When I was first styling Resilient Web Design, I made heavy use of vh units. The vertical spacing between elements—headings, paragraphs, images—was all proportional to the overall viewport height. It looked great!
Then I tested it on real devices.
Here’s the problem: when a page loads up in a mobile browser—like, say, Chrome on an Android device—the URL bar is at the top of the screen. The height of that piece of the browser interface isn’t taken into account for the viewport height. That makes sense: the viewport height is the amount of screen real estate available for the content. The content doesn’t extend into the URL bar, therefore the height of the URL bar shouldn’t be part of the viewport height.
But then if you start scrolling down, the URL bar scrolls away off the top of the screen. So now it’s behaving as though it is part of the content rather than part of the browser interface. At this point, the value of the viewport height changes: now it’s the previous value plus the height of the URL bar that was previously there but which has now disappeared.
I totally understand why the URL bar is squirrelled away once the user starts scrolling—it frees up some valuable vertical space. But because that necessarily means recalculating the viewport height, it effectively makes the vh unit in CSS very, very limited in scope.
In my initial implementation of Resilient Web Design, the one where I was styling almost everything with vh, the site was unusable. Every time you started scrolling, things would jump around. I had to go back to the drawing board and remove almost all instances of vh from the styles.
I’ve left it in for one use case and I think it’s the most common use of vh: making an element take up exactly the height of the viewport. The front page of the web book uses min-height: 100vh for the title.
But as soon as you scroll down from there, that element changes height. The content below it suddenly moves.
Let’s say the overall height of the browser window is 600 pixels, of which 50 pixels are taken up by the URL bar. When the page loads, 100vh is 550 pixels. But as soon as you scroll down and the URL bar floats away, the value of 100vh becomes 600 pixels.
(This also causes problems if you’re using vertical media queries. If you choose the wrong vertical breakpoint, then the media query won’t kick in when the page loads but will kick in once the user starts scrolling …or vice-versa.)
There’s a mixed message here. On the one hand, the browser is declaring that the URL bar is part of its interface; that the space is off-limits for content. But then, once scrolling starts, that is invalidated. Now the URL bar is behaving as though it is part of the content scrolling off the top of the viewport.
The result of this messiness is that the vh unit is practically useless for real-world situations with real-world devices. It works great for desktop browsers if you’re grabbing the browser window and resizing, but that’s not exactly a common scenario for anyone other than web developers.
It’s such a shame. A piece of CSS that’s great in theory, and is really well supported, just falls apart where it matters most.
Update: There’s a two-year old bug report on this for Chrome, and it looks like it might actually get fixed in February.
This is what tells all our browsers on all our devices to set the viewport to be the same width of the current device, and to also set the initial scale to 1 (not scaled at all). This essentially allows us to have responsive design consistently.
The viewport value for the meta element was invented by Apple when the iPhone was released. Back then, it was a safe bet that most websites were wider than the iPhone’s 320 pixel wide display—most of them were 960 pixels wide …because reasons. So mobile Safari would automatically shrink those sites down to fit within the display. If you wanted to over-ride that behaviour, you had to use the meta viewport gubbins that they made up.
That was nine years ago. These days, if you’re building a responsive website, you still need to include that meta element.
That seems like a shame to me. I’m not suggesting that the default behaviour should switch to assuming a fluid layout, but maybe the browser could just figure it out. After all, the CSS will already be parsed by the time the HTML is rendering. Perhaps a quick test for the presence of a crawlbar could be used to trigger the shrinking behaviour. No crawlbar, no shrinking.
Maybe someday the assumption behind the current behaviour could be flipped—assume a website is responsive unless the author explicitly requests the shrinking behaviour. I’d like to think that could happen soon, but I suspect that a depressingly large number of sites are still fixed-width (I don’t even want to know—don’t tell me).
There are other browser default behaviours that might someday change. Right now, if I type example.com into a browser, it will first attempt to contact http://example.com rather than https://example.com. That means the example.com server has to do a redirect, costing the user valuable time.
You can mitigate this by putting your site on the HSTS preload list but wouldn’t it be nice if browsers first checked for HTTPS instead of HTTP? I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, but someday …someday.
Start by forgetting everything you know about conventional web design, and instead imagine you’re actually designing a native app.
This makes me squirm. I mean, I’m all for borrowing good ideas from other media—native apps, TV, print—but I don’t think that inspiration should mean imitation. For me, that always results in an interface that sits in a kind of uncanny valley of being almost—but not quite—like the thing it’s imitating.
With that out of the way, most of the recommendations in Owen’s article are sensible ideas about animation, input, and feedback. But then there’s recommendation number eight: Provide an easy way to share content:
PWAs are often shown in a context where the current URL isn’t easily accessible, so it is important to ensure the user can easily share what they’re currently looking at. Implement a share button that allows users to copy the URL to the clipboard, or share it with popular social networks.
Anyway, I think my squeamishness about all the advice to imitate native apps is because it feels like a cargo cult. There seems to be an inherent assumption that native is intrinsically “better” than the web, and that the only way that the web can “win” is to match native apps note for note. But that misses out on all the things that only the web can do—instant distribution, low-friction sharing, and the ability to link to any other resource on the web (and be linked to in turn). Turning our beautifully-networked nodes into standalone silos just because that’s the way that native apps have to work feels like the cure that kills the patient.
If anything, my advice for building a progressive web app would be the exact opposite of Owen’s: don’t forget everything you’ve learned about web design. In my opinion, the term “progressive web app” can be read in order of priority:
Progressive—build in a layered way so that anyone can access your content, regardless of what device or browser they’re using, rewarding the more capable browsers with more features.
Web—you’re building for the web. Don’t lose sight of that. URLs matter. Accessibility matters. Performance matters.
App—sure, borrow what works from native apps if it makes sense for your situation.
Will people expect an experience that maps to native conventions? Or will they be more accepting of deviation because they came to the app via the web and have already seen it before installing it?
These are good questions and I share Jason’s hunch:
My gut says that we can build great experiences without having to make it feel exactly like an iOS or Android app because people will have already experienced the Progressive Web App multiple times in the browser before they are asked to install it.
In all the messaging from Google about progressive web apps, there’s a real feeling that the ability to install to—and launch from—the home screen is a real game changer. I’m not so sure that we should be betting the farm on that feature (the offline possibilities opened up by service workers feel like more of a game-changer to me).
People have been gleefully passing around the statistic that the average number of native apps installed per month is zero. So how exactly will we measure the success of progressive web apps against native apps …when the average number of progressive web apps installed per month is zero?
I like Android’s add-to-home-screen algorithm (although it needs tweaking). It’s a really nice carrot to reward the best websites with. But let’s not carried away. I think that most people are not going to click that “add to home screen” prompt. Let’s face it, we’ve trained people to ignore prompts like that. When someone is trying to find some information or complete a task, a prompt that pops up saying “sign up to our newsletter” or “download our native app” or “add to home screen” is a distraction to be dismissed. The fact that only the third example is initiated by the operating system, rather than the website, is irrelevant to the person using the website.
My hunch is that the majority of people will still interact with your progressive web app via a regular web browser view. If, then, only a minority of people are going to experience your site launched from the home screen in a native-like way, I don’t think it makes sense to prioritise that use case.
The great thing about progressive web apps is that they are first and foremost websites. Literally everyone who interacts with your progressive web app is first going to do so the old-fashioned way, by following a link or typing in a URL. They may later add it to their home screen, but that’s just a bonus. I think it’s important to build progressive web apps accordingly—don’t pretend that it’s just like building a native app just because some people will be visiting via the home screen.
I’m worried that developers are going to think that progressive web apps are something that need to built from scratch; that you have to start with a blank slate and build something new in a completely new way. Now, there are some good examples of these kind of one-off progressive web apps—The Guardian’s RioRun is nicely done. But I don’t think that the majority of progressive web apps should fall into that category. There’s nothing to stop you taking an existing website and transforming it step-by-step into a progressive web app:
Switch over to HTTPS if you aren’t already.
Use a service worker, even if it’s just to provide a custom offline page and cache some static assets.
Make a manifest file to point to an icon and specify some colours.
See? Not exactly a paradigm shift in how you approach building for the web …but those deceptively straightforward steps will really turbo-boost your site.
I’m really excited about progressive web apps …but mostly for the “progressive” and “web” parts. Maybe I’ll start calling them progressive web sites. Or progressive web thangs.
I was in Amsterdam again at the start of last week for the Progressive Web App Dev Summit, organised by Google. Most of the talks were given by Google employees, but not all—this wasn’t just a European version of Google I/O. Representatives from Opera, Mozilla, Samsung, and Microsoft were also there, and there were quite a few case studies from independent companies. That was very gratifying to see.
Almost all the talks were related to progressive web apps. I say, “almost all” because there were occasional outliers. There was a talk on web components, which don’t have anything directly to do with progressive web apps (and I hope there won’t be any attempts to suggest otherwise), and another on rendering performance that had good advice for anyone building any kind of website. Most of the talks were about the building blocks of progressive web apps: HTTPS, Service Workers, push notifications, and all that jazz.
I was very pleased to see that there was a move away from the suggesting that single-page apps with the app-shell architecture model were the only way of building progressive web apps.
Need to do more to change the perception that a progressive web app must be a single-page client-rendered app #pwadevsummit
There were lots of great examples of progressively enhancing existing sites into progressive web apps. Jeff Posnick’s talk was a step-by-step walkthrough of doing exactly that. Reading through the agenda, I was really happy to see this message repeated again and again:
In this session we’ll take an online-only site and turn it into a fully network-resilient, offline-first installable progressive web app. We’ll also break out of the app shell and look at approaches that better-suit traditional server-driven sites.
Progressive Web Apps should work everywhere for every user. But what happens when the technology and API’s are not available for in your users browser? In this talk we will show you how you can think about and build sites that work everywhere.
Progressive Web Apps should load fast, work great offline, and progressively enhance to a better experience in modern browsers.
How do you put the “progressive” into your current web app?
You can (and should!) build for the latest and greatest browsers, but through a collection of fallbacks and progressive enhancements you can bring a lot tomorrow’s web to yesterday’s browsers.
I think this is a really smart move. It’s a lot easier to sell people on incremental changes than it is to convince them to rip everything out and start from scratch (another reason why I’m dubious about any association between web components and progressive web apps—but I’ll save that for another post).
In my mind, these two threads are very much related. Progressive enhancement allows us to have our progressive web app cake and eat it too: we can make websites that can be accessed on devices with limited storage and slow networks, while at the same time ensuring those same sites take advantage of all the newest features in the latest and greatest browsers. I talked to a lot of Google devs about ways to measure the quality of a progressive web app, and I’m coming to the conclusion that a truly high-quality site is one that can still be accessed by a proxy browser like Opera Mini, while providing a turbo-charged experience in the latest version of Chrome. If you think that sounds naive or unrealistic, then I think you might want to dive deeper into all the technologies that make progressive web apps so powerful—responsive design, Service Workers, a manifest file, HTTPS, push notifications; all of those features can and should be used in a layered fashion.
Then we had the idea to somehow connect it to the “pull-to-refresh” spinner, as a secondary gesture to the left or right.
Nice! I’m looking forward to seeing what other browsers come up with it. It’s genuinely exciting to see all these different browser makers in complete agreement on which standards they want to support, while at the same time differentiating their products by competing on user experience. Microsoft recently announced that progressive web apps will be indexed in their app store just like native apps—a really interesting move.
The Progressive Web App Dev Summit wrapped up with a closing panel, that I had the honour of hosting. I thought it was very brave of Paul to ask me to host this, considering my strident criticism of Google’s missteps.
Initially there were going to be six people on the panel. Then it became eight. Then I blinked and it suddenly became twelve. Less of a panel, more of a jury. Half the panelists were from Google and the other half were from Opera, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Samsung. Some of those representatives were a bit too media-trained for my liking: Ali from Microsoft tried to just give a spiel, and Alex Komoroske from Google wouldn’t give me a straight answer about whether he wants Android Instant apps to succeed—Jake was a bit more honest. I should have channelled my inner Paxman a bit more.
Needless to say, nobody from Apple was at the event. No surprise there. They’ve already promised to come to the next event. There won’t be an Apple representative on stage, obviously—that would be asking too much, wouldn’t it? But at least it looks like they’re finally making an effort to engage with the wider developer community.
All in all, the Progressive Web App Dev Summit was good fun. I found the event quite inspiring, although the sausage festiness of the attendees was depressing. It would be good if the marketing for these events reached a wider audience—I met a lot of developers who only found out about it a week or two before the event.
I really hope that people will come away with the message that they can get started with progressive web apps right now without having to re-architect their whole site. Right now the barrier to entry is having your site running on HTTPS. Once you’ve got that up and running, it’s pretty much a no-brainer to add a manifest file and a basic Service Worker—to boost performance if nothing else. From there, you’re in a great position to incrementally add more and more features—an offline-first approach with your Service Worker, perhaps? Or maybe start dabbling in push notifications. The great thing about all of these technologies (with the glaring exception of web components in their current state) is that you don’t need to bet the farm on any of them. Try them out. Use them as enhancements. You’ve literally got nothing to lose …and your users have everything to gain.
Application Cache is—as Jake so infamously described—not a good API. It was specced and shipped before developers had a chance to figure out what they really needed, and so AppCache turned out to be frustrating at best and downright dangerous in some situations. Its over-zealous caching combined with its byzantine cache invalidation ensured it was never going to become a mainstream technology.
There are very few use-cases for AppCache, but I think I hit upon one of them. Six years ago, A Book Apart published HTML5 For Web Designers. A year and a half later, I put the book online. The contents are never going to change. There’s a second edition of the book out now but if you want to read all the extra bits that Rachel added, you’re going to have to buy the book. The website for the original book is static and unchanging. That’s what made it such a good candidate for using AppCache. I could just set it and forget.
Except that’s no longer true. AppCache is being deprecated and browsers are starting to withdraw support. Chrome is already making sure that AppCache—like geolocation—no longer works on sites that aren’t served over HTTPS. That’s for the best. In retrospect, those APIs should never have been allowed over unsecured HTTP.
I mentioned that I spent the weekend switching all my book websites over to HTTPS, so AppCache should continue to work …for now. It’s only a matter of time before AppCache is removed completely from many of the browsers that currently support it.
Seeing as I’ve got the HTML5 For Web Designers site running on HTTPS now, I might as well go all out and make it a progressive web app. By far the biggest barrier to making a progressive web app is that first step of setting up HTTPS. It’s gotten cheaper—thanks to Let’s Encrypt —but it still involves mucking around in the command line with root access; I never wanted to become a sysadmin. But once that’s finally all set up, the other technological building blocks—a Service Worker and a manifest file—are relatively easy.
In this case, the Service Worker is using a straightforward bit of logic:
On installation, cache absolutely everything: HTML, CSS, images.
When anything is requested, grab it from the cache.
If it isn’t in the cache, try the network.
If the network doesn’t work, show an offline page (or image).
Basically I’m reproducing AppCache’s overzealous approach. It works for this site because the content is never going to change. I hope that this time, I really can just set it and forget it. I want the site to be an historical artefact, available at the same URL for at least my lifetime. I don’t want to have to maintain it or revisit it every few years to swap out one API for another.
Which brings me back to the way AppCache is being deprecated…
The Firefox team are very eager to ditch AppCache as soon as possible. On the one hand, that’s commendable. They’re rightly proud of shipping Service Workers and they want to encourage people to use the better technology instead. But it sure stings for the suckers (like me) who actually went and built stuff using AppCache.
In a weird way, I think this rush to deprecate AppCache might actually hurt the adoption of Service Workers. Let me explain…
At last year’s Edge Conference, Nolan Lawson gave a great presentation on storing data in the browser. He enumerated the many ways—past and present—that we could store data locally: WebSQL, Local Storage, IndexedDB …the list goes on. He also posed the question: why aren’t more people using insert-name-of-latest-API-here? To me it seemed obvious why more people weren’t diving into using the latest and greatest option for local data storage. It was because they had been burned before. The developers who rushed into trying previous solutions end up being mocked for their choice. “Still using that ol’ thing? Pffftt!”
As a member of the devrel team: I think that this should be better addressed in a blog post that someone from the team responsible for switching AppCache off should write, so everyone can understand the reasons and ask questions to those people.
I’d rather warn people beforehand, pointing them to that post and help them with migration paths than apply emergency mitigation strategies when a lot of people find their stuff stopped working in the newer Firefox…
Withholding the “add to home screen” prompt like that has a whiff of blackmail about it.
I can confirm that smell. When I was making the manifest file for HTML5 For Web Designers, I really wanted to put display: browser because I want people to be able to copy and paste URLs (for the book, for individual chapters, and for sections within chapters). But knowing that if I did that, Android users would never see the “add to home screen” prompt made me question that decision. I felt strong-armed into declaring display: standalone. And no, I’m not mollified by hand-waving reassurances that the Chrome team will figure out some solution for this. Figure out the solution first, then punish the saps like me who want to use display: browser to allow people to share URLs.
Anyway, the website for HTML5 For Web Designers is now using AppCache and Service Workers. The AppCache part will probably be needed for quite a while yet to provide offline support on iOS. Apple are really dragging their heels on Service Worker support, with at least one WebKit engineer actively looking for reasons not to implement it.
There’s a lot of talk about making apps work offline, but I think it’s just as important that we consider making information work offline. Books are a great example of this. To use the tired transport tropes, the website for a book is something you might genuinely want to access when you’re on a plane, or in the underground, or out at sea.
I really, really like progressive web apps. But I also think it’s important that we don’t fall into the trap of just trying to imitate native apps on the web. I love the idea of taking the best of the web—like information being permanently available at a URL—and marrying that up with the best of native—like offline access. I also like the idea of taking the best of books—a tome of thought—and marrying it up with the best of the web—hypertext.
I’d love to see more experimentation around online/offline hypertext/books. For now, you can visit HTML5 For Web Designers, add it to your home screen, and revisit it whenever and wherever you like.
It’s funny how times have changed. Remember back in the 90s when Microsoft—quite rightly—lost an anti-trust case? They were accused of abusing their monopolistic position in the OS world to get an unfair advantage in the browser world. By bundling a copy of Internet Explorer with every copy of Windows, they were able to crush the competition from Netscape.
Mind you, it was still possible to install a Netscape browser on a Windows machine. Could you imagine if Microsoft had tried to make that impossible? There would’ve been hell to pay! They wouldn’t have had a legal leg to stand on.
Yet here we are two decades later and that’s exactly what an Operating System vendor is doing. The Operating System is iOS. It’s impossible to install a non-Apple browser onto an Apple mobile computer. For some reason, the fact that it’s a mobile device (iPhone, iPad) makes it different from a desktop-bound device running OS X. Very odd considering they’re all computers.
“But”, I hear you say, “What about Chrome for iOS? Firefox for iOS? Opera for iOS?”
Chrome for iOS is not Chrome. Firefox for iOS is not Firefox. Opera for iOS is not Opera. They are all using WebKit. They’re effectively the same as Mobile Safari, just with different skins.
I had a dream where this was removed:
I think it’s a real shame. Partly, I think it’s a shame because as a developer, I see an Operating System being let down by its browser. But mostly, I think it’s a shame because I use an iPhone and I’m being let down by its browser.
It’s kind of ironic, because when the iPhone first launched, it was all about the web apps. Remember, there was no App Store for the first year of the iPhone’s life. If you wanted to build an app, you had to use web technologies. Apple were ahead of their time. Alas, the web technologies weren’t quite up to the task back in 2007. These days, though, there are web technologies landing in browsers that are truly game-changing.
If I add this app to my home screen, it will work when I open it.
I’d like to be able to use Chrome, Firefox, or Opera on my iPhone—real Chrome, real Firefox, or real Opera; not a skinned version of Safari. Right now the only way for me to switch browsers is to switch phones. Switching phones is a pain in the ass, but I’m genuinely considering it.
Whereas I’m all talk, Henrik has taken action. Like me, he doesn’t actually care about the Operating System. He cares about the browser:
Android itself bores me, honestly. There’s nothing all that terribly new or exciting here.’
save one very important detail…
IT’S CURRENTLY THE BEST MOBILE WEB APP PLATFORM
That’s true for now. The pole position for which browser is “best” is bound to change over time. The point is that locking me into one particular browser on my phone doesn’t sit right with me. It’s not very …webby.
I’m sure that Apple are not quaking in their boots at the thought of myself or Henrik switching phones. We are minuscule canaries in a very niche mine.
But what should give Apple pause for thought is the user experience they can offer for using the web. If they gain a reputation for providing a sub-par web experience compared to the competition, then maybe they’ll have to make the web a first-class citizen.
It’s tempting to think of testing with screen-readers as being like testing with browsers. With browser testing, you’re checking to see how a particular piece of software deals with the code you’re throwing at it. A screen reader is a piece of software too, so it makes sense to approach it the same way, right?
I don’t think so. I think it’s really important that if someone is going to test your site with a screen reader, it should be someone who uses a screen reader every day.
Think of it this way: you wouldn’t want a designer or developer to do usability testing by testing the design or code on themselves. That wouldn’t give you any useful data. They’re already familiar with what problems the design is supposed to be solving, and how the interface works. That’s why you need to do usability testing with someone from outside, someone who wasn’t involved in the design or development process.
It’s no different when it comes to users of assistive technology. You’re not trying to test their technology; you’re trying to test how well the thing you’re building works for the person using the technology.
Don’t think of screen-reader testing as a form of browser testing; think of it as a form of usability testing.
That “Add To Home Screen” dialogue is not something that Remy explicitly requested (though, of course, you can—and should—choose to add adactio.com to your home screen). That prompt appears in Chrome on Android as the result of a fairly simple algorithm based on a few factors:
The user visits the website a few times over the course of a few days.
I think that’s a reasonable set of circumstances. I particularly like that there is no way of forcing the prompt to appear.
There are some carrots in there: Want to have the user prompted to add your site to their home screen? Well, then you need to be serving on a secure connection, and you’d better get on board that Service Worker train.
Speaking of which, after I published a walkthrough of my first Service Worker, I got an email bemoaning the lack of browser support:
I was very much interested myself in this topic, until I checked on the “Can I use…” site the availability of this technology. In one word “limited”. Neither Safari nor IOS Safari support it, at least now, so I cannot use it for implementing mobile applications.
I don’t think this is the right way to think about Service Workers. You don’t build your site on top of a Service Worker—you add a Service Worker on top of your existing site. It has been explicitly designed that way: you can’t make it the bedrock of your site’s functionality; you can only add it as an enhancement.
I think that’s really, really smart. It means that you can start implementing Service Workers today and as more and more browsers add support, your site will appear to get better and better. My site worked fine for fifteen years before I added a Service Worker, and on the day I added that Service Worker, it had no ill effect on non-supporting browsers.
Oh, and according to the Webkit five year plan, Service Worker support is on its way. This doesn’t surprise me. I can’t imagine that Apple would let Google upstage them for too long with that nice “add to home screen” flow.
Alas, Mobile Safari’s glacial update cycle means that the earliest we’ll see improvements like Service Workers will probably be September or October of next year. In the age of evergreen browsers, Apple’s feast-or-famine approach to releasing updates is practically indistinguishable from stagnation.
Still, slowly but surely, game-changing technologies are landing in browsers. At the same time, the long-term problems with betting on native apps are starting to become clearer. Native apps are still ahead of what can be accomplished on the web, but it was ever thus:
The web will always be lagging behind some other technology. I’m okay with that. If anything, I see these other technologies as the research and development arm of the web. CD-ROMs, Flash, and now native apps show us what authors want to be able to do on the web. Slowly but surely, those abilities start becoming available in web browsers.
The pace of this standardisation can seem infuriatingly slow. Sometimes it is too slow. But it’s important that we get it right—the web should hold itself to a higher standard. And so the web plays the tortoise while other technologies race ahead as the hare.
It’s interesting to see how the web could take the desirable features of native—offline support, smooth animations, an icon on the home screen—without sacrificing the strengths of the web—linking, responsiveness, the lack of App Store gatekeepers. That kind of future is what Alex is calling progressive apps:
Critically, these apps can deliver an even better user experience than traditional web apps. Because it’s also possible to build this performance in as progressive enhancement, the tangible improvements make it worth building this way regardless of “appy” intent.
What excites me is the prospect of building services that work just fine on low-powered devices with basic browsers, but that also take advantage of all the great possibilities offered by the latest browsers running on the newest devices. Backwards compatible and future friendly.
And if that sounds like a naïve hope, then I humbly suggest that Service Workers are a textbook example of exactly that approach.
Calling out browser makers for the performance of sites like his? That’s a bit much.
Nilay does acknowledge that the Verge could do better:
Now, I happen to work at a media company, and I happen to run a website that can be bloated and slow. Some of this is our fault: The Verge is ultra-complicated, we have huge images, and we serve ads from our own direct sales and a variety of programmatic networks.
But still, it sounds like the buck is being passed along. The performance issues are being treated as Somebody Else’s Problem …ad networks, trackers, etc.
I mean, let’s cut to the chase here… our sites are friggin’ slow, okay!
But I worry about how they can possibly reconcile their desire for a faster website with a culture that accepts enormously bloated ads and trackers as the inevitable price of doing business on the web:
You realize that “bloat" pays the salaries of editorial, product, design, video, etc etc etc, right?
If the message coming down from above is that performance concerns and business concerns are fundamentally at odds, then I just don’t know how the developers are ever going to create a culture of performance (which is a real shame, because they sound like a great bunch). It’s a particularly bizarre false dichotomy to be foisting when you consider that all the evidence points to performance as being a key differentiator when it comes to making moolah.
It’s funny, but I take almost the opposite view that Nilay puts forth in his original article. Instead of thinking “Oh, why won’t these awful browsers improve to be better at delivering our websites?”, I tend to think “Oh, why won’t these awful websites improve to be better at taking advantage of our browsers?” After all, it doesn’t seem like that long ago that web browsers on mobile really were awful; incapable of rendering the “real” web, instead only able to deal with WAP.
As soon as a system shows signs of performance, developers will add enough abstraction to make it borderline unusable. Software forever remains at the limits of what people will put up with. Developers and designers together create overweight systems in hopes that the hardware will catch up in time and cover their mistakes.
If anything, browser makers might have to take more drastic steps to route around the damage of bloated websites with invasive tracking.
swapping out images when the user moused over a link,
doing really bad client-side form validation, and
spawning pop-up windows.
Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. There are already plenty of tools out there to route around their damage: Ghostery, Adblock Plus, etc., along with tools like Instapaper, Readability, and Pocket.
That option is basically stealing. Don’t feel good about that.
I’m sure that business owners felt the same way about pop-up ads back in the late ’90s. Just the price of doing business. Shrug shoulders. Just the way things are. Nothing we can do to change that.
For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.
Every bloated advertising and tracking script on a website was added by a person. What if that person refused? I guess that person would be fired and another person would be told to add the script. What if that person refused? What if we had a web developer picket line that we collectively refused to cross?
That’s an unrealistic, drastic suggestion. But the way that the web is being destroyed by our collective culpability calls for drastic measures.
By the way, the pop-up ad was first created by Ethan Zuckerman. He has since apologised. What will you be apologising for in decades to come?
On just about every client project that I work on, the subject of browser support comes up. Rightly so. It’s an important issue on which to get mutual understanding and agreement. But all too often, this important question is framed in a binary, true/false, go/no-go way: “Which browsers do we/don’t we support?”
Really, the first thing to get agreement on is not a list of browsers, but what we mean by the word “support”. In my mind, that word implies that a user of a particular browser should be able to accomplish the primary tasks on the website, whether that’s reading an article, booking a ticket, or buying a product. That doesn’t mean that the task must be experienced in pixel-perfect fidelity to an ideal visual design.
But to others, that’s exactly what “support” means. Personally, I’d call that optimisation. As Brad puts it:
There is a difference between support and optimization.
So to put it in glib terms, I support every browser …but I optimise for none.
Alright, fine. But I still need to get to some mutual understanding with a client about which browsers will get the optimised experience and which browsers will simply be supported.
Personally, I like the Filament Group’s approach of discussing this in terms of features rather than browsers. It makes sense to me to say the browsers that support geolocation will get the geolocation features, or the browsers that support offline caching will get the offline caching features. There’s no need to produce a list of what those browsers are for each feature, and in any case, the list would be constantly changing and updating with each new browser release.
But—and this is a big but—nine times out of ten, when the issue of browser support comes up, it isn’t about functionality; it’s about branding. What clients generally want to know is which browsers will get the ideal visual design. Obviously the newer versions of Chrome and Firefox are going to get all the lovely layouts, rounded corners, gradients, transparencies, and animations …but what about older versions of Internet Explorer? Even if users of IE8 and IE7 can accomplish their tasks, will the “degraded” visual presentation hurt their experience?
My hypothesis is that it won’t. Users of older versions of Internet Explorer aren’t doing a side-by-side comparison of the same website opened up in the latest Chrome nightly. Considering what their daily usage must be like—unable to use Facebook, unable to use Google services—I suspect that they are happy just to be able to complete their task, regardless of the site’s visual fidelity.
There’s another viewpoint—one that I’ve heard expressed by clients—that even users of older browsers should still get the ideal, pixel-perfect visual design. The hypothesis here is that, by allowing someone to experience anything less than the perfect presentation, the client’s brand will be damaged in the mind of that person.
Like I said, this is something that comes up on most client projects, and this is the point at which we’d have to come to an agreement about which hypothesis we’re going to go with. Of course I’m going to argue in favour of the first hypothesis, but I’ve come to realise that arguing in favour of either hypothesis is the wrong approach. We shouldn’t be debating this …we should be testing it.
We have two competing hypotheses about a group of users. Instead of trying to read their minds, why not test with that group of users to find out which hypothesis is correct? No matter what the results of the test, they will be valuable either way.
Think about the amount of work that’s going to go in to optimising for older browser versions—it’s going to take quite a bit of time and money. It makes sense to ensure that this time and money isn’t being spent on little more than a hunch that pixel-perfection is important to those users. On the other hand, if the test reveals that actually those users really will have a lesser opinion of a brand unless they get pixel-perfect parity with newer browsers, then you’ll know that the time and money spent making that happen isn’t wasted.
Or, in longer terms if more people appreciated how one day of user research can save weeks of coding I think they would do it more. It is remarkable what you decide to not build after talking to a few people closely.
When it comes to decisions around browser support/optimisation, I think that even a little bit of up-front research and testing could potentially save a lot of time, money, and heartache. I’m not sure exactly what form the testing should take, but I’m interested in figuring it out.
When I give talks or workshops, I sometimes get a bit ranty. One of the richest seams of rantiness comes from me complaining about how we web designers and developers are responsible for making the web a hostile place. “Stop getting the web wrong!” I might shout, like an old man yelling at a cloud. I point to services like Instapaper and Readability and describe their existence as a damning indictment of our work.
Don’t get me wrong—I really like Instapaper, Readability, RSS readers, or any other tools that allow people to read what they want when they want it. But think about their fundamental selling point: get to the content you want without having to wade through the cruft. That cruft was put there by us.
(Ooh, I can feel myself coming over all ranty and angry again! Calm down, Jeremy, calm down!)
Now there’s a new tool to the add to the list: Facebook Instant. Again, I think it’s actually pretty great that this service exists. But once again, it should make us ashamed of the work we’re collectively producing.
In this case, the service is—somewhat ironically—explicitly touting the performance benefits of not going to a website to read an article. Quite right.
Now you might be saying to yourself “Well, I’ve never made a bloated web page!” or “I’ve never slapped loads of intrusive crap over the content!” I’d certainly like to think that I can look at my track record and hold my head up reasonably high. But that doesn’t matter. If the overall perception is that going to a URL to read an article is a pain in the ass, it hurts all of us.
Not only is the web not fast enough for apps, it’s not fast enough for text either. …on mobile, the web browser just isn’t cutting it. … Native apps provide a better user experience on mobile than a web browser.
On the face of it, this is kind of a bizarre claim. After all, there’s nothing inherent in web browsers that makes them slow at rendering text—quite the opposite! And native apps still use HTTP (and often HTML) to fetch content; the network doesn’t suddenly get magically faster just because the piece of software requesting a resource doesn’t happen to be a web browser.
But this conflation of slow websites and slow web browsers is perfectly understandable. If it looks like a slow duck, and it quacks like a slow duck, then why not conclude that ducks are slow? Even if we know that there’s nothing inherently slow about making web pages:
You don’t need Facebook to deliver your text faster than you can. Remove all unnecessary cruft and make your site blazing fast.
At the very least, Facebook has put everyone else on notice. Your content better load fast or you’re screwed. Publication websites have become an absolutely bloated mess. They range from beautiful (The Verge) to atrocious (Bloomberg) to unusable (Forbes). The common denominator: they’re all way too slow.
There needs to be a cultural change in how we approach building for the web. Yes, some of the tools we choose are part of the problem, but the bigger problem is that performance still isn’t being recognised as the most important factor in how people feel about websites (and by extension, the web). This isn’t just a developer issue. It’s a design issue. It’s a UX issue. It’s a business issue. Performance is everybody’s collective responsibility.
I’d better stop now before I start getting all ranty again.
I’ll leave you with some other writings on this topic…
It’s not because of any sort of technical limitations. No, if a website is slow it’s because performance was not prioritized. It’s because when push came to shove, time and resources were spent on other features of a site and not on making sure that site loads quickly.
The lousy performance of your websites becomes a defensive moat around Facebook.
This is a long-standing debate. Except it’s only long-standing among web developers. Columnists, managers, pundits, and journalists seem to have no interest in understanding the technical foundation of their livelihoods. Instead they are content with assuming that Facebook can somehow magically render HTML over HTTP faster than anybody else and there is nothing anybody can do to make their crap scroll-jacking websites faster. They buy into the myth that the web is incapable of delivering on its core capabilities: delivering hypertext and images quickly to a diverse and connected readership.
But I have a big, big problem with Mozilla’s plan to “encourage” the move to HTTPS:
Gradually phasing out access to browser features.
Requiring HTTPS for certain browser features makes total sense, given the security implications. Service Workers, for example, are quite correctly only available over HTTPS. Any API that has access to a device sensor—or that could be used for fingerprinting in any way—should only be available over HTTPS. In retrospect, Geolocation should have been HTTPS-only from the beginning.
But to deny access to APIs where there are no security concerns, where it is merely a stick to beat people with …that’s just wrong.
This is for everyone. Not just those smart enough to figure out how to add HTTPS to their site. And yes, I know, the theory is that is that it’s going to get easier and easier, but so far the steps towards making HTTPS easier are just vapourware. That makes Mozilla’s plan look like something drafted by underwear gnomes.
The issue here is timing. Let’s make HTTPS easy first. Then we can start to talk about ways of encouraging adoption. Hopefully we can figure out a way that doesn’t require Mozilla or Google as gatekeepers.
On the other hand, Eric Mill wrote We’re Deprecating HTTP And It’s Going To Be Okay. It makes for an extremely infuriating read because it outlines all the ways in which HTTPS is a good thing (all of which I agree with) without once addressing the issue at hand—a browser that deliberately cripples its feature set for political reasons.
Contrary to popular belief, web standards aren’t created by a shadowy cabal and then handed down to browser makers to implement. Quite the opposite. Browser makers come together in standards bodies and try to come to an agreement about how to collectively create and implement standards. That keeps them very busy. They don’t tend to get out very often, but when they do, the browser/standards makers have one message for developers: “We want to make your life better, so tell us what you want and that’s what we’ll work on!”
In practice, this turns out not to be the case.
Case in point: responsive images. For years, this was the number one feature that developers were crying out for. And yet, the standards bodies—and, therefore, browser makers—dragged their heels. First they denied that it was even a problem worth solving. Then they said it was simply too hard. Eventually, thanks to the herculean efforts of the Responsive Images Community Group, the browser makers finally began to work on what developers had been begging for.
Now that same community group is representing the majority of developers once again. Element queries—or container queries—have been top of the wish list of working devs for quite a while now. The response from browser makers is the same as it was for responsive images. They say it’s simply too hard.
Here’s a third example: web components. There are many moving parts to web components, but one of the most exciting to developers who care about accessibility and backwards-compatibility is the idea of extending existing 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.
So instead of having to create a whole new element from scratch like this:
…you could piggy-back on an existing element like this:
<button is="taco-button">Click me!</button>
That way, you get the best of both worlds: the native semantics of button topped with all the enhancements you want to add with your taco-button custom element. Brilliant! Github is using this to extend the time element, for example.
I’m not wedded to the is syntax, but I do think it’s vital that there is some declarative mechanism to extend existing elements instead of creating every custom element from scratch each time.
Now it looks like that’s the bit of web components that isn’t going to make the cut. Why? Because browser makers say it’s simply too hard.
It probably wouldn’t bother me so much except that browser makers still trot out the party line, “We want to hear what developers want!” Their actions demonstrate that this claim is somewhat hollow.
I don’t hold out much hope that we’ll get the ability to extend existing elements for web components. I think we can still find ways to piggy-back on existing semantics, but it’s going to take more work:
I was chatting with some people recently about “enterprise software”, trying to figure out exactly what that phrase means (assuming it isn’t referring to the LCARS operating system favoured by the United Federation of Planets). I always thought of enterprise software as “big, bloated and buggy,” but those are properties of the software rather than a definition.
The more we discussed it, the clearer it became that the defining attribute of enterprise software is that it’s software you never chose to use: someone else in your organisation chose it for you. So the people choosing the software and the people using the software could be entirely different groups.
That old adage “No one ever got fired for buying IBM” is the epitome of the world of enterprise software: it’s about risk-aversion, and it doesn’t necessarily prioritise the interests of the end user (although it doesn’t have to be that way).
My own anecdotal experience suggests that Angular is not only suitable for enterprise software, but—assuming the definition provided above—Angular is enterprise software. In other words, the people deciding that something should be built in Angular are not necessarily the same people who will be doing the actual building.
Like I said, this is just anecdotal, but it’s happened more than once that a potential client has approached Clearleft about a project, and made it clear that they’re going to be building it in Angular. Now, to me, that seems weird: making a technical decision about what front-end technologies you’ll be using before even figuring out what your website needs to do.
Well, yes, technically Angular is a front-end framework, but conceptually and philosophically it’s much more like a back-end framework (actually, I think it’s conceptually closest to a native SDK; something more akin to writing iOS or Android apps, while others compare it to ASP.NET). That’s what PPK is getting at in his follow-up post, Front end and back end. In fact, one of the rebuttals to PPKs original post basically makes the exactly same point as PPK was making: Angular is for making (possibly enterprise) applications that happen to be on the web, but are not of the web.
On the web, but not of the web. I’m well aware of how vague and hand-wavey that sounds so I’d better explain what I mean by that.
Yes, like a broken record, I am once again talking about progressive enhancement. But honestly, that’s because it maps so closely to the strengths of the web: you start off by providing a service, using the simplest of technologies, that’s available to anyone capable of accessing the internet. Then you layer on all the latest and greatest browser technologies to make the best possible experience for the most number of people. But crucially, if any of those enhancements aren’t available to someone, that’s okay; they can still accomplish the core tasks.
So that’s one view of the web. It’s a view of the web that I share with other front-end developers with a background in web standards.
There’s another way of viewing the web. You can treat the web as a delivery mechanism. It is a very, very powerful delivery mechanism, especially if you compare it to alternatives like CD-ROMs, USB sticks, and app stores. As long as someone has the URL of your product, and they have a browser that matches the minimum requirements, they can have instant access to the latest version of your software.
That’s pretty amazing, but the snag for me is that bit about having a browser that matches the minimum requirements. For me, that clashes with the universality that lies at the heart of the World Wide Web. Sites built in this way are on the web, but are not of the web.
If you’re coming from a programming environment where you have a very good idea of what the runtime environment will be (e.g. a native app, a server-side script) then this idea of having minimum requirements for the runtime environment makes total sense. But, for me, it doesn’t match up well with the web, because the web is accessed by web browsers. Plural.
It’s telling that we’ve fallen into the trap of talking about what “the browser” is capable of, as though it were indeed a single runtime environment. There is no single “browser”, there are multiple, varied, hostile browsers, with differing degrees of support for front-end technologies …and that’s okay. The web was ever thus, and despite the wishes of some people that we only code for a single rendering engine, the web will—I hope—always have this level of diversity and competition when it comes to web browsers (call it fragmentation if you like). I not only accept that the web is this messy, chaotic place that will be accessed by a multitude of devices, I positively welcome it!
The alternative is to play a game of “let’s pretend”: Let’s pretend that web browsers can be treated like a single runtime environment; Let’s pretend that everyone is using a capable browser on a powerful device.
The problem with playing this game of “let’s pretend” is that we’ve played it before and it never works out well: Let’s pretend that everyone has a broadband connection; Let’s pretend that everyone has a screen that’s at least 960 pixels wide.
I refused to play that game in the past and I still refuse to play it today. I’d much rather live with the uncomfortable truth of a fragmented, diverse landscape of web browsers than live with a comfortable delusion.
The alternative—to treat “the browser” as though it were a known quantity—reminds of the punchline to all those physics jokes that go “Assume a perfectly spherical cow…”
Now I’m not saying that this way of building is wrong, just that it is at odds with my own principles. That’s why Angular isn’t necessarily a bad tool, but it’s a bad tool for me.
We often talk about opinionated software, but the truth is that all software is opinionated, because all software is built by humans, and humans can’t help but imbue their beliefs and biases into what they build (Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web being a good example of that).
Software, like all technologies, is inherently political. … Code inevitably reflects the choices, biases and desires of its creators.
If the answer to that question is “yes”, then the software will help you. But if the answer is “no”, then you will be constantly butting heads with the software. At that point it’s no longer a useful tool for you. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad tool, just that it’s not a good fit for your needs.
That’s the reason why you can have one group of developers loudly proclaiming that a particular framework “rocks!” and another group proclaiming equally loudly that it “sucks!”. Neither group is right …and neither group is wrong. It comes down to how well the assumptions of that framework match your own worldview.
(Incidentally, Brett Slatkin ran the numbers to compare the speed of client-side vs. server-side rendering. His methodology is very telling: he tested in Chrome and …another Chrome. “The browser” indeed.)
So …depending on the way you view the web—“universal access” or “delivery mechanism”—Angular is either of no use to you, or is an immensely powerful tool. It’s entirely subjective.
But the problem is that if Angular is indeed enterprise software—i.e. somebody else is making the decision about whether or not you will be using it—then you could end up in a situation where you are forced to use a tool that not only doesn’t align with your principles, but is completely opposed to them. That’s a nightmare scenario.
Custom elements is really neat. It basically says, “HTML it’s been a pleasure”.
Bruce paraphrases this as:
Bye-bye HTML; you weren’t useful enough. Hello, brave new world of custom elements.
Like Bruce, I’m worried about this year-zero thinking. First of all, I think it’s self-defeating. In my experience, the web technologies that succeed are the ones that build upon what already exists, rather than sweeping everything aside. Evolution, not revolution.
Secondly, web components—or more specifically, custom elements—already allow us to extend existing HTML elements. 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.
But, as Bruce asks:
Snarking aside, why do so few people talk about extending existing HTML elements with web components? Why’s all the talk about brand new custom elements? I don’t know.
That’s a depressing thought. But it might very well be true.
Why aren’t web components required to be created with is=“some-component” on an existing HTML element? This seems like an obvious approach; sure, someone who wants to make something meaningless will just do <div is=my-thing> or (worse) <body is=my-thing> but it would provide a pretty heavy hint that you’re supposed to be doing things The Right Way, and you’d get basic accessibility stuff thrown in for free.
That’s a good question. After all, writing <new-shiny></new-shiny> is basically the same as <span is=“new-shiny”></span>. It might not make much of a difference in the case of a span or div, but it could make an enormous difference in the case of, say, form elements.
Take a look at IBM’s library of web components. They’re well-written and they look good, but time and time again, they create new custom elements instead of extending existing HTML.
<d-checkbox> and <d-switch> instead of <input type=“checkbox” is=“d-checkbox”> and <input type=“checkbox” is=“d-switch”>
Of course, not every new element you’ll want to make can extend an existing HTML element.
But I still think that the majority of web components could, and should, extend existing elements. Addy Osmani has put together some design principles for web components and Steve Faulkner has created a handy punch-list for web components, but 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.”
Rather than just complain about this kind of thing, I figured I’d try my hand at putting it into practice…
That would require minimum change to Dave’s code. I’d just need to make sure that the fallback content within podcast-player elements is removed in supporting browsers.
I forked Dave’s code to try out another idea. I figured that if the starting point was a regular link to the audio file, that would also be a way of providing fallback for browsers that don’t cut the web component mustard:
<a href="my.mp3" is="podcast-player">Listen</a>
It required surprisingly few changes to the code. I needed to remove the fallback content (that “Listen” text), and I needed to prevent the default behaviour (following the href), but it was fairly straightforward.
However, I’m sure it could be improved in one of two ways:
I should probably supply an ARIA role to the extended link. I’m not sure what would be the right one, though …menu or menubar perhaps?
Perhaps a link isn’t the right element to extend. Really I should be extending an audio element (which itself allows for fallback content). When I tried that, I found it too hard to overcome the default browser rules for hiding anything between the opening and closing tags. But you’re smarter than me, so I bet you could create <audio is=“podcast-player”>.
There’s a whole category of native apps that could just as easily be described as “artisanal web browsers” (and if someone wants to write a browser extension that replaces every mention of “native app” with “artisanal web browser” that would be just peachy).
Instagram’s native app is a web browser.
Facebook’s native app is a web browser.
Twitter’s native app is a web browser.
In that same piece, I try to define exactly what the web is:
John also gives a defintion of what the web is:
There are two big four-letter “H” acronyms that powered the web from the beginning: HTML (client), and HTTP (networking protocol). Native apps are just an alternative to HTML running in a web browser (and many native apps still use HTML web views embedded within the apps themselves to render parts of their interface). Almost all native apps use HTTP/S for networking, though.
Notice the difference? Whereas John talks about two things that define the web (HTTP/S and HTML), I talk about three: HTTP(S), HTML, and URLs:
But to be honest, I don’t think that the Hypertext Transfer Protocol is the important part of the web; it’s the URLs that really matter. It’s the addressability of the files that’s the killer app of the web in my opinion.
URLs are what give the web is its reach, and that’s what’s still missing from native apps.
But John’s fundamental point that native apps and the web are not fundumentally opposed? I completely agree with that. They are complementary. Irakli Nadareishvili wrote about this false dichotomy recently in a post called Responsive Web Design or Native Mobile Apps?:
Native mobile applications are not going anywhere and the future of all websites is to be responsive. These two assertions are not mutually exclusive, they are complementary – don’t create apps when what you actually need is a website; but also don’t pretend webapps can completely replace native applications, because they can’t.
It’s also worth remembering that even if you’re using a native app—like, say, Facebook or Twitter—you’re still going to spend a lot of time following links and reading stuff that’s rendered in the app, but that lives out on the world wide web. And the reason why those apps can access those resources is because those resources have URLs.
The supersmart Scott Jenson just gave a talk at The Web Is in Cardiff, which was by all accounts, excellent. I wish I could have seen it, but I’m currently chilling out in Florida and I haven’t mastered the art of bilocation.
In it, he takes to task the idea that—through progressive enhancement—you should be able to offer all functionality to all browsers, thereby foregoing the use of newer technologies that aren’t universally supported.
If that were what progressive enhancement meant, I’d be with him all the way. But progressive enhancement is not about offering all functionality; progressive enhancement is about making sure that your core functionality is available to everyone. Everything after that is, well, an enhancement (the clue is in the name).
The trick to doing this well is figuring out what is core functionality, and what is an enhancement. There are no hard and fast rules.
Sometimes it’s really obvious. Web fonts? They’re an enhancement. Rounded corners? An enhancement. Gradients? An enhancement. Actually, come to think of it, all of your CSS is an enhancement. Your content, on the other hand, is not. That should be available to everyone. And in the case of task-based web thangs, that means the fundamental tasks should be available to everyone …but you can still layer more tasks on top.
If you’re building an e-commerce site, then being able to add items to a shopping cart and being able to check out are your core tasks. Once you’ve got that working with good ol’ HTML form elements, then you can go crazy with your enhancements: animating, transitioning, swiping, dragging, dropping …the sky’s the limit.
Scott asked about building a camera app with progressive enhancement:
Snarky Question: How are you supposed to ‘progressively enhance’ an HTML camera app? Show puppies? Not everything devolves to simple markup
Here again, the real question to ask is “what is the core functionality?” Building a camera app is a means to an end, not the end itself. You need to ask what the end goal is. Perhaps it’s “enable people to share photos with their friends.” Going back to good ol’ HTML, you can accomplish that task with:
<input type="file" accept="image/*">
Now that you’ve got that out of the way, you can spend the majority of your time making the best damn camera app you can, using all the latest browser technologies. (Perhaps WebRTC? Maybe use a canvas element to display the captured image data and apply CSS filters on top?)
My point is that not everything devolves to content. Sometimes the functionality is the point.
I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I would say that even in the case of “content” sites, functionality is still the point—the functionality would be reading/hearing/accessing content. But I think that Scott is misunderstanding progressive enhancement if he think it means providing all the functionality that one can possibly provide.
@jgarber@mjacksonw Right. Lots of cool features on the Boston Globe don’t work when JS breaks; “reading the news” is not one of them.
What I’m chaffing at is the belief that when a page is offering specific functionality, Let’s say a camera app or a chat app, what does it mean to progressively enhance it?
Again, a realtime chat app is a means to an end. What is it enabling? The ability for people to talk to each other over the web? Okay, we can do that using good ol’ HTML—text and form elements—with full page refreshes. That won’t be realtime. That’s okay. The realtime part is an enhancement. Use Web Sockets and WebRTC (in the browsers that support them) to provide the realtime experience. But everyone gets the core functionality.
Like I said, the trick is figuring out what’s core functionality and what’s an enhancement.
@scottjenson That was how we approached @geteditorially’s rich editor, anyway: start with a textarea, layer on functionality from there.
If progressive enhancement truly meant making all functionality available to everyone, then it would be unworkable. I think that’s a common misconception around progressive enhancement; there’s this idea that using progressive enhancement means that you’re going to spend all your time making stuff work in older browsers. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. As long as you spend a little bit of time at the start making sure that the core functionality works with good ol’ fashioned HTML, then you can spend most of your time trying out the latest and greatest browser technologies.
As Orde put it:
For us, building with Progressive Enhancement moves almost all of our development time and costs to newer browsers, not older ones.
Progressive Enhancement frees us to focus on the costs of building features for modern browsers, without worrying much about leaving anyone out. With a strongly qualified codebase, older browser support comes nearly for free.
Approaching browser support this way requires a different way of thinking. For everything you’re building, you need to ask “is this core functionality, or is it an enhancment?” and build accordingly. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it gets easier the more you do it (until, after a while, it becomes second nature).
But if you’re thinking about progressive enhancement as “devolving” down—as Scott Jenson describes in his post—then I think you’re on the wrong track. Instead it’s about taking care of the core functionality quickly and then spending your time “enhancing” up.
Shouldn’t we be allowed to experiment? Isn’t it reasonable to build things that push the envelope?
Absolutely! And the best and safest way to do that is to make sure that you’re providing your core functionality for everyone. Once you do that, you can go nuts with the latest and greatest experimental envelope-pushing technologies, secure in the knowledge that you don’t even need to worry about the fact that they don’t work in older browsers. Geolocation! Offline storage! Device APIs! Anything you can think of, you can use as a powerful enhancement on top of your core tasks.
Once you realise this, it’s immensely liberating to use progressive enhancement. You can have the best of both worlds: universal access to core functionality, combined with all the latest cuting-edge technology too.
CSS gets a tough rap. I remember talking to Douglas Crockford about CSS. I’ll paraphrase his stance as “Kill it with fire!” To be fair, he was mostly talking about the lack of a decent layout system in CSS—something that’s only really getting remedied now.
Most of the flak directed at CSS comes from smart programmers, decrying its lack of power. As a declarative language, it lacks even the most basic features of even the simplest procedural language. How are serious programmers supposed to write their serious programmes with such a primitive feature set?
But I think this mindset misses out a crucial facet of understanding CSS: it’s not about us. By us, I mean professional web developers. And when I say it’s not about us, I mean it’s not only about us.
The web is for everyone. That doesn’t just mean that it’s for everyone to use—the web is for everyone to create. That means that the core building blocks of the web need to be learnable by everyone, not just programmers.
I think that CSS hits a nice sweet spot, balancing learnability and power. I love the fact that every bit of CSS ever written comes down to the same basic pattern:
How amazing is it that one simple pattern can scale to encompass a whole wide world of visual design variety?
Think about the revolution that CSS has gone through in recent years: OOCSS, SMACSS, BEM …these are fundamentally new ways of approaching front-end development, and yet none of these approaches required any changes to be made to the CSS specification. The power and flexibility was already available within its simple selector-property-value pattern.
Mind you, that modularity was compromised when we got things like named animations; a pattern that breaks out of the encapsulation model of CSS. Variables in CSS also break out of the modularity pattern.
Personally, I don’t think there’s any reason to have variables in the CSS language; it’s enough to have them in pre-processing tools. Variables add enormous value for developers, and no value at all for end users. As long as developers can use variables—and they can, with Sass and LESS—I don’t think we need to further complicate CSS.
The proposed scheme provides a simple mapping between HTML elements and presentation hints.
Every line of CSS you write is a suggestion. You are not dictating how the HTML should be rendered; you are suggesting how the HTML should be rendered. I find that to be a very liberating and empowering idea.
My only regret is that—twenty years on from the birth of CSS—web browsers are killing the very idea of user stylesheets. Along with “view source”, this feature really drove home the idea that professional web developers are not the only ones who have a say in what gets rendered in web browsers …and that the web truly is for everyone.
If Web Components work out, and we get a kind emergent semantics of UI widgets, it’ll be a huge leap forward for the web. But if we end up with a Tower of Babel, things could get very messy indeed. We’ll probably get both at once.
The exciting thing about Web Components is that they give developers as much power as browser makers.
The frightening thing about Web Components is that they give developers as much power as browser makers.
When browser makers—and other contributors to web standards—team up to hammer out new features in HTML, they have design principles to guide them …at least in theory. First and foremost—because this is the web, not some fly-by-night “platform”—is the issue of compatability:
You can see those principles at work with newly-minted elements like canvas, audio, video where fallback content can be placed between the opening and closing tags so that older user agents aren’t left high and dry (which, in turn, encourages developers to start using these features long before they’re universally supported).
You can see those principles at work in the design of new form features which make use of the fact that browsers treat unknown input types as type="text" (again, encouraging developers to start using the new input long before they’re supported in every browser).
When developers are creating new Web Components, they could apply that same amount of thought and care; Chris Scott has demonstrated just such a pattern. Switching to Web Components does not mean abandoning progressive enhancement. If anything they provide the opportunity to create whole new levels of experience.
Web developers could ensure that their Web Components are accessible, using appropriate ARIA properties.
But I fear that Sturgeon’s Law is going to dominate Web Components. The comparison that’s often cited for Web Components is the creation of jQuery plug-ins. And let’s face it, 90% of jQuery plug-ins are crap.
This wouldn’t matter so much if developers were only shooting themselves in the foot, but because of the wonderful spirit of sharing on the web, we might well end up shooting others in the foot too:
I make something (to solve a problem).
I’m excited about it.
I share it.
Others copy and paste what I’ve made.
Most of the time, that’s absolutely fantastic. But if the copying and pasting happens without critical appraisal, a lot of questionable decisions can get propagated very quickly.
To give you an example…
When Apple introduced the iPhone, it provided a mechanism to specify that a web page shouldn’t be displayed in a zoomed-out view. That mechanism, which Apple pulled out of their ass without going through any kind of standardisation process, was to use the meta element with a name of “viewport”:
<meta name="viewport" value="...">
The value attribute of a meta element takes a comma-separated list of values (think of name="keywords": you provide a comma-separated list of keywords). But in an early tutorial about the viewport value, code was provided which showed values separated with semicolons (like CSS declarations). People copied and pasted that code (which actually did work in Mobile Safari) and so every browser must support that usage:
Many other mobile browsers now support this tag, although it is not part of any web standard. Apple’s documentation does a good job explaining how web developers can use this tag, but we had to do some detective work to figure out exactly how to implement it in Fennec. For example, Safari’s documentation says the content is a “comma-delimited list,” but existing browsers and web pages use any mix of commas, semicolons, and spaces as separators.
Anyway, that’s just one illustration of how code gets shared, copied and pasted. It’s especially crucial during the introduction of a new technology to try to make sure that the code getting passed around is of a high quality.
I feel kind of bad saying this because the introductory phase of any new technology should be a time to say “Hey, go crazy! Try stuff out! See what works and what doesn’t!” but because Web Components are so powerful I think that mindset could end up doing a lot of damage.
With Web Components, we are being given a lot of rope. We can either hang ourselves with it, or we can make awesome …rope …structures …out of rope this analogy really isn’t working.
I’m not suggesting we have some kind of central authority that gets to sit in judgement on which Web Components pass muster (although Addy’s FIRST principles are a great starting point). Instead I think a web of trust will emerge.
If I see a Web Component published by somebody at Paciello Group, I can be pretty sure that it will be accessible. Likewise, if Christian publishes a Web Component, it’s a good bet that it will use progressive enhancement. And if any of the superhumans at Filament Group share a Web Component, it’s bound to be accessible, performant, and well thought-out.
Because—as is so often the case on the web—it’s not really about technologies at all. It’s about people.
And it’s precisely because it’s about people that I’m so excited about Web Components …and simultaneously so nervous about Web Components.