Building The Web
An interview conducted by Vitaly Friedman ahead of the 2019 View Source conference in Amsterdam.
Do you think, as of today, the Web is in the best shape it will ever be?
Well, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, “It is the best of the times; it is the worst of times,” because, in a sense, things are absolutely great today. Let’s just take it from the point of view of browsers and browser support for standards.
What you can do in a browser today just straight out of the box is amazing compared to the past. There are some little differences between browsers but, honestly, not like it used to be. Back in the day, if you were a Web developer, you spent maybe 50% of your time battling specific browser bugs trying to make one browser work like another browser, all this stuff, trying to make up for lack of standards.
It’s funny. I was listening to panel discussions we did at a conference I think 11 years ago, the AtMedia Conference in London. One of the questions I was asking the panelists was like, “What’s your wish list for CSS or browsers, in general?” They were saying things like, “Oh, if we had multiple background images, everything would be perfect. All my problems would be solved.”
They were all saying things that we have. They were all saying things that we have today, and we’ve got more. We have so much today that you couldn’t even imagine in the past, things like service workers where you can literally control network level stuff, amazing CSS things with Grid now and Flexbox. Amazing, right? One the one hand, yes, things are better than they’ve ever been.
Then, on another hand, not so much because, first of all, in the area of browsers, the fact that making a browser is now so complicated that only very, very, very, very few companies and organizations could do it and we’re kind of down to just two or three browser rendering engines, that’s not very healthy for something like the Web, which has always thrived on diversity. That’s something we’ll see how that plays out, so I’m uncomfortable about that but it remains to be seen.
Then, in terms of things being, in my opinion, worse than they were before, it’s less to do with what we get from browsers and more to do with how we choose to make things on the Web. We seem to have collectively decided to make things really complicated in terms of, I want to put something on the Web that used to be relatively straightforward.
I know there were all sorts of problems with the way we used to do it and maybe it didn’t scale so well, but we seem to have collectively decided that the barrier to entry to putting something on the Web requires loads of technologies, not browser technologies, but technologies that sit on our computers or sit on our servers. It’s great that we’ve got version control, build tools, automatic bundlers, and all this stuff, but the level of complexity is extremely high, it seems to me.
It’s weird because it’s a choice to do that stuff. Yet, we’re acting as though it’s the default.
People are constantly saying, “Oh, well, expectations are different now.” I will say that’s true. People’s expectations of the Web are different, but not in the way that people mostly talk about it.
When people use that phrase, “Oh, people’s expectations of the Web are different now,” what they usually mean is, “Oh, people expect more from the Web. People expect the Web to be fast and interactive like native apps and stuff. I think that would be great if that were true, but my observation from talking to people is that people’s expectations of the Web have changed.
People expect the Web to be terrible. I talk to people and they’ve simply given up on the Web. Certainly, on mobile, they just try to avoid going on the Web.
Yes, people’s expectations of the Web have changed but not for the better. They’re associating the Web with bad experiences, with things being slow, with constantly being bombarded with, you know, sign up to my newsletter, accept cookies, dark patterns, all this stuff.
What are the most important things for people coming into the industry to understand? Thinking about how to ensure the things they are building will be reliable and maintainable in the future?
I think the first thing to establish is that people learn in different ways. The answer to this question kind of depends on the person. I’ve experienced this myself, talking to students in, say, Codebar and stuff, is that some people really want to know why something is working, first. Give me the fundamentals. Give me almost a bit of theory but build things up from the fundamentals upwards until we’ve got a thing that works.
Other people, they don’t work that way. They say, “I want to build something as quickly as possible.” Okay, let’s start with a framework. Let’s create React App or something, something that gets you something straight away and then work backward from there.
I say, “Okay, but what’s actually going on here? Why does this work? What’s happening under the hood?”
There are two different ways of learning there. Neither is right and neither is wrong. There are just different ways.
I think the important thing is that, at some point, you end up with this kind of layered level of knowledge that you’ve got the fundaments in the grounding and then you can add things on top like a framework at the tippy top of that stack. Whether you start with the framework and work down to the fundamentals or start with the fundamentals and work up to the framework, I don’t think that matters as long as what you end up with is a nice rounded kind of stack of technologies.
Then, I think, what you learn over time, and I feel is something you could be told but you kind of have to just learn it yourself and experience it, is that the stuff further down, the fundamentals will change at a much slower pace and the stuff higher up, the abstractions, the frameworks, the tools, they will change at a faster pace. Once you know that, then it’s okay. Then that feeling of being overwhelmed, like, “Oh, there’s so much to learn,” you can start to filter it and figure out, “Well, where do I want to concentrate? Do I want to learn stuff that I know I will have to swap out in another year, two years, three years, or will I concentrate my time on this lower level fundamental stuff that will last for maybe decades, or do I split it? Do I dedicate some of my time to fundamentals and some of my time to the abstractions?”
I think the key thing is that you go in with your eyes open about the nature of the thing you’re learning. If I’m going to learn about HTML and, to a certain extent, CSS and stuff, then I will know this is knowledge that will last for quite a while. It’s not going to change too quickly. But if I’m learning about a framework, a build tool, or something like that, then I will say, “Okay. It’s fine that I’m learning this,” but I shouldn’t be under any illusions that this is going to be forever and not be surprised when, further down the line, people say, “Oh, you’re still using that framework? We don’t use that anymore. We use this other framework now,” right?
I think that’s the key thing is going in with your eyes open. It’s totally fine to study all the stuff, learn all the stuff, as long as you’re not disappointed, like, “Oh, I invested all my time in that framework and now nobody is using that framework anymore. We’ve all moved on to this other framework.”
There’s a phrase from DevOps where you talk about your servers. They say, treat your servers like cattle, not pets. Don’t get too attached to them.
I feel like that’s the case with a lot of the tools we use. I would consider frameworks and libraries to be tools. They’re tools. You use them to help you work faster, but don’t get too attached to them because they will change whereas, the more fundamental stuff, you can rely on.
Now, when I say fundamental stuff, to a certain extent I’m talking about the technology stuff like HTML. That moves at a slow pace. HTTP and how the Internet works, that’s not going to change very fast.
When I say fundamentals, I think you can go deeper than that even, and you can talk about philosophies, attitudes, and ways of approaching how to build something on the Web that’s completely agnostic to technologies. In other words, it’s like what your mindset is when you approach building something, what your priorities are, what you value. Those kinds of things can last for a very, very long time, longer than any technologies.
For example, over time, on the Web, I’ve come to realize that progressive enhancement, which is completely technology agnostic—it’s just a way of thinking—is a good long-term investment. Even as technologies come and go, this approach of thinking in a sort of layered way and building up from the most supported thing to least supported thing works really well no matter what the technology is that comes along.
When Ajax came along in 2005, I could take the progressive enhancement approach and apply it to Ajax. When responsive design came along in 2010, I could take progressive enhancement and apply it to responsive design. When progressive Web apps come along, whatever it happens to be, I can take this approach, this fundamental approach and apply it to whatever the new technology is. Those things tend to be really long-lasting. Those kinds of approaches, almost strategies I guess, are things that can last a long time.
You should always be questioning them. You should always be saying, “Is this still relevant? Does this still work in this situation? Does it still apply?” Over a long time period, you start to get an answer to that. It’s like, “Yeah, actually, it’s funny. Even over 20 years, this particular strategy works really well,” whereas some other strategy that worked well 15 years ago, it turns out, just doesn’t even apply today because some technology has made it obsolete.
Yeah, fundamental things aren’t necessarily technologies. I think a Web developer is well versed in getting to grips with those fundamental things but, at the same time, I’m not sure if you could learn those first. I’m not sure if you could be like, “Okay, we’re going to learn about these fundamental things without touching a line of code.” You kind of have to learn them for yourself by doing it and learning over time, I think.
Do you think frameworks, for example, will be replaced by the establishment of long-lasting Web components with CSS routines where we can adjust everything? Is this the world we’re moving toward or is it going to stay simple after all?
Yes, absolutely, the things that people are pushing the envelope with, in terms of frameworks today, will become the standards of tomorrow. I think I would put good money on that because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it happen in the past, generally.
Yes, I think the goal of any good framework or library should be to make itself redundant. A classic example of this would be jQuery. You don’t need jQuery today because all the stuff that jQuery did for you like using CSS selectors to find DOM nodes, you can do that now in the browser using
querySelectorAll. But of course, the only reason why
querySelector exists is because jQuery proved it was powerful and people wanted it.
I think, absolutely, a lot of the things that people are currently using frameworks and libraries for will become part of the standard, whether that has to do with the idea of a virtual DOM, state management, managing page transitions, giving us control over that. Yes, absolutely, that will find its way.
I guess the theory is then that, okay, let’s say we get Web components, we get Houdini. Now we all start building our own widgets and we all start building our own CSS functions. The theory is that the ones that are really popular and really goodwill then get standardized and end up in the standards.
I’m not sure if that’s actually going to happen because I wonder what a standards body or browser maker would actually say is, “Oh, well, we don’t need to make it part of the standard because everyone can just use the Web component, everyone can just use this Houdini thing,” right? We’ll see whether that works out.
I wonder if it’ll end up maybe like the situation with jQuery plugins. I mentioned that jQuery was great, it showed this is what people want, and it ended up as a standard. As well as jQuery the library, you also had jQuery plugins, the ecosystem where everybody built a thousand different carousels, a thousand different widgets. There was no quality control and you couldn’t figure out which was the right one to use. I worry that might be where we end up with things like Web components, Houdini, and stuff like that. But it’s an interesting idea, this extensible Web thing.
How will we build? How will the workflow or the tooling change and evolve as we move forward?
Well, that’s up to us. These things are created by people, so that’s something to be aware of. When people come to the Web think, “Oh, what should I learn? What’s the tool? What’s the methodology? How will we be building websites?” It’s almost like, what horse should I be backing here? What’s a safe bet?
You’ve got to step back and realize these things aren’t handed down from heaven as some kind of decision has been made and then passed on to us. We make those decisions. We decide how the Web gets built. There’s no central authority on this stuff. We collectively decide it.
You can choose how the future of Web development is going to look. You could choose what a workflow is going to look like that works for you and works for other people.
It’s a choice. It’s not something that, oh, in the future, we will all do this; in the future, we will all do that. In the future, you will make a choice about how you want to build.
I think, too often, though, when we’re making those decisions of how should I build or what’s the best way to build something on the Web, I worry that sometimes we think about it a bit too much from our perspective. What’s the best way for me to build on the Web? What’s going to make things easiest for me as a developer?
I don’t want to make things hard for us. I don’t want life to be difficult, but I do think our priorities should actually be what’s going to make things better for the user, even if that means more work from us.
If you’re getting paid, if you’re getting a paycheck to make things on the Web—then again, kind of going back to responsibility—it’s not about you now. You have a duty of care to the people who will be using the thing you’re building. Decisions about how to build on the Web shouldn’t just be made according to what you like, what you think is nice for you, what makes your life easy, what saves you typing, but should be more informed by what’s going to be better for users, what’s going to be more resilient, what’s going to leave nobody behind, you know, something that’s available to everyone.
I know I’m talking a lot in abstractions and vagaries, but the talk at View Source will go into a little more detail.
People are often disappointed in the state of the Web today. How do you see the Web evolving over the years? Do you think that privacy and ethics will become a standard?
I think the first thing to establish is that I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of how things were in the past. There have always been problems. It’s just that we might have different problems today.
I remember the days of literal pop-up windows or pop-under windows, things like that, really annoying things that eventually browsers had to come in and kind of stamp down on that stuff. That’s sort of happening today as well with some of the egregious tracking and surveillance you see Safari and Firefox taking steps to limit that.
In the past, I would have said, “Oh, we need to figure this out. We need to almost self-regulate,” you know, before it’s too late. At this point, I think, “No, it is too late,” and regulation is coming. GDPR is a first step in that and there will be more.
We deserve it. We had our chance to figure this stuff out for ourselves and do the right thing. We blew it, and things are really bad when it comes to surveillance and tracking.
A lot of the business models seem to be predicated on tracking. I’m saying tracking here, not advertising. Advertising isn’t the issue here. It’s specifically tracking.
It’s a bit of a shame that we talk about ad blockers as a software. Most people are not blocking ads. What they’re blocking is tracking. Again, the same way that browsers had to kind of step in and stop popups and pop-under windows, now we see ad blockers, tracking blockers stepping in to solve this.
We get this kind of battle, right? It’s almost like an arms race that’s been going on. I think regulation is going to come in on top of that. Guaranteed it’s going to happen.
You’re right; the fundamental business models in use today are kind of at odds with privacy and surveillance, so they might need to change. Although, I don’t think advertising requires tracking. I know a lot of people talk as though it does. People talk about, “Oh, you can’t have advertising without a tracking link.” You absolutely can. Sponsorship, other kinds of advertising absolutely work.
The other thing is that tracking is not very good. If I’m advertised to with something that absolutely suits my needs then it kind of ceases to be advertising. It just becomes useful, right? That’s not what I experience. What I experience is just really badly targeted things. It’s not even like the tracking works. Yet, people claim tracking is essential.
Anyway, when I say business models need to change, I don’t mean advertising. I think advertising is actually a reasonable business model for some kinds of services. That connection between advertising and tracking, that needs to be severed.
Some people think that’s impossible. They say, “No, it’s just a law of nature that those two things go together.” That’s not true. We choose that. The other thing to remember is that we sometimes look around to see how things are today and we can’t imagine it could be any different. We see one dominant search engine and so we think there could only ever be one dominant search engine, but that’s not true. That’s just the way things have turned out. We see a big social network like Facebook and we think, “Oh, there could ever be one big social network.” Again, that’s just the way things have turned out in our situation.
I think the worst thing we can do is assume things are inevitable and it’s inevitable that things end up that way. That’s particularly true when it comes to surveillance and tracking and things that are antiprivacy to say, “Well, that’s just the way it is. It’s inevitable and it couldn’t be any other way.” I think the first step is that we have to have the imagination to think about how things could be different, how things could have turned out differently, and then work towards making that a reality.
Also, this is a huge opportunity. People are clearly fed up with the tracking. They’re fed up with the surveillance. They don’t mind the advertising. There is a separation there. There is an opportunity here to take on these big organizations who literally can’t change their business model.
Someone like Google, the idea of tracking and surveillance is kind of intrinsically linked to their core business model. That gives a huge opportunity. You can see Apple already starting to exploit this opportunity, but other people, too, where you can make privacy and lack of tracking your selling point. It’s a way for a small player to suddenly maybe disrupt the incumbents because the incumbents are so reliant on tracking.
You can’t take on Facebook by trying to be another Facebook, but you can take on Facebook by being what Facebook can’t do. Not what Facebook won’t do, what Facebook literally can’t do. There’s actually a big opportunity there.
Yeah, when we talk about the good old days of keeping track of things, blogs, I kind of share that because I remember the good old days as well. But I’ll say I see a bit of a resurgence as well. Enough people are getting fed up with just posting on silos like Twitter, Facebook, and stuff that I see more and more people launching their own websites again and publishing there. I hope we’ll see more of that.
What are you most excited about on the Web these days?
Yeah, this is an interesting question because it’s happened over and over again over the course of my career, about 20 years now, where I’ll think, like, “Oh, there’s nothing really exciting me,” and then something comes along and I get, ooh, really excited. Almost kind of puttering along when CSS came along, “Oh, this is really interesting.” Then, years later, Ajax, like, “Ah, this is really interesting.”
I think currently service workers are the things that get me excited, get me thinking about, oh, the potential for what the Web could be. The potential for the user experience on the Web is huge. I don’t even think the challenges are technological because it’s pretty straightforward using service workers.
It’s more changing people’s expectations of the Web, the idea that, oh, you should be able to open a browser or hit a bookmark and have something happen even if you don’t have an Internet connection or even if you are on a crappy network that things could still be quite reliable. That’s such a fundamental change and that gets me very, very excited. It’s also, obviously, a huge challenge to change that.
I have to say, over a long enough time period, the things that I start to think about start to be less and less about specific technologies and more and more about just the Web, in general, and the people making the Web.
I certainly have fears for the Web. They aren’t so much around technologies, like, “Oh, will one particular browser make or dominate,” or, “Will one particular framework be the only technology around?” Those things are concerning. It’s more about, “Will the idea of being able to make for the Web start to get reduced down to an elite kind of priesthood of a certain kind of person?” Frankly, the kind of person who looks like me, right? White, male, privileged, European. If we’re the only people who get to make for the Web, that will be terrible.
I think the real potential of the Web and the promise of the Web from the early days was that it’s for anyone. Anybody should be able to not just use the Web and consume it, but anyone should be able to add to it and build for it.
The thing that actually motivates me now is less about a specific technology and more about how can I try and get a more diverse range of people making the Web, making their own careers out of making for the Web rather than it being reduced, reduced, reduced to a certain kind of person. When I’m done with all this, if I look around and all the other people making websites look just like me, then I think we’ll have failed.