The Internet of Useless Things
This is a talk I gave at An Event Apart about eighteen months ago, all about irish music, the web, long-term thinking, and yes, you guessed it—progressive enhancement.
I’ve said it before, but I’m going to reiterate my conflicted feelings about Web Components:
I have conflicting feelings about Web Components. I am simultaneously very excited and very nervous.
There are broadly two ways that they could potentially be used:
The second scenario is a much more revolutionary approach—sweep aside the web that has come before, and usher in a new golden age of Web Components. Personally, I’m not comfortable with that kind of year-zero thinking. I prefer evolution over revolution:
Revolutions sometimes change the world to the better. Most often, however, it is better to evolve an existing design rather than throwing it away. This way, authors don’t have to learn new models and content will live longer. Specifically, this means that one should prefer to design features so that old content can take advantage of new features without having to make unrelated changes. And implementations should be able to add new features to existing code, rather than having to develop whole separate modes.
The evolutionary model is exemplified by the design of HTML 5.
The revolutionary model is exemplified by the design of XHTML 2.
I really hope that the Web Components model goes down the first route.
Up until recently, my inner Web Components pendulum was swinging towards the hopeful end of my spectrum of anticipation. That was mainly driven by the ability of custom elements to extend existing HTML elements.
So, for example, instead of creating a new element like this:
…you can piggyback off the existing semantics of the
button element like this:
For a real-world example, see Github’s use of
I wrote about creating responsible Web Components:
That means we can use web components as a form of progressive enhancement, turbo-charging pre-existing elements instead of creating brand new elements from scratch. That way, we can easily provide fallback content for non-supporting browsers.
I’d like to propose that a fundamental principle of good web component design should be: “Where possible, extend an existing HTML element instead of creating a new element from scratch.”
Peter Gasston also has a great post on best practice for creating custom elements:
It’s my opinion that, for as long as there is a dependence on JS for custom elements, we should extend existing elements when writing custom elements. It makes sense for developers, because new elements have access to properties and methods that have been defined and tested for many years; and it makes sense for users, as they have fallback in case of JS failure, and baked-in accessibility fundamentals.
But now it looks like this superpower of custom elements is being nipped in the bud:
It also does not address subclassing normal elements. Again, while that seems desirable the current ideas are not attractive long term solutions. Punting on it in order to ship a v1 available everywhere seems preferable.
Now, I’m not particularly wedded to the syntax of using the
is="" attribute to extend existing elements …but I do think that the ability to extend existing elements declaratively is vital. I’m not alone, although I may very well be in the minority.
Bruce has outlined some use cases and Steve Faulkner has enumerated the benefits of declarative extensibility:
I think being able to extend existing elements has potential value to developers far beyond accessibility (it just so happens that accessibility is helped a lot by re-use of existing HTML features.)
Like Steve, I’ve no particularly affection (or enmity) towards the
I also have a niggling worry that this may affect the uptake of web components.
I think he’s absolutely right. I think there are many developers out there in a similar position to me, uncertain exactly what to make of this new technology. I was looking forward to getting really stuck into Web Components and figuring out ways of creating powerful little extensions that I could start using now. But if Web Components turn out to be an all-or-nothing technology—a “platform”, if you will—then I will not only not be using them, I’ll be actively arguing against their use.
I sneezed while I was brushing my teeth.
That was messy.