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By Neil Skirrow

As web technologies constantly advance, the skills a developer is expected to have are constantly increasing. Web users are beginning to expect Ajax interfaces, charts and graphs and a whole host of other tricks and features. This means web developers not only have to be skilled with HTML and a server-side programming language such as PHP or Perl, but they now also need to be JavaScript gurus, Flash experts, and skilled graphic designers.

When developing your applications, you simply can’t create every element yourself. A graph or mapping solution is an application in itself, so no single developer or small team can create such components while continuing development of the primary application. This means programmers have to use third-party solutions — and thankfully there are thousands of such solutions to make our lives as developers that little bit easier.

In an effort to save you a few hours crawling the web in search of the perfect third-party solution, we have compiled this list of essential development resources.

1. Functions and Classes

You can find a whole array of pre-made classes and functions to help save development time. A great resource directory for finding the perfect PHP classes is PHPClasses.org. For those of you who use Perl, you should be familiar with CPAN.

CAPTCHA

CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing to tell Computers and Humans Apart) is the term used to describe the use of images which humans can identify, in order to ensure an automated bot/computer program isn’t accessing your application. The ideal use for this is in contact forms to ensure only humans can send messages — therefore eliminating automated spam and junk messages.

The following CAPTCHA systems can be easily integrated with your applications:

  • reCAPTCHA
    One of the most popular CAPTCHA systems that helps to digitize books, newspapers and old time radio shows by using CAPTCHA inputs to help translate. There is also a Perl module available for reCAPTCHA.
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  • Securimage
    Securimage is a free open-source PHP CAPTCHA script for generating complex images and CAPTCHA codes.
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  • freeCap
    A GPL CAPTCHA script to stop spam.
  • HN CAPTCHA
    A CAPTCHA script written in PHP, licensed under LGPL.

Date Manipulation

Manipulating dates in your applications can be a time-consuming process. PHP and Perl include numerous functions for automating the process, but often don’t offer all the required functions.

The following date manipulation functions can be easily integrated with your applications:

  • PEAR Date
    Generic PHP classes for representation and manipulation of dates, times, and time zones without the need for timestamps.
  • Date Class
    This PHP class allows you to add or subtract periods from dates, and calculate the difference between two dates.
  • Date manipulation in PHP
    A PHP tutorial on PHPBuilder.com, guiding you through a number of common date manipulation processes.
  • Date::Calc Perl Module
    A powerful Perl module for date calculations based on the Gregorian calendar.

Image Manipulation

Manipulating images is a common requirement. Whether you want to resize your images while maintaining aspect ratios, or add watermarks, the process can be entirely automated using a server-side language like PHP or Perl.

Form Validation

Form validation is critical to ensure users enter form information in a suitable format, and is especially important to protect your application against attacks.

Password Validation

Password validation is important to ensure your users choose passwords that offer an adequate level of security to prevent their accounts from being compromised.

2. Ajax and JavaScript

Ajax is a web methodology that uses JavaScript to make HTTP connections to retrieve and process data for the purpose of dynamically updating the content of a static web page. Ajax enables you to update content within a web page without reloading the entire page, thus reducing load times and server loads, making your web pages more interactive and intuitive. A great resource for Ajax tools is MiniAjax.

Auto Suggest

Auto suggest or autocomplete tools are usually applied to text inputs like search fields. When a user begins their input, the input field shows a list of options that match what they have entered so far. This enables users to enter their input more quickly, and can also help them enter terms that match search data that are more likely to return relevant results.

Calendars

Ajax calendars are extremely useful when you need your users to enter a date. They reduce confusion over date formats, and enable users to easily find the date they are looking for rather than typing a date format string.

Sliders

Ajax sliders enable users to use an interactive draggable element to select values. These are very useful for features like colour pickers as they enable users to ’slide’ through a range of colours to select the one they want.

Data Grids

Ajax data grids enable you to display data in a table, but with the benefit of features like column sorting and pages without the need to reload the entire page.

  • Grid3
    A useful data grid tool which is part of the Ext JS library.
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  • dhtmlxGrid
    A powerful data grid tool that includes column sorting and search functionality.
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  • Unobtrusive Table Sort Script
    A data grid tool that includes multiple column sorting.
  • AJAX Data Listings Engine
    A powerful open source PHP data grid tool for use with mySQL.
  • TableKit
    A data grid tool based on the Prototype JavaScript framework that features field editing.

Draggable Content

Ajax-based draggable content features can be very useful when used appropriately. Such tools enable users to reorganize a page to suit their needs, and can also serve as a basis for an interactive feature like a shopping basket.

Image Enlarging

Image enlarging scripts, similar to JavaScript light boxes, enable the user to enlarge or zoom in on an image chosen from a set of thumbnail images.

Galleries and Slideshows

Image galleries are very useful when you have a collection of images to show, they allow users to easily browse your images, and features like slideshows allow users to sit back and enjoy watching your images.

Star Ratings

Star rating scripts allow users to rate items through an intuitive and attractive interface, which is an improvement over typical drop-down menus or radio buttons.

Colour Pickers

If you want to let users choose colours in your application, it’s better to present them with an interface rather than asking them to enter a HEX code. Colour pickers allow users to choose colours from a colour palette which then generates a HEX code for use in your HTML.

Progress Bars

Progress bars are very useful when handling user uploads or pages which can be slow to load; they keep the user informed that progress is being made and that the page is loading.

3. APIs

An API (Application Programming Interface) is a set of program functions which can be accessed by another application. One example is a currency conversion API that retrieves currency conversion data by allowing the user to enter a base currency, an amount, and the desired result currency, which returns a result via the API.

  • Alexa Top Sites
    This API provides access to lists of web sites ordered by Alexa Traffic Rank.
  • bit.ly API
    A useful API for the bit.ly URL shortening service.
  • Blinksale API
    Enables you to access Blinksale data such as invoices and customer data.
  • FoXRate
    A basic currency conversion API.
  • eBay API
    eBay’s API which allows you to submit items to be listed and obtain listing data.
  • Twitter API
    The Twitter API allows you to have access to Twitter data, including user and status information.

4. IP Locations

Finding out where your visitors are located can be valuable from a development standpoint. It can help you understand your visitors so you can design your site to better suit their needs. IP location information can help you determine where a user is located, enabling you to display content in the their language. You can also optionally customize other information such as currencies and shipping costs.

  • OpenCrypt IP Location API
    A hosted API service for determining user location by country.
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  • IP Details
    A PHP class for determining geographical locations based on IP address.
  • GEO-IP
    A free IP to country database.

5. Charts and Graphs

Charts and graphs enable you to display complex data visually. This is useful for example when trying to determine information like daily pageview counts from detailed statistical logs, enabling the user to immediately see how the data varies over a period of time.

  • amCharts
    A powerful Flash charts tool which supports 3D charts and the ability to combine different graphs.
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  • FusionCharts
    A well designed and stylish 3D charts tool.
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  • XML/SWF Charts
    A highly customizable Flash charts tool.
  • JFreeChart
    A free Java-based charting tool.
  • pChart
    A powerful PHP class for building attractive charts.

6. Maps

Once you are using IP location tools like those listed above, you will have a collection of user location data. What better way to display it than with an interactive map. Interactive maps are also useful for understanding user location data such as sales information, for example, when you receive delivery and billing address info from a user.

  • amMap
    An interactive mapping tool which includes drill-down functionality.
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  • Google Charts API
    A great mapping tool, though limited to a small map size.
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  • Flashmaps
    A great collection of different Flash mapping tools.

7. Audio Players

When used well, playing audio on your web site can be a great way of setting a mood or getting a message across.

8. Video Players

Video content is now becoming a standard, but getting the right video player is very important. Video content is the ideal, and often expected tool for promotion, so getting a player which suits your site and needs is now a critical design and development choice.

  • OS FLV
    An open source and well featured Flash video player.
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  • Flowplayer
    A full-featured and highly customizable Flash video player.
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  • JW FLV Media Player
    A very powerful and flexible Flash video player.
  • FLV Player
    A stylish and customizable Flash video player.

9. Video Conversion

Video conversion/encoding can be a tricky business. Videos can be in a wide range of formats but most players only support a handful of those. If you don’t have a server which supports ffmpeg, converting videos to a format suitable for your player is usually an offline and manual task.

10. WYSIWYG Editors

WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editors enable you to offer an HTML editor when users enter information, for example, in content management systems, or for entering comments or reviews. These editors enable users to style and format data without the need to understand HTML.

  • TinyMCE
    A lightweight yet powerful JavaScript WYSIWYG editor.
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  • XINHA
    A fully featured and open source WYSIWYG editor.
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  • NicEdit
    A simple and lightweight WYSIWYG editor.
  • openWYSIWYG
    An open source, cross-browser WYSIWYG editor.
  • CKEditor
    A well designed and feature-rich WYSIWYG editor.

About the author

Neil Skirrow is a professional web developer with over 14 years programming experience and is the Managing Director of ionix Limited, a UK software development company that develops the OpenCrypt Membership Software.

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