the size of your and traffic of your site.

Well, let me tell you, I got so excited with BackBase own work, that I decided to write to them and ask for an interview to uncover more useful info about BackBase approach, services and learned lessons.

They reacted very positively and Jep Castelein offered me all of his availability to make my desire come true.

In this good conversation with Jep (streaming audio and text transcript both available here below), I have tried to learn as much as possible about BackBase the company, its services, its costs and advice with examples of appropriate applications and uses for this cutting-edge technology.

Here it is for you to enjoy.

Streaming audio interview with Jep Castelein of BackBase

Text transcript

Robin Good: Hello everyone, here is Robin Good live from Rome in Italy, and I have today with me Jep Castelein of BackBase, a very interesting for me, completely new company and provider of interesting services and products which can be ran on the web and which is based in which part of the world, my friend, Jep?

Jep Castelein: Hi Robin thanks for the introduction. BackBase is based in Amsterdam and that's a bit colder than Rome, so I'm very happy to be here today.

RG: Yes, thank you that I can warm you up from here. Indeed, through our digital connection and yes, BackBase is a Dutch company that has been coming out with some very interesting products and services of which I would like to talk a little bit about with Jep. Jep, you were working at BackBase in which role right now?

Jep Castelein: I'm currently working in marketing at BackBase, technical marketing. So I'm working a lot with developers to explain how our software and services work and how they can benefit our clients.

RG: And who are your clients?

Jep Castelein: Our clients are actually very different, but there is one thing they all have in common: they want to improve the user experience of websites and web applications. So it can be a business manager who wants to have more revenue of their website, but it can also be a programmer who has a technical problem and needs a good tool kit to solve that problem. So, actually they have the same thing in common, they want to improve the user experience, but they have various and different backgrounds.

RG: User experience is a fascinating and glamorous buzzword that many people in the web development and design business like to use. I like to use it myself indeed. But I think that there are a lot of people out there who have not the faintest idea of what user experience exactly means. So, Jeb, can we shed some light on, at least from the point of view of BackBase, what this user experience is and what kind of trouble can there be if that is not well taken care of?

Jep Castelein: Yes, what is usually a good point to start is the websites that we have seen in the last, let's say, ten years. The entire model was based on navigating from one page to another page. So you're basically flipping pages every time the screen goes white and you lose your complete context of the application and you end up on the new page and you're waiting until the new page is loading.

Now one of the innovations in the BackBase software is the single page interface. The single page interface makes it possible to load new content into an existing webpage.

RG: How does that one incredible, innovative cutting edge new feature affect the visibility of my individual contents on the search engines? Many of my aggressively-interested marketing listeners would be asking themselves. I'm sure that this option is not so much for sites that contain lots of individual articles and essays and reviews but those that have somehow some type of application, an interaction going on with their user. Is that a correct assumption?

Jep Castelein: Umm, yes and no. We indeed see two types of applications: the more content centric and the more applications centric applications. Although we have to say that what we are doing is purely web-based, it's not like Flash, as you can't really index Flash by the search engines. So, you can still find it in search engines, but it still adds more expressive user experience.

RG: So, it is possible to have a unique, seamless user experience by staying apparently on just one page with one unique URL while you change the content and still have all that content indexed fully with different URLs by the search engines? Is that correct?

Jep Castelein: Yes, that is indeed correct. And there are also other web-based features like bookmarking and deep linking and the back/forward button that are still completely functional when you have the single page interface. So, I think that is one of the innovations that we have launched.

RG: So, essentially what you're bringing in is a new approach to accessing content that allows publisher and e-commerce entrepreneurs to provide both content or interactive applications that have a seamless experience for the users and that makes them feel that they are going from page to page. They feel like they are staying on the same page and information changes and appears in front of them seamlessly, without ever leaving or refreshing that content.

Jep Castelein: Yes, that is correct. So it's basically still a webpage, so you don't have to install any plug-ins, you don't have to download a special web browser, it just works with your normal web browser, but it just looks better, works better, yeah, it's just more pleasant to work with.

RG: And how does BackBase achieve all of this technology-wise?

Jep Castelein: BackBase has created a JavaScript layer within the browser that asks all this functionality. Now, without going too technical, JavaScript is a programming or scripting language that does not have to be installed, it just runs automatically within the browser. And we've put a lot of intelligence in our JavaScript application that enables all this.

RG: So if I understand this correctly, BackBase has developed a number of libraries or collections of scripts that allow a number of interactions and specific features to enable that seamless experience and what the web developers can do with BackBase technology is to embed those scripts within their pages to create this seamless experience. Is that correct?

Jep Castelein: Yes, that is correct. We've made it easy for web developers to incorporate these features in their applications because we have made those libraries that are available for them to use. That is correct.

RG: And what kind of business model do you have around this? That is, do developers have to buy a license into this collection of code? Do they buy something else? Do they subscribe to your service? How does it work?

Jep Castelein: First of all, we have a free community edition that can be downloaded by everyone. You can play around with it; you can see how the software works. But, there is one small catch: you can only use it for non-commercial purposes. If you want to use it for commercial purposes we work with a subscription model, that you pay an annual fee for which you can use the software. So software is one large part of our revenue model, and that is also supplemented by professional services.

RG: So when there is a commercial application of that collection of script, what kind of business plans do you offer to those potential customers?

Jep Castelein: If I understand your question correctly, you're asking for the services that we can provide? If a client comes to us and says "we want application 'A' or application 'B'," we can also offer implementation services and consulting services to make sure the entire application is built by our consulting team. In addition we can also, if you want to develop yourself, provide customer support, technical support that people are here at the call center. We can answer all of your technical questions. In addition, we also provide training for our products. It's classroom training which is one, two, three or four days long depending on your needs.

RG: So, let's say that I have... I'm about to publish online a new archive and catalogue for rich media content and I would like to have my interface be very cutting-edge, and to be really user friendly and I would like to adopt or experiment with this type of new technology that BackBase is providing. How would I go about this? Would this be a custom job that I would have to assign to BackBase which you would estimate or would I be able to pick up a number of existing scripts and to use them in my product to enable all of this?

Jep Castelein: It depends on what you're looking for. On the one hand, if you want to make it completely custom, that is absolutely of course a possibility that makes it possible to cater it completely to your needs. But we also have a library of often used and often requested functionality that is free for everyone to use so that people can quickly click together their applications.

RG: But, then again you mentioned that if my application is a commercial one there is something to pay, and I was trying to get exactly at the core of that matter. That is, how much is there to pay if my application is indeed commercial?

Jep Castelein: The license for the software is... starts at about $1000 U.S. dollars per year. And that is for a shared hosting server. So, when your website runs on a shared server which also hosts other websites. That's the entry level pricing model. If you have a dedicated server, then we move to a CPU-based pricing model, which is approximately $6000 per year. We also have several service server-side products for Java and Microsoft.Net, and they are priced approximately $1000 more, so around $7000 annually per CPU.

RG: So does that mean that if I want to enable in a commercial way your scripting technology for a seamless user experience, do I have now to move my content and files from my server that I may own already somewhere to your server? Is that correct?

Jep Castelein: At this moment, we do not provide hosting services ourselves. You can just download our software and install it on your own server. It's just a couple of files; it can be installed on any web server. It's a very simple process and from there you can add functionality to your website.

RG: So, again, let me understand. There are a couple of scripts that I can download. They are free and I can start to immediately use them on my website as long as this is not commercial use. If it is commercial use, what do I do, Jep?

Jep Castelein: If it is commercial use, you have to buy a software subscription license with BackBase. The same application can still be used. If you have developed your website using the freely developed scripts, you can continue to use them if you are of course happy with them. The only thing is there is a licensing fee that applies if you use it for commercial purpose.

RG: And can you share anything about that license and the pricing of it?

Jep Castelein: The license that I mentioned is the same prices I mentioned a minute ago so it's $1000 for a shared-hosting server, $6000 a year for a dedicated server per CPU, and we have couple of more advanced products that are prices a little bit higher.

RG: But that's where I get stuck indeed. So I understand I can develop the scripts, I understand I can develop my application in using them, and if I start to get into commercial stuff I will have to pay a license for which you've given me some reference prices. But, those prices that you have mentioned are for a shared or dedicated server. So, I am trying to bridge in my head the idea that the scripts that I put on my server with this provision of a shared server or a dedicated one. What is that server for? To run those scripts for those people who don't want to put the scripts on their server? What is the benefit of having a shared server or dedicated offering from you? That is what is not clear to me.

Jep Castelein: The difference or basically the explanation behind shared server or dedicated server is not that you rent it from us, but is just a way for us to differentiate between people who have a small site, who tend to have an existing shared hosting arrangements, and people who have a larger site who tend to have an existing dedicated hosting arrangement. So, we are not suggesting that you change to our hosting services because we are not offering any hosting services. But, we just have a different pricing model based on whether your current website, which will stay hosted where it is currently hosted, is on a shared server or a dedicated server.

RG: Oh, all right, that makes a lot of sense. So let me recap. If I am a small-side publisher and I'm using one of the hosting services where I am on a machine where there are other sites, you have a pricing plan that is called shared-server. And that is what applies to me and you mentioned those prices. If instead I have a larger site and I normally run on a dedicated server, then you have the other price plan, very clear now. So the licensing applies to me no matter if I am staying on my server or not, and it is a license to use commercially those scripts. Okay, okay, okay. Thank you Jep, and I'm sorry, I probably was a little slow in bridging those two items or I wasn't familiar with your terminology and it took me a little bit to wrap my head around that.

Now, in your technology there is a big component from what I understand and that I have been writing about that is called AJAX. Can you tell us anything about this and why it is so important?

Jep Castelein: Yes, AJAX is short for Asynchronous Javascript and XML. Now, that's actually a bit of a technical term. The essential part is that the user interactions are decoupled from server site interactions. So, that means that even though the server is doing some calculations, the user can still continue working with the website.

A good example that is most well-known is Google Suggest. It is an advanced version of the standard Google search engine. When you start typing a search phrase in the textbox, it is already sending in the background requests through the server and the server is then suggesting potential search terms to you. So basically while you continue interacting, continue typing your search term, it is already giving suggestions. And I think that is one of the essential parts of AJAX.

RG: Thank you for that very clear and precise explanation. You can go out and test out Google Suggest by going to Google and typing Google Suggest, two separate words, the first result that comes up is the one you have to click in and will bring you to the Google Suggest better page. It is not an easy URL to spell out via voice, so I suggest that that is the best way to get there. And indeed, it does show very well what Jep was just explaining.

How much does BackBase use this technology and what are some of the specific benefits that you've seen in real applications of using this? If you can refer to something specific usage of it just as you did with Google Suggest, that would be great.

Jep Castelein: A good example is probably a project we've done for one of the largest banks in the Netherlands. They are increasingly doing business over the internet. So they have a lot of forms on their website with which their customers can request new products or upgrades their existing products or information inquiries. And, one of the things that they noticed is that a lot of people had somehow trouble filling out the forms or the feedback when they entered something wrong was not correct, so they sort of abandoned the forms, which meant lost revenue.

What we've done, we've taken together with an interaction design company a close look at how the forms were made, and how we could make them more effective, so how we could help the users in a better way to successfully fill out the forms and request the parts. And that has, after introduction, immediately led to a huge increase in successfully submitted forms, which means of course a lot of extra revenue for this bank.

I think that's one of the most, yeah, typical examples I can give where there is a real business benefit.

RG: Thank you for that example. Now, when I decide to use your technology competence, because I understand as an online publisher and entrepreneur that usability is really critical to providing accessible content services and products, do I have to make some considerations before I decide to direct a part of my budget toward such a use of this technology or can I do it in any situation?

Jep Castelein: Yeah, what we usually see is that you have to look carefully at what is valued by your customer. And, the first step towards success is to make sure you know what your customer wants and you know how you can use this technology to give the customer more than he expects. And what we sometimes see is that people have heard the buzzword and say "I also want AJAX," but they don't know what they want to do with it or how this will benefit the customers. So I think that this is really the number one point to think about.

RG: What are then your key down-to-earth recommendations to the layman, the executive communication officer, the marketing manager who has heard the buzzword, who has seen some of this, who has been thrilled about it, and who has some money to spend in making their site more accessible, more easily navigable and who is also eager to make sure that the processes that users have to go on his site can be fulfilled in a greater percentage. What is your basic advice to these people before they dive into this AJAX universe?

Jep Castelein: My first recommendation would be know your customer, and based on that I would step into a very gradual process. I think that AJAX, because it's basically an extension of existing web pages, is very well suited to step-by-step implementation. It's not that you throw away your existing site. You can start, for example, by an improved search functionality on your site. Or, with an improved navigation based on the feedback that you get from your customers. You can improve your site step-by-step to a fully-featured AJAX website.

RG: Would you venture to say that AJAX is an instrument to make usability effective on a site? Or, would you prefer to state that it's still in the end of the overall architecture and conceptual design, that determines the success of a site in terms of usability?

Jep Castelein: I think it's a two-edged sword. On one-hand, you need the technology to be able to realize your goals. On the other hand, if you have very good technology, you can still make very stupid things. So, on one hand, you need to know what you want to build and how it will benefit the visitors of your website; on the other hand you need make sure that you can effectively implement it at the lowest cost with fast time to market, et cetera. So, it's... yeah, it's a bit of both I would say.

RG: Thank you, Jep. And, I'd like to flyover for just a second on the actual BackBase demonstration of your... is that... would you call it an RSS aggregator? What is the appropriate name for that beautiful thing that I am looking at?

Jep Castelein: Yeah, we call that the RSS News Reader, or News Aggregator which makes it possible to keep an eye on various news feeds at the same time. And, you also see new RSS items, new news items appearing directly in the screen when they are published.

RG: Yes, in fact, let's give a little more clear explanation of this to everyone else. First of all, if you now go to Back, B-A-C-K...B-A-S-E dot com. On that page you can indeed find a demo link. Let me actually bring it up on my screen.

Now, there are... when you click on that demos link you get a "page now refreshing," and right after you get to see a very smooth kind of overlay, we don't want to say "pop-up," it has such a negative connotation, which comes up on the screen displaying eight different demos that you can go and visit. The second one demo listed in the left column is called "BackBase RSS reader," and that is the fascinating item that I would like to spend a little time on.

The BackBase reader is basically what anyone will call a RSS web-based aggregator, which in its present incarnation on the BackBase site includes four feeds next to each other: Info-world, Slashdot, Ajaxian and Wikipedia. And, for each of those feeds you can see both the live feed, in which new items pop up as they are published or as they become alive, and on the next available tab an archive of all the news items which have gone through that feed.

The layout of the display is very flexible and can be adjusted in multiple ways. It's very soothing, smooth, not intrusive, non-screaming.

It also integrates a search functionality and an advanced search pane which can be again seamlessly brought up into display when you need to.

So it does a lot to make the experience of checking the news extremely soothing and pleasant for the user, at least in my case.

Now, is there something more that I am missing out of this general description that I gave of the AJAX RSS reader from BackBase that you think we should be paying attention to, Jep?

Jep Castelein: I think you covered most of the features. Maybe it's good to notice that it looks a little bit more like a desktop application than a real website.

For example, if you zoom in, if you select a specific article, you can also select to have it in a separate window. It's a bit like in Microsoft Outlook: if you double click a message, it will pop-up in a stand-alone window.

Now, normally that type of functionality... you don't see that in a website. But that is one of the things that I think is very nice, very well implemented in the RSS reader.

RG: Great and I've in fact fallen in love with this application right away as soon as I'd seen it. And, I have asked BackBase permission to deploy this incredibly interesting tool to provide an aggregate of my news information channel in one unique page online. So, I am hoping that today as this interview goes live online that we are able to display a good example, an actual implementation of what can actually be done even for a news and content publisher like me.

I do think that this technology does provide a great benefit in providing access to a great deal of information in a usable way.

So I am eagerly looking forward to displaying a link pointing to this new BackBase power page that is going to carry all of Robin Good's feeds.

Jep Castelein: That sounds like a very very interesting idea, and I'm really happy that you like it and that you want to deploy it and want to use it for your own site, so, yeah, very good news.

RG: Well, actually thanks to you and to your company, Jep, for this. I think I am the one to say thank you, and I'm the one to say thank you for the second time because of your generous availability in explaining so very clearly this fascinating new technology that both usability engineers but also the laymen in communication that wants to know more about improving the effectiveness of its online strategy must need to look at. And, I am really thankful for your time today with us. From Robin Good, here in Rome, is everything with BackBase and Jep Castelein on this wonderful tour of cutting-edge user experience enabling technology like AJAX and the scripting collection built by BackBase and their services. And, I leave it to you for some closing remarks, some URLs you want to share, some recommendation and invitation to our listeners. Thanks again Jep, and over to you. Ciao!

Jep Castelein: Thank you very much Robin for the opportunity to explain what we are working on here at BackBase in your... in this interview. If the listeners would like to know a little bit more about BackBase, I think our website,, is a very good source to start with. It's also an AJAX powered website, so it's a very good demo application by itself. We have links to white papers, we have links to the demo applications for the more technical people, we have a lot of code samples available and a discussion forum. If you would like to have a more personal response, you can reach me at Jep, that's So, I'm looking forward to hear from you. And, again Robin, thanks for this interview.

Streaming audio interview with Jep Castelein of BackBase

John Bolton should be credited for first pointing me to BackBase as well as having spotted a browser incompatibility of the BackBase Robin Good News Channelsaggregator showing the AOL v9 browser to crash when hitting the above page. Thanks John.

Readers' Comments    
2006-07-29 14:08:31

Werner Bohlmann

But how did you activate the advanced search and archives?

2005-12-24 02:42:36


Ja nisam imao problema sa implementacijom ni na IE. Tacno je da postoji razlika u interpretaciji izmedju IE i FF ali sve BXML stvari meni rade ok (2 relativno ozbiljna projekta uz pomoc momaka iz Backbbase-a)

Pozdrav iz NS, Mladen

2005-12-24 02:35:06


Ja nisam imao problema sa implementacijom ni na IE. Tacno je da postoji razlika u interpretaciji izmedju IE i FF ali sve BXML stvari meni rade ok (2 relativno ozbiljna projekta uz pomoc momaka iz Backbbase-a)

Pozdrav iz NS, Mladen

2005-12-24 02:32:57


Ja nisam imao problema sa implementacijom ni na IE. Tacno je da postoji razlika u interpretaciji izmedju IE i FF ali sve BXML stvari meni rade ok (2 relativno ozbiljna projekta uz pomoc momaka iz Backbbase-a)

Pozdrav iz NS, Mladen

2005-10-05 10:17:06

Vladislav Bailović

According to the BackBase Manual, BackBase supports Internet Explorer 5+,
Mozilla 1.7+, Firefox 1.0+, Netscape 7.2+ and Camino 0.82. I would like to
add that their support for IE is somewhat limited, due to quite a number of
issues that Microsoft product has with standards and plethora of known bugs.

As you see, AOL is not on this list. While their browser is based on
Microsoft IE engine, it is (obviously) not 100% compatible. The reason here
(I guess) is the unision of all the MSIE bugs (and IE is well-known as
perhaps the buggiest browser ever) with the bugs that crept in AOL's beta

posted by Robin Good on Tuesday, October 4 2005, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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