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Mootools, I Choose You

July 04, 2008

I've always been a "do it yourself" kind of web developer, but after reinventing the wheel time and time again and struggling to make my code work in the various different browsers out there, I've come to appreciate that I can save a TON of time through different libraries and toolkits. I'm no Javascript pro (though I am the resident guru at work), but I find the language interesting. Ever since Google came along and showed the world that Javascript can be used for more than just popups and other web annoyances, I've been enthralled with some of the cool things people have done with Javascript. From AJAX to Comet, simple DHTML to animations, it's simply been an amazing evolution.

About a year ago, Aaron tipped me off to the magic of Javascript toolkits, specifically Dojo. For a while, I was a proponent of it, opting to use it exclusively to drive an internal application that I had written from the ground up at work. It's an extremely powerful toolkit which has been steadily adding more functionality as it ages to that point that it's arguably the most powerful toolkit on the market. Unfortunately, I've also found it to be one of the most poorly documented toolkits available as well, which I'm sure was due in part to my lackluster understanding of some of the more advanced Javascript concepts. Still, looking at some of the more advanced Dojo examples I've seen from Aaron and other sources online, most of the syntax escapes me completely, even as I continue to learn more and more about Javascript.

At the time I started using it, I was working with version 0.4.1, and as anyone with some Dojo experience can attest, it's a far cry from where the 0.9 and and later branches ended up. I've since upgraded to 0.4.3, but porting everything over to the 1.0 branch would have taken about as much time as moving over to a completely different library. The 0.9+ branches also officially did not support Safari 2, which was a huge problem considering we're an all-Mac shop. It also meant that production-side adoptation was pretty much out of the question as it's a safe assumption that the majority of people using any software are drastically behind on their updates, if they ever even choose to perform them. For a company that makes most of its money by sales through the website, we just can't afford to exclude and entire sector of people like that.

With all that in mind, I decided I'd poke around and see what else was out there as a possible Dojo replacement. A couple months ago, a friend tipped me off to Mootools, which seemed like a nice mix of Prototype and the Scriptaculous animation library that was built on top of it. I had passed it on to my boss as something to check out but it was kind of left at that, though I did plan to learn it on my own time.

About a month after that, we hired a new designer at work, mostly so my boss could focus more on PHP and MySQL code and not just the design of both the site and various ads (which had become a full-time job). During his first week there, the new guy happened to stumble across the MooTools library on his own and suggested that we use some of the animations in the library to spruce up the site a little, though he knew absolutely nothing about Javascript. Of course, being the resident Javascript guru in the office, I was asked to look into what it would take to make it work.

I had spent a little time the previous week sifting through the APIs and docs of various other toolkits and libraries to try and narrow them down into a proper replacement for my aging Dojo code. I had actually planned to start making use of the Ext toolkit since it was a good compromise for Dojo; the code and feature set were very similar and their API and documentation was much easier to follow than that of Dojo. But, it wasn't enough for me to consider introducing yet another Javascript library into the code base, and it made no guarantee about working with Safari 2.

Of the two other programmers in the office, one had been using jQuery for about as long as I had been using Dojo while the other had just started to implement MooTools into another piece of software he had written. Since those two were already in out code base, they scored extra points and earned my attention over some of the other libraries.

Since MooTools was called for in the case of this particular animation, I spent a little time reading through the API and the Mootorial and picking apart some of the demos available on the MooTools site. To my surprise, it started to make sense very quickly; their API is extremely well put together (with a few fringe exceptions), I found the code and syntax very easy to comprehend, and best of all, I managed to get the animation working in only a few hours having never worked with the library in the past.

I then proceeded to port all of my Dojo code to MooTools, and in about two days time I was done. I even added some snappy fading and scrolling animations to the system which gave it a really nice polish. It all loads significantly faster to boot! I took another day and a half and added some drag-and-drop functionality that I had been planning since very early on in the project, something I still don't even know how to approach with Dojo but made quick work of with MooTools, even adding heavy modifications to meet my specific needs. I've also learned a ton more about Javascript, written my own MooTools menu class (mostly as a learning experience) and rolled out some cool new things to our production website. I've drunk the koolaid milk and now I'm hooked. I can't imagine ever working with raw Javascript again to be honest.

But, MooTools isn't for everyone. It's meant to be more of a core library that you extend and use to build your applications quickly. It also has one very significant downside; like Prototype, it extends the base Javascript prototype, meaning it could break existing code you have. It's probably rare that it would (I haven't run into it personally), but it's a consideration. It also doesn't play well with other libraries and toolkits as a result.

The point of this long-winded post is simply that I have become a huge MooTools fan, and if you have a project that would benefit from a well-documented, cross-browser library with some really easy animations and extremely useful functionality, you may too. Check it out, I think it'll be worth your time.

One note I want to make is that I wrote this before MooTools 1.2 was released. For the record, I love the changes that were made; it's much faster, there are a lot of cool tweaks that make it easier to use and it adds a lot of very useful new methods. That said, I think their new documentation page and demos page are just terrible! In addition, they've completely disabled their forums in favor of Google Groups, which means any old discussions and examples now only live in Google's cache despite them coming up in their search very often. Those of you look for 1.11 docs and demos, see here and here, respectively.


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