Tags: developer

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Be progressive

Aaron wrote a great post a little while back called A Fundamental Disconnect. In it, he points to a worldview amongst many modern web developers, who see JavaScript as a universally-available technology in web browsers. They are, in effect, viewing a browser’s JavaScript engine as a runtime environment, and treating web development no different to any other kind of software development.

The one problem I’ve seen, however, is the fundamental disconnect many of these developers seem to have with the way deploying code on the Web works. In traditional software development, we have some say in the execution environment. On the Web, we don’t.

Treating JavaScript support in “the browser” as a known quantity is as much of a consensual hallucination as deciding that all viewports are 960 pixels wide. Even that phrasing—“the browser”—shows a framing that’s at odds with the reality of developing for the web; we don’t have to think about “the browser”, we have to think about browsers:

Lakoffian self-correction: if I’m about to talk about doing something “in the browser”, I try to catch myself and say “in browsers” instead.

While we might like think that browsers have all reached a certain level of equilibrium, as Aaron puts it “the Web is messy”:

And, as much as we might like to control a user’s experience down to the very pixel, those of us who have been working on the Web for a while understand that it’s a fool’s errand and have adjusted our expectations accordingly. Unfortunately, this new crop of Web developers doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo.

Please don’t think that either Aaron or I are saying that you shouldn’t use JavaScript. Far from it! It’s simply a matter of how you wield the power of JavaScript. If you make your core tasks dependent on JavaScript, some of your potential users will inevitably be left out in the cold. But if you start by building on a classic server/client model, and then enhance with JavaScript, you can have your cake and eat it too. Modern browsers get a smooth, rich experience. Older browsers get a clunky experience with full page refreshes, but that’s still much, much better than giving them nothing at all.

Aaron makes the case that, while we cannot control which browsers people will use, we can control the server environment.

Stuart takes issue with that assertion in a post called Fundamentally Disconnected. In it, he points out that the server isn’t quite the controlled environment that Aaron claims:

Aaron sees requiring a specific browser/OS combination as an impractical impossibility and the wrong thing to do, whereas doing this on the server is positively virtuous. I believe that this is no virtue.

It’s true enough that the server isn’t some rock-solid never-changing environment. Anyone who’s ever had to do install patches or update programming languages knows this. But at least it’s one single environment …whereas the web has an overwhelming multitude of environments; one for every browser/OS/device combination.

Stuart finishes on a stirring note:

The Web has trained its developers to attempt to build something that is fundamentally egalitarian, fundamentally available to everyone. That’s why the Web’s good. The old software model, of something which only works in one place, isn’t the baseline against which the Web should be judged; it’s something that’s been surpassed.

However he wraps up by saying that…

…the Web is the largest, most widely deployed, most popular and most ubiquitous computing platform the world has ever known. And its programming language is JavaScript.

In a post called Missed Connections, Aaron pushes back against that last point:

The fact is that you can’t build a robust Web experience that relies solely on client-side JavaScript.

While JavaScript may technically be available and consistently-implemented across most devices used to access our sites nowadays, we do not control how, when, or even if that JavaScript is ultimately executed.

Stuart responds in a post called Reconnecting (and, by the way, how great is it to see this kind of thoughtful blog-to-blog discussion going on?).

I am, in general and in total agreement with Aaron, opposed to the idea that without JavaScript a web app doesn’t work.

But here’s the problem with progressively enhancing from server functionality to a rich client:

A web app which does not require its client-side scripting, which works on the server and then is progressively enhanced, does not work in an offline environment.

Good point.

Now, at this juncture, I could point out that—by using progressive enhancement—you can still have the best of both worlds. Stuart has anticpated that:

It is in theory possible to write a web app which does processing on the server and is entirely robust against its client-side scripting being broken or missing, and which does processing on the client so that it works when the server’s unavailable or uncontactable or expensive or slow. But let’s be honest here. That’s not an app. That’s two apps.

Ah, there’s the rub!

When I’ve extolled the virtues of progressive enhancement in the past, the pushback I most often receive is on this point. Surely it’s wasteful to build something that works on the server and then reimplement much of it on the client?

Personally, I try not to completely reinvent all the business logic that I’ve already figured out on the server, and then rewrite it all in JavaScript. I prefer to use JavaScript—and specifically Ajax—as a dumb waiter, shuffling data back and forth between the client and server, where the real complexity lies.

I also think that building in this way will take longer …at first. But then on the next project, it takes less time. And on the project after that, it takes less time again. From that perspective, it’s similar to switching from tables for layout to using CSS, or switching from building fixed-with sites to responsive design: the initial learning curve is steep, but then it gets easier over time, until it simply becomes normal.

But fundamentally, Stuart is right. Developers don’t like to violate the DRY principle: Don’t Repeat Yourself. Writing code for the server environment, and then writing very similar code for the browser—I mean browsers—is a bad code smell.

Here’s the harsh truth: building websites with progressive enhancement is not convenient.

Building a client-side web thang that requires JavaScript to work is convenient, especially if you’re using a framework like Angular or Ember. In fact, that’s the main selling point of those frameworks: developer convenience.

The trade-off is that to get that level of developer convenience, you have to sacrifice the universal reach that the web provides, and limit your audience to the browsers that can run a pre-determined level of JavaScript. Many developers are quite willing to make that trade-off.

Developer convenience is a very powerful and important force. I wish that progressive enhancement could provide the same level of developer convenience offered by Angular and Ember, but right now, it doesn’t. Instead, its benefits are focused on the end user, often at the expense of the developer.

Personally, I’m willing to take that hit. I’ve always maintained that, given the choice between making something my problem, and making something the user’s problem, I’ll choose to make it my problem every time. But I absolutely understand the mindset of developers who choose otherwise.

But perhaps there’s a way to cut this Gordian knot. What if you didn’t need to write your code twice? What if you could write code for the server and then run the very same code on the client?

This is the promise of isomorphic JavaScript. It’s a terrible name for a great idea.

For me, this is the most exciting aspect of Node.js:

With Node.js, a fast, stable server-side JavaScript runtime, we can now make this dream a reality. By creating the appropriate abstractions, we can write our application logic such that it runs on both the server and the client — the definition of isomorphic JavaScript.

Some big players are looking into this idea. It’s the thinking behind AirBnB’s Rendr.

Interestingly, the reason why many large sites are investigating this approach isn’t about universal access—quite often they have separate siloed sites for different device classes. Instead it’s about performance. The problem with having all of your functionality wrapped up in JavaScript on the client is that, until all of that JavaScript has loaded, the user gets absolutely nothing. Compare that to rendering an HTML document sent from the server, and the perceived performance difference is very noticable.

Here’s the ideal situation:

  1. A browser requests a URL.
  2. The server sends HTML, which renders quickly, along with with some mustard-cutting JavaScript.
  3. If the browser doesn’t cut the mustard, or JavaScript fails, fall back to full page refreshes.
  4. If the browser does cut the mustard, keep all the interaction in the client, just like a single page app.

With Node.js on the server, and JavaScript in the client, steps 3 and 4 could theoretically use the same code.

So why aren’t we seeing more of these holy-grail apps that achieve progressive enhancement without code duplication?

Well, partly it’s back to that question of controlling the server environment.

This is something that Nicholas Zakas tackled a year ago when he wrote about Node.js and the new web front-end. He proposes a third layer that sits between the business logic and the rendered output. By applying the idea of isomorphic JavaScript, this interface layer could be run on the server (as Node.js) or on the client (as JavaScript), while still allowing you to have the rest of your server environment running whatever programming language works for you.

It’s still early days for this kind of thinking, and there are lots of stumbling blocks—trying to write JavaScript that can be executed on both the server and the client isn’t so easy. But I’m pretty excited about where this could lead. I love the idea of building in a way that provide the performance and universal access of progressive enhancement, while also providing the developer convenience of JavaScript frameworks.

In the meantime, building with progressive enhancement may have to involve a certain level of inconvenience and duplication of effort. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, but I wish I didn’t have to. And I totally understand that others aren’t willing to pay that price.

But while the mood might currently seem to be in favour of using monolithic JavaScript frameworks to build client-side apps that rely on JavaScript in browsers, I think that the tide might change if we started to see poster children for progressive enhancement.

Three years ago, when I was trying to convince clients and fellow developers that responsive design was the way to go, it was a hard sell. It reminded me of trying to sell the benefits of using web standards instead of using tables for layout. Then, just as the Doug’s redesign of Wired and Mike’s redesign of ESPN helped sell the idea of CSS for layout, the Filament Group’s work on the Boston Globe made it a lot easier to sell the idea of responsive design. Then Paravel designed a responsive Microsoft homepage and the floodgates opened.

Now …who wants to do the same thing for progressive enhancement?

Web Components

The Extensible Web Summit is taking place in Berlin today because Web Components are that important. I wish I could be there, but I’ll make do with the live notes, the IRC channel, and the octothorpe tag.

I have conflicting feelings about Web Components. I am simultaneously very excited and very nervous. That’s probably a good sign.

Here’s what I wrote after the last TAG meetup in London:

This really is a radically new and different way of adding features to browsers. In theory, it shifts the balance of power much more to developers (who currently have to hack together everything using JavaScript). If it works, it will be A Good Thing and result in expanding HTML’s vocabulary with genuinely useful features. I fear there may be a rocky transition to this new way of thinking, and I worry about backwards compatibility, but I can’t help but admire the audacity of the plan.

And here’s what I wrote after the Edge conference:

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.

To explain…

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:

Support existing content

Degrade gracefully

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 datalist.

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 degrade gracefully in older browsers that don’t support Web Components (and no, “just polyfill it” is not a sustainable solution) or, for that matter, situations where JavaScript—for whatever reason—is not available.

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:

  1. I make something (to solve a problem).
  2. I’m excited about it.
  3. I share it.
  4. 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.

Web developers have been given powerful features in the past. Vendor prefixes in CSS were a powerful feature that allowed browsers to push the boundaries of CSS without creating a Tower of Babel of propietary properties. But because developers just copied and pasted code, browser makers are now having to support prefixes that were originally scoped to different rendering engines. That’s not the fault of the browser makers. That’s the fault of web developers.

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.

Relations

When I was writing about browser-developer relations yesterday, I took this little dig at Safari:

Apple, of course, dodges the issue entirely by having absolutely zero developer relations when it comes to their browser.

A friend of mine who works at Apple took me to task about this on Twitter (not in the public timeline, of course, but by direct message). I was told I was being unfair. After all, wasn’t I aware of Vicki Murley, Safari Technologies Evangelist? I had to admit that I wasn’t.

“What’s her URL?” I asked.

“URL?”

“Of her blog.”

“She doesn’t have one.”

That might explain why I hadn’t heard of her. Nor have I seen her at any conferences; not at the Browser Wars panels at South by Southwest, nor at the browser panels at Mobilsm.

The Safari Technologies Evangelist actually does speak at one conference: WWDC. And the videos from that conference are available online …if you sign on the dotted line.

Now, I’m not saying that being in developer relations for a browser vendor means that you must blog or must go to conferences. But some kind of public visibility is surely desirable, right? Not at Apple.

I remember a couple of years back, meeting the Safari evangelist for the UK. He came down to Brighton to have lunch with me and some of the other Clearlefties. I remember telling him that I could put him touch with the organisers of some mobile-focused conferences because he’d be the perfect speaker.

“Yeah,” he said, “I’m not actually allowed to speak at conferences.”

An evangelist who isn’t allowed to evangelise. That seems kind of crazy to me …and I can only assume that it’s immensely frustrating for them. But in the case of Apple, we tend to just shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh, well. That’s Apple. That’s just the way it is.”

Back when I was soliciting questions for this year’s browser panel at Mobilism, Remy left a little rant that began:

When are we, as a web development community, going to stop giving Apple a free fucking pass? They’re consistently lacking in the open discussion in to improving the gateway to the web: the browser.

And he ended:

Even the mighty PPK who tells entire browser vendors “fuck you”, doesn’t call Apple out, allowing them to slither on. Why is it we continue to allow Apple to get away with it? And can this ever change?

When I next saw Remy, I chuckled and said something along the usual lines of “Hey, isn’t that just the way it is at Apple?” And then Remy told me something that made me rethink my defeatist accepting attitude.

He reminded me about the post on Daring Fireball where John describes the sneak peak he was given of Mountain Lion:

But this, I say, waving around at the room, this feels a little odd. I’m getting the presentation from an Apple announcement event without the event. I’ve already been told that I’ll be going home with an early developer preview release of Mountain Lion. I’ve never been at a meeting like this, and I’ve never heard of Apple seeding writers with an as-yet-unannounced major update to an operating system. Apple is not exactly known for sharing details of as-yet-unannounced products, even if only just one week in advance. Why not hold an event to announce Mountain Lion — or make the announcement on apple.com before talking to us?

That’s when Schiller tells me they’re doing some things differently now.

And that, said Remy, is exactly why now is the time to start pushing back against Apple’s opaque developer relations strategy when it comes to Safari: they’re doing some things differently now.

He’s right.

Apple’s culture of secrecy has served them very, very well for some things—like hardware—but it’s completely at odds with the spirit of the web. That culture clash is most evident with Safari; not just a web browser, but a web browser built on the open-source Webkit platform.

I’m sure that Vicki Murley is great at her job. But her job will remain limited as long as she is hampered by the legacy of Apple’s culture.

That culture of secrecy is not written in stone. It can change. It should change. And the time for that change is now.

Darwinian webolution

Odeo have released an embedded recorder that you can add to your own webpages.

Del.icio.us now offers private bookmarks.

Flickr now marks up profiles using the hCard microformat.

viewing source on my Flickr profile

Something that became very clear — both at the Carson Workshops Summit and at the many web app panels at South by Southwest — is that websites like these are never finished. Instead, the site evolves, growing (and occasionally dropping) features over time.

Traditionally, the mental model for websites has been architectural. Even the term itself, website, invites a construction site comparison. Plans are drawn up and approved, then the thing gets built, then it’s done.

That approach doesn’t apply to the newer, smarter websites that are dominating the scene today. Heck, it doesn’t even apply to older websites like Amazon and Google who have always been smart about constantly iterating changes.

Steve Balmer was onto something when he said “developers, developers, developers, ad nauseam”. Websites, like Soylent Green, are people. Without the people improving and tweaking things, the edifice of the site structure will crack.

I’m going to make a conscious effort to stop thinking about the work I do on the Web in terms of building and construction: I need to find new analogies from the world of biology.

Update: Paul Hammond told me via IM about a book called “How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built”. Maybe I don’t need to abandon the architectural analogies completely.