Tags: html

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An nth-letter selector in CSS

Variable fonts are a very exciting and powerful new addition to the toolbox of web design. They was very much at the centre of discussion at this year’s Ampersand conference.

A lot of the demonstrations of the power of variable fonts are showing how it can be used to make letter-by-letter adjustments. The Ampersand website itself does this with the logo. See also: the brilliant demos by Mandy. It’s getting to the point where logotypes can be sculpted and adjusted just-so using CSS and raw text—no images required.

I find this to be thrilling, but there’s a fly in the ointment. In order to style something in CSS, you need a selector to target it. If you’re going to style individual letters, you need to wrap each one in an HTML element so that you can then select it in CSS.

For the Ampersand logo, we had to wrap each letter in a span (and then, becuase that might cause each letter to be read out individually instead of all of them as a single word, we applied some ARIA shenanigans to the containing element). There’s even a JavaScript library—Splitting.js—that will do this for you.

But if the whole point of using HTML is that the content is accessible, copyable, and pastable, isn’t a bit of a shame that we then compromise the markup—and the accessibility—by wrapping individual letters in presentational tags?

What if there were an ::nth-letter selector in CSS?

There’s some prior art here. We’ve already got ::first-letter (and now the initial-letter property or whatever it ends up being called). If we can target the first letter in a piece of text, why not the second, or third, or nth?

It raises some questions. What constitutes a letter? Would it be better if we talked about ::first-character, ::initial-character, ::nth-character, and so on?

Even then, there are some tricksy things to figure out. What’s the third character in this piece of markup?

<p>AB<span>CD</span>EF</p>

Is it “C”, becuase that’s the third character regardless of nesting? Or is it “E”, becuase techically that’s the third character token that’s a direct child of the parent element?

I imagine that implementing ::nth-letter (or ::nth-character) would be quite complex so there would probably be very little appetite for it from browser makers. But it doesn’t seem as problematic as some selectors we’ve already got.

Take ::first-line, for example. That violates one of the biggest issues in adding new CSS selectors: it’s a selector that depends on layout.

Think about it. The browser has to first calculate how many characters are in the first line of an element (like, say, a paragraph). Having figured that out, the browser can then apply the styles declared in the ::first-line selector. But those styles may involve font sizing updates that changes the number of characters in the first line. Paradox!

(Technically, only a subset of CSS of properties can be applied to ::first-line, but that subset includes font-size so the paradox remains.)

I checked to see if ::first-line was included in one of my favourite documents: Incomplete List of Mistakes in the Design of CSS. It isn’t.

So compared to the logic-bending paradoxes of ::first-line, an ::nth-letter selector would be relatively straightforward. But that in itself isn’t a good enough reason for it to exist. As the CSS Working Group FAQs say:

The fact that we’ve made one mistake isn’t an argument for repeating the mistake.

A new selector needs to solve specific use cases. I would argue that all the letter-by-letter uses of variable fonts that we’re seeing demonstrate the use cases, and the number of these examples is only going to increase. The very fact that JavaScript libraries exist to solve this problem shows that there’s a need here (and we’ve seen the pattern of common JavaScript use-cases ending up in CSS before—rollovers, animation, etc.).

Now, I know that browser makers would like us to figure out how proposed CSS features should work by polyfilling a solution with Houdini. But would that work for a selector? I don’t know much about Houdini so I asked Una. She pointed me to a proposal by Greg and Tab for a full-on parser in Houdini. But that’s a loooong way off. Until then, we must petition our case to the browser gods.

This is not a new suggestion.

Anne Van Kesteren proposed ::nth-letter way back in 2003:

While I’m talking about CSS, I would also like to have ::nth-line(n), ::nth-letter(n) and ::nth-word(n), any thoughts?

Trent called for ::nth-letter in January 2011:

I think this would be the ideal solution from a web designer’s perspective. No javascript would be required, and 100% of the styling would be handled right where it should be—in the CSS.

Chris repeated the call in October of 2011:

Of all of these “new” selectors, ::nth-letter is likely the most useful.

In 2012, Bram linked to a blog post (now unavailable) from Adobe indicating that they were working on ::nth-letter for Webkit. That was the last anyone’s seen of this elusive pseudo-element.

In 2013, Chris (again) included ::nth-letter in his wishlist for CSS. So say we all.

Declaration

I like the robustness that comes with declarative languages. I also like the power that comes with imperative languages. Best of all, I like having the choice.

Take the video and audio elements, for example. If you want, you can embed a video or audio file into a web page using a straightforward declaration in HTML.

<audio src="..." controls><!-- fallback goes here --></audio>

Straightaway, that covers 80%-90% of use cases. But if you need to do more—like, provide your own custom controls—there’s a corresponding API that’s exposed in JavaScript. Using that API, you can do everything that you can do with the HTML element, and a whole lot more besides.

It’s a similar story with animation. CSS provides plenty of animation power, but it’s limited in the events that can trigger the animations. That’s okay. There’s a corresponding JavaScript API that gives you more power. Again, the CSS declarations cover 80%-90% of use cases, but for anyone in that 10%-20%, the web animation API is there to help.

Client-side form validation is another good example. For most us, the HTML attributes—required, type, etc.—are probably enough most of the time.

<input type="email" required />

When we need more fine-grained control, there’s a validation API available in JavaScript (yes, yes, I know that the API itself is problematic, but you get the point).

I really like this design pattern. Cover 80% of the use cases with a declarative solution in HTML, but also provide an imperative alternative in JavaScript that gives more power. HTML5 has plenty of examples of this pattern. But I feel like the history of web standards has a few missed opportunities too.

Geolocation is a good example of an unbalanced feature. If you want to use it, you must use JavaScript. There is no declarative alternative. This doesn’t exist:

<input type="geolocation" />

That’s a shame. Anyone writing a form that asks for the user’s location—in order to submit that information to a server for processing—must write some JavaScript. That’s okay, I guess, but it’s always going to be that bit more fragile and error-prone compared to markup.

(And just in case you’re thinking of the fallback—which would be for the input element to be rendered as though its type value were text—and you think it’s ludicrous to expect users with non-supporting browsers to enter latitude and longitude coordinates by hand, I direct your attention to input type="color": in non-supporting browsers, it’s rendered as input type="text" and users are expected to enter colour values by hand.)

Geolocation is an interesting use case because it only works on HTTPS. There are quite a few JavaScript APIs that quite rightly require a secure context—like service workers—but I can’t think of a single HTML element or attribute that requires HTTPS (although that will soon change if we don’t act to stop plans to create a two-tier web). But that can’t have been the thinking behind geolocation being JavaScript only; when geolocation first shipped, it was available over HTTP connections too.

Anyway, that’s just one example. Like I said, it’s not that I’m in favour of declarative solutions instead of imperative ones; I strongly favour the choice offered by providing declarative solutions as well as imperative ones.

In recent years there’s been a push to expose low-level browser features to developers. They’re inevitably exposed as JavaScript APIs. In most cases, that makes total sense. I can’t really imagine a declarative way of accessing the fetch or cache APIs, for example. But I think we should be careful that it doesn’t become the only way of exposing new browser features. I think that, wherever possible, the design pattern of exposing new features declaratively and imperatively offers the best of the both worlds—ease of use for the simple use cases, and power for the more complex use cases.

Previously, it was up to browser makers to think about these things. But now, with the advent of web components, we developers are gaining that same level of power and responsibility. So if you’re making a web component that you’re hoping other people will also use, maybe it’s worth keeping this design pattern in mind: allow authors to configure the functionality of the component using HTML attributes and JavaScript methods.

Robustness and least power

There’s a great article by Steven Garrity over on A List Apart called Design with Difficult Data. It runs through the advantages of using unusual content to stress-test interfaces, referencing Postel’s Law, AKA the robustness principle:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

Even though the robustness principle was formulated for packet-switching, I see it at work in all sorts of disciplines, including design. A good example is in best practices for designing forms:

Every field you ask users to fill out requires some effort. The more effort is needed to fill out a form, the less likely users will complete the form. That’s why the foundational rule of form design is shorter is better — get rid of all inessential fields.

In other words, be conservative in the number of form fields you send to users. But then, when it comes to users filling in those fields:

It’s very common for a few variations of an answer to a question to be possible; for example, when a form asks users to provide information about their state, and a user responds by typing their state’s abbreviation instead of the full name (for example, CA instead of California). The form should accept both formats, and it’s the developer job to convert the data into a consistent format.

In other words, be liberal in what you accept from users.

I find the robustness principle to be an immensely powerful way of figuring out how to approach many design problems. When it comes to figuring out what specific tools or technologies to use, there’s an equally useful principle: the rule of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

On the face of it, this sounds counter-intuitive; why forego a powerful technology in favour of something less powerful?

Well, power comes with a price. Powerful technologies tend to be more complex, which means they can be trickier to use and trickier to swap out later.

Take the front-end stack, for example: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. HTML and CSS are declarative, so you don’t get as much precise control as you get with an imperative language like JavaScript. But JavaScript comes with a steeper learning curve and a stricter error-handling model than HTML or CSS.

As a general rule, it’s always worth asking if you can accomplish something with a less powerful technology:

In the web front-end stack — HTML, CSS, JS, and ARIA — if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof, and just works.

  • Instead of using JavaScript to do animation, see if you can do it in CSS instead.
  • Instead of using JavaScript to do simple client-side form validation, try to use HTML input types and attributes like required.
  • Instead of using ARIA to give a certain role value to a div or span, try to use a more suitable HTML element instead.

It sounds a lot like the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. But whereas the KISS principle can be applied within a specific technology—like keeping your CSS manageable—the rule of least power is all about evaluating technology; choosing the most appropriate technology for the task at hand.

There are some associated principles, like YAGNI: You Ain’t Gonna Need It. That helps you avoid picking a technology that’s too powerful for your current needs, but which might be suitable in the future: premature optimisation. Or, as Rachel put it, stop solving problems you don’t yet have:

So make sure every bit of code added to your project is there for a reason you can explain, not just because it is part of some standard toolkit or boilerplate.

There’s no shortage of principles, laws, and rules out there, and I find many of them very useful, but if I had to pick just two that are particularly applicable to my work, they would be the robustness principle and the rule of least of power.

After all, if they’re good enough for Tim Berners-Lee…

Components and concerns

We tend to like false dichotomies in the world of web design and web development. I’ve noticed one recently that keeps coming up in the realm of design systems and components.

It’s about separation of concerns. The web has a long history of separating structure, presentation, and behaviour through HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It has served us very well. If you build in that order, ensuring that something works (to some extent) before adding the next layer, the result will be robust and resilient.

But in this age of components, many people are pointing out that it makes sense to separate things according to their function. Here’s the Diana Mounter in her excellent article about design systems at Github:

Rather than separating concerns by languages (such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript), we’re are working towards a model of separating concerns at the component level.

This echoes a point made previously in a slidedeck by Cristiano Rastelli.

Separating interfaces according to the purpose of each component makes total sense …but that doesn’t mean we have to stop separating structure, presentation, and behaviour! Why not do both?

There’s nothing in the “traditonal” separation of concerns on the web (HTML/CSS/JavaScript) that restricts it only to pages. In fact, I would say it works best when it’s applied on smaller scales.

In her article, Pattern Library First: An Approach For Managing CSS, Rachel advises starting every component with good markup:

Your starting point should always be well-structured markup.

This ensures that your content is accessible at a very basic level, but it also means you can take advantage of normal flow.

That’s basically an application of starting with the rule of least power.

In chapter 6 of Resilient Web Design, I outline the three-step process I use to build on the web:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

That chapter is filled with examples of applying those steps at the level of an entire site or product, but it doesn’t need to end there:

We can apply the three‐step process at the scale of individual components within a page. “What is the core functionality of this component? How can I make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology? Now how can I enhance it?”

There’s another shared benefit to separating concerns when building pages and building components. In the case of pages, asking “what is the core functionality?” will help you come up with a good URL. With components, asking “what is the core functionality?” will help you come up with a good name …something that’s at the heart of a good design system. In her brilliant Design Systems book, Alla advocates asking “what is its purpose?” in order to get a good shared language for components.

My point is this:

  • Separating structure, presentation, and behaviour is a good idea.
  • Separating an interface into components is a good idea.

Those two good ideas are not in conflict. Presenting them as though they were binary choices is like saying “I used to eat Italian food, but now I drink Italian wine.” They work best when they’re done in combination.

Registering service workers

In chapter two of Going Offline, I talk about registering your service worker wrapped up in some feature detection:

<script>
if (navigator.serviceworker) {
  navigator.serviceworker.register('/serviceworker.js');
}
</script>

But I also make reference to a declarative way of doing this that isn’t very widely supported:

<link rel="serviceworker" href="/serviceworker.js">

No need for feature detection there. Thanks to the liberal error-handling model of HTML (and CSS), browsers will just ignore what they don’t understand, which isn’t the case with JavaScript.

Alas, it looks like that nice declarative alternative isn’t going to be making its way into browsers anytime soon. It has been removed from the HTML spec. That’s a shame. I have a preference for declarative solutions where possible—they’re certainly easier to teach. But in this case, the JavaScript alternative isn’t too onerous.

So if you’re reading Going Offline, when you get to the bit about someday using the rel value, you can cast a wistful gaze into the distance, or shed a tiny tear for what might have been …and then put it out of your mind and carry on reading.

Timing

Apple Inc. is my accidental marketing department.

On April 29th, 2010, Steve Jobs published his infamous Thoughts on Flash. It thrust the thitherto geek phrase “HTML5” into the mainstream press:

HTML5, the new web standard that has been adopted by Apple, Google and many others, lets web developers create advanced graphics, typography, animations and transitions without relying on third party browser plug-ins (like Flash). HTML5 is completely open and controlled by a standards committee, of which Apple is a member.

Five days later, I announced the first title from A Book Apart: HTML5 For Web Designers. The timing was purely coincidental, but it definitely didn’t hurt that book’s circulation.

Fast forward eight years…

On March 29th, 2018, Apple released the latest version of iOS. Unmentioned in the press release, this update added service worker support to Mobile Safari.

Five days later, I announced the 26th title from A Book Apart: Going Offline.

For a while now, quite a few people have cited Apple’s lack of support as a reason why they weren’t investigating service workers. That excuse no longer holds water.

Once again, the timing is purely coincidental. But it can’t hurt.

Ubiquity and consistency

I keep thinking about this post from Baldur Bjarnason, Over-engineering is under-engineering. It took me a while to get my head around what he was saying, but now that (I think) I understand it, I find it to be very astute.

Let’s take a single interface element, say, a dropdown menu. This is the example Laura uses in her article for 24 Ways called Accessibility Through Semantic HTML. You’ve got two choices, broadly speaking:

  1. Use the HTML select element.
  2. Create your own dropdown widget using JavaScript (working with divs and spans).

The advantage of the first choice is that it’s lightweight, it works everywhere, and the browser does all the hard work for you.

But…

You don’t get complete control. Because the browser is doing the heavy lifting, you can’t craft the details of the dropdown to look identical on different browser/OS combinations.

That’s where the second option comes in. By scripting your own dropdown, you get complete control over the appearance and behaviour of the widget. The disadvantage is that, because you’re now doing all the work instead of the browser, it’s up to you to do all the work—that means lots of JavaScript, thinking about edge cases, and making the whole thing accessible.

This is the point that Baldur makes: no matter how much you over-engineer your own custom solution, there’ll always be something that falls between the cracks. So, ironically, the over-engineered solution—when compared to the simple under-engineered native browser solution—ends up being under-engineered.

Is it worth it? Rian Rietveld asks:

It is impossible to style select option. But is that really necessary? Is it worth abandoning the native browser behavior for a complete rewrite in JavaScript of the functionality?

The answer, as ever, is it depends. It depends on your priorities. If your priority is having consistent control over the details, then foregoing native browser functionality in favour of scripting everything yourself aligns with your goals.

But I’m reminded of something that Eric often says:

The web does not value consistency. The web values ubiquity.

Ubiquity; universality; accessibility—however you want to label it, it’s what lies at the heart of the World Wide Web. It’s the idea that anyone should be able to access a resource, regardless of technical or personal constraints. It’s an admirable goal, and what’s even more admirable is that the web succeeds in this goal! But sometimes something’s gotta give, and that something is control. Rian again:

The days that a website must be pixel perfect and must look the same in every browser are over. There are so many devices these days, that an identical design for all is not doable. Or we must take a huge effort for custom form elements design.

So far I’ve only been looking at the micro scale of a single interface element, but this tension between ubiquity and consistency plays out at larger scales too. Take page navigations. That’s literally what browsers do. Click on a link, and the browser fetches that URL, displaying progress at it goes. The alternative, as exemplified by single page apps, is to do all of that for yourself using JavaScript: figure out the routing, show some kind of progress, load some JSON, parse it, convert it into HTML, and update the DOM.

Personally, I tend to go for the first option. Partly that’s because I like to apply the rule of least power, but mostly it’s because I’m very lazy (I also have qualms about sending a whole lotta JavaScript down the wire just so the end user gets to do something that their browser would do for them anyway). But I get it. I understand why others might wish for greater control, even if it comes with a price tag of fragility.

I think Jake’s navigation transitions proposal is fascinating. What if there were a browser-native way to get more control over how page navigations happen? I reckon that would cover the justification of 90% of single page apps.

That’s a great way of examining these kinds of decisions and questioning how this tension could be resolved. If people are frustrated by the lack of control in browser-native navigations, let’s figure out a way to give them more control. If people are frustrated by the lack of styling for select elements, maybe we should figure out a way of giving them more control over styling.

Hang on though. I feel like I’ve painted a divisive picture, like you have to make a choice between ubiquity or consistency. But the rather wonderful truth is that, on the web, you can have your cake and eat it. That’s what I was getting at with the three-step approach I describe in Resilient Web Design:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

Like, say…

  1. The user needs to select an item from a list of options.
  2. Use a select element.
  3. Use JavaScript to replace that native element with a widget of your own devising.

Or…

  1. The user needs to navigate to another page.
  2. Use an a element with an href attribute.
  3. Use JavaScript to intercept that click, add a nice transition, and pull in the content using Ajax.

The pushback I get from people in the control/consistency camp is that this sounds like more work. It kinda is. But honestly, in my experience, it’s not that much more work. Also, and I realise I’m contradicting the part where I said I’m lazy, but that’s why it’s called work. This is our job. It’s not about what we prefer; it’s about serving the needs of the people who use what we build.

Anyway, if I were to rephrase my three-step process in terms of under-engineering and over-engineering, it might look something like this:

  1. Start with user needs.
  2. Build an under-engineered solution—one that might not offer you much control, but that works for everyone.
  3. Layer on a more over-engineered solution—one that might not work for everyone, but that offers you more control.

Ubiquity, then consistency.

Problem space

Adam Wathan wrote an article recently called CSS Utility Classes and “Separation of Concerns”. In it, he documents his journey through different ways of thinking about CSS. A lot of it is really familiar.

Phase 1: “Semantic” CSS

Ah, yes! If you’ve been in the game for a while then this will be familiar to you. The days when we used to strive to keep our class names to a minimum and use names that described the content. But, as Adam points out:

My markup wasn’t concerned with styling decisions, but my CSS was very concerned with my markup structure.

Phase 2: Decoupling styles from structure

This is the work pioneered by Nicole with OOCSS, and followed later by methodologies like BEM and SMACSS.

This felt like a huge improvement to me. My markup was still “semantic” and didn’t contain any styling decisions, and now my CSS felt decoupled from my markup structure, with the added bonus of avoiding unnecessary selector specificity.

Amen!

But then Adam talks about the issues when you have two visually similar components that are semantically very different. He shows a few possible solutions and asks this excellent question:

For the project you’re working on, what would be more valuable: restyleable HTML, or reusable CSS?

For many projects reusable CSS is the goal. But not all projects. On the Code For America project, the HTML needed to be as clean as possible, even if that meant more brittle CSS.

Phase 3: Content-agnostic CSS components

Naming things is hard:

The more a component does, or the more specific a component is, the harder it is to reuse.

Adam offers some good advice on naming things for maximum reusability. It’s all good stuff, and this would be the point at which I would stop. At this point there’s a nice balance between reusability, readability, and semantic meaning.

But Adam goes further…

Phase 4: Content-agnostic components + utility classes

Okay. The occasional utility class (for alignment and clearing) can be very handy. This is definitely the point to stop though, right?

Phase 5: Utility-first CSS

Oh God, no!

Once this clicked for me, it wasn’t long before I had built out a whole suite of utility classes for common visual tweaks I needed, things like:

  • Text sizes, colors, and weights
  • Border colors, widths, and positions
  • Background colors
  • Flexbox utilities
  • Padding and margin helpers

If one drink feels good, then ten drinks must be better, right?

At this point there is no benefit to even having an external stylesheet. You may as well use inline styles. Ah, but Adam has anticipated this and counters with this difference between inline styles and having utility classes for everything:

You can’t just pick any value want; you have to choose from a curated list.

Right. But that isn’t a technical solution, it’s a cultural one. You could just as easily have a curated list of allowed inline style properties and values. If you are in an environment where people won’t simply create a new utility class every time they want to style something, then you are also in an environment where people won’t create new inline style combinations every time they want to style something.

I think Adam has hit on something important here, but it’s not about utility classes. His suggestion of “utility-first CSS” will only work if the vocabulary is strictly adhered to. For that to work, everyone touching the code needs to understand the system and respect the boundaries of it. That understanding and respect is far, far more important than any particular way of structuring HTML and CSS. No technical solution can replace that sort of agreement …not even slapping !important on every declaration to make them immutable.

I very much appreciate the efforts that people have put into coming up with great naming systems and methodologies, even the ones I don’t necessarily agree with. They’re all aiming to make that overlap of HTML and CSS less painful. But the really hard problem is where people overlap.

Teaching in Porto, day one

Today was the first day of the week long “masterclass” I’m leading here at The New Digital School in Porto.

When I was putting together my stab-in-the-dark attempt to provide an outline for the week, I labelled day one as “How the web works” and gave this synopsis:

The internet and the web; how browsers work; a history of visual design on the web; the evolution of HTML and CSS.

There ended up being less about the history of visual design and CSS (we’ll cover that tomorrow) and more about the infrastructure that the web sits upon. Before diving into the way the web works, I thought it would be good to talk about how the internet works, which led me back to the history of communication networks in general. So the day started from cave drawings and smoke signals, leading to trade networks, then the postal system, before getting to the telegraph, and then telephone networks, the ARPANET, and eventually the internet. By lunch time we had just arrived at the birth of the World Wide Web at CERN.

It wasn’t all talk though. To demonstrate a hub-and-spoke network architecture I had everyone write down someone else’s name on a post-it note, then stand in a circle around me, and pass me (the hub) those messages to relay to their intended receiver. Later we repeated this exercise but with a packet-switching model: everyone could pass a note to their left or to their right. The hub-and-spoke system took almost a minute to relay all six messages; the packet-switching version took less than 10 seconds.

Over the course of the day, three different laws came up that were relevant to the history of the internet and the web:

Metcalfe’s Law
The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users.
Postel’s Law
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
Sturgeon’s Law
Ninety percent of everything is crap.

There were also references to the giants of hypertext: Ted Nelson, Vannevar Bush, and Douglas Engelbart—for a while, I had the mother of all demos playing silently in the background.

After a most-excellent lunch in a nearby local restaurant (where I can highly recommend the tripe), we started on the building blocks of the web: HTTP, URLs, and HTML. I pulled up the first ever web page so that we could examine its markup and dive into the wonder of the A element. That led us to the first version of HTML which gave us enough vocabulary to start marking up documents: p, h1-h6, ol, ul, li, and a few others. We went around the room looking at posters and other documents pinned to the wall, and starting marking them up by slapping on post-it notes with opening and closing tags on them.

At this point we had covered the anatomy of an HTML element (opening tags, closing tags, attribute names and attribute values) as well as some of the history of HTML’s expanding vocabulary, including elements added in HTML5 like section, article, and nav. But so far everything was to do with marking up static content in a document. Stepping back a bit, we returned to HTTP, and talked about difference between GET and POST requests. That led in to ways of sending data to a server, which led to form fields and the many types of inputs at our disposal: text, password, radio, checkbox, email, url, tel, datetime, color, range, and more.

With that, the day drew to a close. I feel pretty good about what we covered. There was a lot of groundwork, and plenty of history, but also plenty of practical information about how browsers interpret HTML.

With the structural building blocks of the web in place, tomorrow is going to focus more on the design side of things.

Starting out

I had a really enjoyable time at Codebar Brighton last week, not least because Morty came along.

I particularly enjoy teaching people who have zero previous experience of making a web page. There’s something about explaining HTML and CSS from first principles that appeals to me. I especially love it when people ask lots of questions. “What does this element do?”, “Why do some elements have closing tags and others don’t?”, “Why is it textarea and not input type="textarea"?” The answer usually involves me going down a rabbit-hole of web archeology, so I’m in my happy place.

But there’s only so much time at Codebar each week, so it’s nice to be able to point people to other resources that they can peruse at their leisure. It turns out that’s it’s actually kind of tricky to find resources at that level. There are lots of great articles and tutorials out there for professional web developers—Smashing Magazine, A List Apart, CSS Tricks, etc.—but no so much for complete beginners.

Here are some of the resources I’ve found:

  • MarkSheet by Jeremy Thomas is a free HTML and CSS tutorial. It starts with an explanation of the internet, then the World Wide Web, and then web browsers, before diving into HTML syntax. Jeremy is the same guy who recently made CSS Reference.
  • Learn to Code HTML & CSS by Shay Howe is another free online book. You can buy a paper copy too. It’s filled with good, clear explanations.
  • Zero to Hero Coding by Vera Deák is an ongoing series. She’s starting out on her career as a front-end developer, so her perspective is particularly valuable.

If I find any more handy resources, I’ll link to them and tag them with “learning”.

Adoption

Tom wrote a post on Ev’s blog a while back called JavaScript Frameworks: Distribution Channels for Good Ideas (I’ve been hoping he’d publish it on his own site so I’d have a more permanent URL to point to, but so far, no joy). It’s well worth a read.

I don’t really have much of an opinion on his central point that browser makers should work more closely with framework makers. I’m not so sure I agree with the central premise that frameworks are going to be around for the long haul. I think good frameworks—like jQuery—should aim to make themselves redundant.

But anyway, along the way, Tom makes this observation:

Google has an institutional tendency to go it alone.

JavaScript not good enough? Let’s create Dart to replace it. HTML not good enough? Let’s create AMP to replace it. I’m just waiting for them to announce Google Style Sheets.

I don’t really mind these inventions. We’re not forced to adopt them, and generally, we don’t. Tom again:

They poured enormous time and money into Dart, even building an entire IDE, without much to show for it. Contrast Dart’s adoption with the adoption of TypeScript and Flow, which layer improvements on top of JavaScript instead of trying to replace it.

See, that’s a really, really good point. It’s so much easier to get people to adjust their behaviour than to change it completely.

Sass is a really good example of this. You can take any .css file, save it as a .scss file, and now you’re using Sass. Then you can start using features (or not) as needed. Very smart.

Incidentally, I’m very curious to know how many people use the scss syntax (which is the same as CSS) compared to how many people use the sass indented syntax (the one with significant whitespace). In his brilliant Sass for Web Designers book, I don’t think Dan even mentioned the indented syntax.

Or compare the adoption of Sass to the adoption of HAML. Now, admittedly, the disparity there might be because Sass adds new features, whereas HAML is a purely stylistic choice. But I think the more fundamental difference is that Sass—with its scss syntax—only requires you to slightly adjust your behaviour, whereas something like HAML requires you to go all in right from the start.

This is something that has been on my mind a lately while I’ve been preparing my new talk on evaluating technology (the talk went down very well at An Event Apart San Francisco, by the way—that’s a relief). In the talk, I made a reference to one of Grace Hopper’s famous quotes:

Humans are allergic to change.

Now, Grace Hopper subsequently says:

I try to fight that.

I contrast that with the approach that Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau took with their World Wide Web project. The individual pieces were built on what people were already familiar with. URLs use slashes so they’d be feel similar to UNIX file paths. And the first fledging version of HTML took its vocabulary almost wholesale from a version of SGML already in use at CERN. In fact, you could pretty much take an existing CERN SGML file and open it as an HTML file in a web browser.

Oh, and that browser would ignore any tags it didn’t understand—behaviour that, in my opinion, would prove crucial to the growth and success of HTML. Because of its familiarity, its simplicity, and its forgiving error handling, HTML turned to be more successful than Tim Berners-Lee expected, as he wrote in his book Weaving The Web:

I expected HTML to be the basic waft and weft of the Web but documents of all types: video, computer aided design, sound, animation and executable programs to be the colored threads that would contain much of the content. It would turn out that HTML would become amazingly popular for the content as well.

HTML and SGML; Sass and CSS; TypeScript and JavaScript. The new technology builds on top of the existing technology instead of wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch.

Humans are allergic to change. And that’s okay.

Marking up help text in forms

Zoe asked a question on Twitter recently:

‘Sfunny—I had been pondering this exact question. In fact, I threw a CodePen together a couple of weeks ago.

Visually, both examples look the same; there’s a label, then a form field, then some extra text (in this case, a validation message).

The first example puts the validation message in an em element inside the label text itself, so I know it won’t be missed by a screen reader—I think I first learned this technique from Derek many years ago.

<div class="first error example">
 <label for="firstemail">Email
<em class="message">must include the @ symbol</em>
 </label>
 <input type="email" id="firstemail" placeholder="e.g. you@example.com">
</div>

The second example puts the validation message after the form field, but uses aria-describedby to explicitly associate that message with the form field—this means the message should be read after the form field.

<div class="second error example">
 <label for="secondemail">Email</label>
 <input type="email" id="secondemail" placeholder="e.g. you@example.com" aria-describedby="seconderror">
 <em class="message" id="seconderror">must include the @ symbol</em>
</div>

In both cases, the validation message won’t be missed by screen readers, although there’s a slight difference in the order in which things get read out. In the first example we get:

  1. Label text,
  2. Validation message,
  3. Form field.

And in the second example we get:

  1. Label text,
  2. Form field,
  3. Validation message.

In this particular example, the ordering in the second example more closely matches the visual representation, although I’m not sure how much of a factor that should be in choosing between the options.

Anyway, I was wondering whether one of these two options is “better” or “worse” than the other. I suspect that there isn’t a hard and fast answer.

Extensible web components

Adam Onishi has written up his thoughts on web components and progressive enhancements, following on from a discussion we were having on Slack. He shares a lot of the same frustrations as I do.

Two years ago, I said:

I have conflicting feelings about Web Components. I am simultaneously very excited and very nervous.

I still feel that way. In theory, web components are very exciting. In practice, web components are very worrying. The worrying aspect comes from the treatment of backwards compatibility.

It all comes down to the way custom elements work. When you make up a custom element, it’s basically a span.

<fancy-select></fancy-select>

Then, using JavaScript with ShadowDOM, templates, and the other specs that together make up the web components ecosystem, you turn that inert span-like element into something all-singing and dancing. That’s great if the browser supports those technologies, and the JavaScript executes successfully. But if either of those conditions aren’t met, what you’re left with is basically a span.

One of the proposed ways around this was to allow custom elements to extend existing elements (not just spans). The proposed syntax for this was an is attribute.

<select is="fancy-select">...</select>

Browser makers responded to this by saying “Nah, that’s too hard.”

To be honest, I had pretty much given up on the is functionality ever seeing the light of day, but Monica has rekindled my hope:

Still, I’m not holding my breath for this kind of declarative extensibility landing in browsers any time soon. Instead, a JavaScript-based way of extending existing existing elements is currently the only way of piggybacking on all the accessible behavioural goodies you get with native elements.

class FancySelect extends HTMLSelectElement

But this imperative approach fails completely if custom elements aren’t supported, or if the JavaScript fails to execute. Now you’re back to having spans.

The presentation on web components at the Progressive Web Apps Dev Summit referred to this JavaScript-based extensibility as “progressively enhancing what’s already available”, which is a bit of a stretch, given how completely it falls apart in older browsers. It was kind of a weird talk, to be honest. After fifteen minutes of talking about creating elements entirely from scratch, there was a minute or two devoted to the is attribute and extending existing elements …before carrying as though those two minutes never happened.

But even without any means of extending existing elements, it should still be possible to define custom elements that have some kind of fallback in non-supporting browsers:

<fancy-select>
 <select>...</select>
</fancy-select>

In that situation, you at least get a regular ol’ select element in older browsers (or in modern browsers before the JavaScript kicks in and uplifts the custom element).

Adam has a great example of this in his post:

I’ve been thinking of a gallery component lately, where you’d have a custom element, say <o-gallery> for want of a better example, and simply populate it with images you want to display, with custom elements and shadow DOM you can add all the rest, controls/layout etc. Markup would be something like:

<o-gallery>
 <img src="">
 <img src="">
 <img src="">
</o-gallery>

If none of the extra stuff loads, what do we get? Well you get 3 images on the page. You still get the content, but just none of the fancy interactivity.

Yes! This, in my opinion, is how we should be approaching the design of web components. This is what gets me excited about web components.

Then I look at pretty much all the examples of web components out there and my nervousness kicks in. Hardly any of them spare a thought for backwards-compatibility. Take a look, for example, at the entire contents of the body element for the Polymer Shop demo site:

<shop-app unresolved="">SHOP</shop-app>

This seems really odd to me, because I don’t think it’s a good way to “sell” a technology.

Compare service workers to web components.

First of all, ask the question “who benefits from this technology?” In the case of service workers, it’s the end users. They get faster websites that handle network failure better. In the case of web components, there are no direct end-user benefits. Web components exist to make developers lives easier. That’s absolutely fine, but any developer convenience gained by the use of web components can’t come at the expense of the user—that price is too high.

The next question we usually ask when we’re evaluating a technology is “how well does it work?” Personally, I think it’s just as important to ask “how well does it fail?”

Service workers work well and fail well. If a browser supports service workers, the user gets all the benefits. If a browser doesn’t support service workers, the user get the same experience they would have always had.

Web components (will) work well, but fail badly. If a browser supports web components, the user gets the experience that the developer has crafted using these new technologies. If a browser doesn’t support web components, the user gets …probably nothing. It depends on how the web components have been designed.

It’s so much easier to get excited about implementing service workers. You’ve literally got nothing to lose and everything to gain. That’s not the case with web components. Or at least not with the way they are currently being sold.

See, this is why I think it’s so important to put some effort into designing web components that have some kind of fallback. Those web components will work well and fail well.

Look at the way new elements are designed for HTML. Think of complex additions like canvas, audio, video, and picture. Each one has been designed with backwards-compatibility in mind—there’s always a way to provide fallback content.

Web components give us developers the same power that, up until now, only belonged to browser makers. Web components also give us developers the same responsibilities as browser makers. We should take that responsibility seriously.

Web components are supposed to be the poster child for The Extensible Web Manifesto. I’m all for an extensible web. But the way that web components are currently being built looks more like an endorsement of The Replaceable Web Manifesto. I’m not okay with a replaceable web.

Here’s hoping that my concerns won’t be dismissed as “piffle and tosh” again by the very people who should be thinking about these issues.

Unlabelled search fields

Adam Silver is writing a book on forms—you may be familiar with his previous book on maintainable CSS. In a recent article (that for some reason isn’t on his blog), he looks at markup patterns for search forms and advocates that we should always use a label. I agree. But for some reason, we keep getting handed designs that show unlabelled search forms. And no, a placeholder is not a label.

I had a discussion with Mark about this the other day. The form he was marking up didn’t have a label, but it did have a button with some text that would work as a label:

<input type="search" placeholder="…">
<button type="submit">
Search
</button>

He was wondering if there was a way of using the button’s text as the label. I think there is. Using aria-labelledby like this, the button’s text should be read out before the input field:

<input aria-labelledby="searchtext" type="search" placeholder="…">
<button type="submit" id="searchtext">
Search
</button>

Notice that I say “think” and “should.” It’s one thing to figure out a theoretical solution, but only testing will show whether it actually works.

The W3C’s WAI tutorial on labelling content gives an example that uses aria-label instead:

<input type="text" name="search" aria-label="Search">
<button type="submit">Search</button>

It seems a bit of a shame to me that the label text is duplicated in the button and in the aria-label attribute (and being squirrelled away in an attribute, it runs the risk of metacrap rot). But they know what they’re talking about so there may well be very good reasons to prefer duplicating the value with aria-label rather than pointing to the value with aria-labelledby.

I thought it would be interesting to see how other sites are approaching this pattern—unlabelled search forms are all too common. All the markup examples here have been simplified a bit, removing class attributes and the like…

The BBC’s search form does actually have a label:

<label for="orb-search-q">
Search the BBC
</label>
<input id="orb-search-q" placeholder="Search" type="text">
<button>Search the BBC</button>

But that label is then hidden using CSS:

position: absolute;
height: 1px;
width: 1px;
overflow: hidden;
clip: rect(1px, 1px, 1px, 1px);

That CSS—as pioneered by Snook—ensures that the label is visually hidden but remains accessible to assistive technology. Using something like display: none would hide the label for everyone.

Medium wraps the input (and icon) in a label and then gives the label a title attribute. Like aria-label, a title attribute should be read out by screen readers, but it has the added advantage of also being visible as a tooltip on hover:

<label title="Search Medium">
  <span class="svgIcon"><svg></svg></span>
  <input type="search">
</label>

This is also what Google does on what must be the most visited search form on the web. But the W3C’s WAI tutorial warns against using the title attribute like this:

This approach is generally less reliable and not recommended because some screen readers and assistive technologies do not interpret the title attribute as a replacement for the label element, possibly because the title attribute is often used to provide non-essential information.

Twitter follows the BBC’s pattern of having a label but visually hiding it. They also have some descriptive text for the icon, and that text gets visually hidden too:

<label class="visuallyhidden" for="search-query">Search query</label>
<input id="search-query" placeholder="Search Twitter" type="text">
<span class="search-icon>
  <button type="submit" class="Icon" tabindex="-1">
    <span class="visuallyhidden">Search Twitter</span>
  </button>
</span>

Here’s their CSS for hiding those bits of text—it’s very similar to the BBC’s:

.visuallyhidden {
  border: 0;
  clip: rect(0 0 0 0);
  height: 1px;
  margin: -1px;
  overflow: hidden;
  padding: 0;
  position: absolute;
  width: 1px;
}

That’s exactly the CSS recommended in the W3C’s WAI tutorial.

Flickr have gone with the aria-label pattern as recommended in that W3C WAI tutorial:

<input placeholder="Photos, people, or groups" aria-label="Search" type="text">
<input type="submit" value="Search">

Interestingly, neither Twitter or Flickr are using type="search" on the input elements. I’m guessing this is probably because of frustrations with trying to undo the default styles that some browsers apply to input type="search" fields. Seems a shame though.

Instagram also doesn’t use type="search" and makes no attempt to expose any kind of accessible label:

<input type="text" placeholder="Search">
<span class="coreSpriteSearchIcon"></span>

Same with Tumblr:

<input tabindex="1" type="text" name="q" id="search_query" placeholder="Search Tumblr" autocomplete="off" required="required">

…although the search form itself does have role="search" applied to it. Perhaps that helps to mitigate the lack of a clear label?

After that whistle-stop tour of a few of the web’s unlabelled search forms, it looks like the options are:

  • a visually-hidden label element,
  • an aria-label attribute,
  • a title attribute, or
  • associate some text using aria-labelledby.

But that last one needs some testing.

Update: Emil did some testing. Looks like all screen-reader/browser combinations will read the associated text.

Talking about hypertext

#CSSday starts off with a great history lesson of our industry by @adactio

I’ve just published a transcript of the talk I gave at the HTML Special that preceded CSS Day a couple of weeks back. I’ve also recorded an audio version for your huffduffing pleasure.

It’s not like the usual talks I give. The subject matter was assigned to me, Mission Impossible style. PPK wanted each speaker to give an entire talk on just one HTML element. He offered me the best element of them all: the A element.

There were a few different directions I could’ve taken it. I could’ve tried to make it practical, but I quickly dismissed that idea. Instead I went in the completely opposite direction, making it as pretentious as possible. I figured a talk about hypertext could afford to be winding and circuitous, building on some of the ideas I wrote about in my piece for The Manual a few years back. It’s quite self-indulgent of me, but I used it as an opportunity to geek out about some of my favourite things; from Borges, Babbage, and Bletchley to Leibniz, Lovelace, and Licklider.

I wouldn’t usually write out an entire talk word-for-word in advance, but somehow it felt right for this one. In fact, my talk preparation this time ‘round was very similar to the process Charlotte recently wrote about:

  1. Get everything out of my head and onto a mind map.
  2. Write chunks of content in short bursts—this was when I was buddying up with Paul.
  3. Put together a slide deck of visuals to support the narrative.
  4. Practice delivering the talk so I don’t look I’m just reading off a screen.

It takes me a long time to prepare talks. As the deadline for this one approached, I was getting quite panicked. It was touch and go there for a while, but I managed to get it done in time.

I’m pleased with how it turned out. On the day, I had fun delivering it. People seemed to like it too, which was gratifying.

Although with this kind of talk, it was inevitable that I wouldn’t be able to please everyone.

I guess this talk was a one-off affair. That said, if you’re putting on an event and you think this subject matter would be appropriate, let me know. I’d be more than happy to deliver it again.

Amsterdam Brighton Amsterdam

I’m about to have a crazy few days that will see me bouncing between Brighton and Amsterdam.

It starts tomorrow. I’m flying to Amsterdam in the morning and speaking at this Icons event in the afternoon about digital preservation and long-term thinking.

Then, the next morning, I’ll be opening up the inaugural HTML Special which is a new addition the CSS Day conference. Each talk on Thursday will cover one HTML element. I am honoured to speaking about the A element. Here’s the talk description:

The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…

Enquire within upon everything.

I’ve been working all out to get this talk done and I finally wrapped it up today. Right now, I feel pretty happy with it, but I bet I’ll change that opinion in the next 48 hours. I’m pretty sure that this will be one of those talks that people will either love or hate, kind of like my 2008 dConstruct talk, The System Of The World.

After CSS Day, I’ll be heading back to Brighton on Saturday, June 18th to play a Salter Cane gig in The Greys pub. If you’re around, you should definitely come along—not only is it free, but there will be some excellent support courtesy of Jon London, and Lucas and King.

Then, the next morning, I’ll be speaking at DrupalCamp Brighton, opening up day two of the event. I won’t be able to stick around long afterwards though, because I need to skidaddle to the airport to go back to Amsterdam!

Google are having their Progressive Web App Dev Summit there on Monday on Tuesday. I’ll be moderating a panel on the second day, so I’ll need to pay close attention to all the talks. I’ll be grilling representatives from Google, Samsung, Opera, Microsoft, and Mozilla. Considering my recent rants about some very bad decisions on the part of Google’s Chrome team, it’s very brave of them to ask me to be there, much less moderate a panel in public.

You can still register for the event, by the way. Like the Salter Cane gig, it’s free. But if you can’t make it along, I’d still like to know what you think I should be asking the panelists about.

Got a burning question for browser/device makers? Write it down, post it somewhere on the web with a link back to this post, and then send me a web mention (there’s a form for you to paste in the URL at the bottom of this post).

Conversational interfaces

Psst… Jeremy! Right now you’re getting notified every time something is posted to Slack. That’s great at first, but now that activity is increasing you’ll probably prefer dialing that down.

Slackbot, 2015

What’s happening?

Twitter, 2009

Why does everyone always look at me? I know I’m a chalkboard and that’s my job, I just wish people would ask before staring at me. Sometimes I don’t have anything to say.

Existentialist chalkboard, 2007

I’m Little MOO - the bit of software that will be managing your order with us. It will shortly be sent to Big MOO, our print machine who will print it for you in the next few days. I’ll let you know when it’s done and on it’s way to you.

Little MOO, 2006

It looks like you’re writing a letter.

Clippy, 1997

Your quest is to find the Warlock’s treasure, hidden deep within a dungeon populated with a multitude of terrifying monsters. You will need courage, determination and a fair amount of luck if you are to survive all the traps and battles, and reach your goal — the innermost chambers of the Warlock’s domain.

The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, 1982

Welcome to Adventure!! Would you like instructions?

Colossal Cave, 1976

I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.

I, Pencil, 1958

ÆLFRED MECH HET GEWYRCAN
Ælfred ordered me to be made

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The Ælfred Jewel, ~880

Technical note

I have marked up the protagonist of each conversation using the cite element. There is a long-running dispute over the use of this element. In HTML 4.01 it was perfectly fine to use cite to mark up a person being quoted. In the HTML Living Standard, usage has been narrowed:

The cite element represents the title of a work (e.g. a book, a paper, an essay, a poem, a score, a song, a script, a film, a TV show, a game, a sculpture, a painting, a theatre production, a play, an opera, a musical, an exhibition, a legal case report, a computer program, etc). This can be a work that is being quoted or referenced in detail (i.e. a citation), or it can just be a work that is mentioned in passing.

A person’s name is not the title of a work — even if people call that person a piece of work — and the element must therefore not be used to mark up people’s names.

I disagree.

In the examples above, it’s pretty clear that I, Pencil and Warlock Of Firetop Mountain are valid use cases for the cite element according to the HTML5 definition; they are titles of works. But what about Clippy or Little Moo or Slackbot? They’re not people …but they’re not exactly titles of works either.

If I were to mark up a dialogue between Eliza and a human being, should I only mark up Eliza’s remarks with cite? In text transcripts of conversations with Alexa, Siri, or Cortana, should only their side of the conversation get attributed as a source? Or should they also be written without the cite element because it must not be used to mark up people’s names …even though they are not people, according to conventional definition.

It’s downright botist.

New edition

Six years ago I wrote a book and the brand new plucky upstart A Book Apart published it.

Six years! That’s like a geological age in internet years.

People liked the book. That’s very gratifying. I’m quite proud of it, and it always gives me a warm glow when someone tells me they enjoyed reading it.

Jeffrey asked me a while back about updating the book for a second edition—after all, six years is crazy long time for a web book to be around. I said no, because I just wouldn’t have the time, but mostly because—as the old proverb goes—you can step in the same river twice. Proud as I am of HTML5 For Web Designers, I consider it part of my past.

“What about having someone else update it?” Well, that made me nervous. I feel quite protective of my six year old.

“What about Rachel Andrew?” Ah, well, that’s a different story! Absolutely—if there’s one person I trust to bring the up to date, it’s Rachel.

She’s done a fine, fine job. The second edition of HTML5 For Web Designers is now available.

I know what you’re going to ask: how much difference is there between the two editions? Well, in the introduction to the new edition, I’m very pleased to say that Rachel has written:

I’ve been struck by how much has remained unchanged in that time.

There’s a new section on responsive images. That’s probably the biggest change. The section on video has been expanded to include captioning. There are some updates and tweaks to the semantics of some of the structural elements. So it’s not a completely different book; it’s very much an update rather than a rewrite.

If you don’t have a copy of HTML5 For Web Designers and you’ve been thinking that maybe it’s too out-of-date to bother with, rest assured that it is now bang up to date thanks to Rachel.

Jeffrey has written a lovely new foreword for the second edition:

HTML5 for Web Designers is a book about HTML like Elements of Style is a book about commas. It’s a book founded on solid design principles, and forged at the cutting edge of twenty-first century multi-device design and development.

Metadata markup

When something on your website is shared on Twitter or Facebook, you probably want a nice preview to appear with it, right?

For Twitter, you can use Twitter cards—a collection of meta elements you place in the head of your document.

For Facebook, you can use the grandiosely-titled Open Graph protocol—a collection of meta elements you place in the head of your document.

What’s that you say? They sound awfully similar? Why, no! I mean, just look at the difference. Here’s how you’d mark up a blog post for Twitter:

<meta name="twitter:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta name="twitter:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta name="twitter:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta name="twitter:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

Whereas here’s how you’d mark up the same blog post for Facebook:

<meta property="og:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta property="og:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta property="og:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta property="og:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

See? Completely different.

Okay, I’ll attempt to dial down my sarcasm, but I find this wastage annoying. It adds unnecessary complexity, which in turn, I suspect, puts a lot of people off even trying to implement this stuff. In short: 927.

We’ve seen this kind of waste before. I remember when Netscape and Microsoft were battling it out in the browser wars: Internet Explorer added a proprietary acronym element, while Netscape added the abbr element. They both basically did the same thing. For years, Internet Explorer refused to implement the abbr element out of sheer spite.

A more recent example of the negative effects of competing standards was on display at this year’s Edge conference in London. In a session on front-end data, Nolan Lawson decried the fact that developers weren’t making more use of the client-side storage options available in browsers today. After all, there are so many to choose from: LocalStorage, WebSQL, IndexedDB…

(Hint: if developers aren’t showing much enthusiasm for the latest and greatest API which is sooooo much better than the previous APIs they were also encouraged to use at the time, perhaps their reticence is understandable.)

Anyway, back to metacrap.

Matt has written a guide to what you need to do in order to get a preview of your posts to appear in Slack. Fortunately the answer is not yet another collection of meta elements to place in the head of your document. Instead, Slack piggybacks on the existing combatants: oEmbed, Twitter Cards, and Open Graph.

So to placate both Twitter and Facebook (with Slack thrown in for good measure), your metadata markup is supposed to look something like this:

<meta name="twitter:card" content="summary">
<meta name="twitter:site" content="@adactio">
<meta name="twitter:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta name="twitter:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta name="twitter:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta name="twitter:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">
<meta property="og:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta property="og:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta property="og:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta property="og:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

There are two things on display here: redundancy, and also, redundancy.

Now the eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted a crucial difference between the Twitter metacrap and the Facebook metacrap. The Twitter metacrap uses the name attribute on the meta element, whereas the Facebook metacrap uses the property attribute. Technically, there is no property attribute in HTML—it’s an RDFa thing. But the fact that they’re using two different attributes means that we can squish the meta elements together like this:

<meta name="twitter:card" content="summary">
<meta name="twitter:site" content="@adactio">
<meta name="twitter:url" property="og:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta name="twitter:title" property="og:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta name="twitter:description" property="og:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta name="twitter:image" property="og:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

There. I saved you at least a little bit of typing.

The metacrap situation is even more ridiculous for “add to homescreen”/”pin to start”/whatever else browser makers can’t agree on…

Microsoft:

<meta name="msapplication-starturl" content="https://adactio.com" />
<meta name="msapplication-window" content="width=800;height=600">
<meta name="msapplication-tooltip" content="Kill me now...">

Apple:

<link rel="apple-touch-icon" href="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

(Repeat four or five times with different variations of icon sizes, and be sure to create icons with new sizes after every. single. Apple. keynote.)

Fortunately Google, Opera, and Mozilla appear to be converging on using an external manifest file:

<link rel="manifest" href="https://adactio.com/manifest.json">

Perhaps our long national nightmare of balkanised metacrap is finally coming to an end, and clearer heads will prevail.

AMPed up

Apple has Apple News. Facebook has Instant Articles. Now Google has AMP: Accelerated Mobile Pages.

The big players sure are going to a lot of effort to reinvent RSS.

That may sound like a flippant remark, but it’s not too far from the truth. In the case of Apple News, its current incarnation appears to be quite literally an RSS reader, at least until the unveiling of the forthcoming Apple News Format.

Google’s AMP project looks a little bit different to the offerings from Facebook and Apple. Rather than creating a proprietary format from scratch, it mandates a subset of HTML …with some proprietary elements thrown in (or, to use the more diplomatic parlance of the extensible web, custom elements).

The idea is that alongside the regular HTML version of your document, you provide a corresponding AMP HTML version. Because the AMP HTML version will be leaner and meaner, user agents can then grab the AMP HTML version and present that to the end user for a faster browsing experience.

So if an RSS feed is an alternate representation of a homepage or a listing of articles, then an AMP document is an alternate representation of a single article.

Now, my own personal take on providing alternate representations of documents is “Sure. Why not?” Here on adactio.com I provide RSS feeds. On The Session I provide RSS, JSON, and XML. And on Huffduffer I provide RSS, Atom, JSON, and XSPF, adding:

If you would like to see another format supported, share your idea.

Also, each individual item on Huffduffer has a corresponding oEmbed version (and, in theory, an RDF version)—an alternate representation of that item …in principle, not that different from AMP. The big difference with AMP is that it’s using HTML (of sorts) for its format.

All of this sounds pretty reasonable: provide an alternate representation of your canonical HTML pages so that user-agents (Twitter, Google, browsers) can render a faster-loading version …much like an RSS reader.

So should you start providing AMP versions of your pages? My initial reaction is “Sure. Why not?”

The AMP Project website comes with a list of frequently asked questions, which of course, nobody has asked. My own list of invented frequently asked questions might look a little different.

Will this kill advertising?

We live in hope.

Alas, AMP pages will still be able to carry advertising, but in a restricted form. No more scripts that track your movement across the web …unless the script is from an authorised provider, like say, Google.

But it looks like the worst performance offenders won’t be able to get their grubby little scripts into AMP pages. This is a good thing.

Won’t this kill journalism?

Of all the horrid myths currently in circulation, the two that piss me off the most are:

  1. Journalism requires advertising to survive.
  2. Advertising requires invasive JavaScript.

Put the two together and you get the gist of most of the chicken-littling articles currently in circulation: “Journalism requires invasive JavaScript to survive.”

I could argue against the first claim, but let’s leave that for another day. Let’s suppose for now that, sure, journalism requires advertising to survive. Fine.

It’s that second point that is fundamentally wrong. The idea that the current state of advertising is the only way of advertising is incredibly short-sighted and misguided. Invasive JavaScript is not a requirement for showing me an ad. Setting a cookie is not a requirement for showing me an ad. Knowing where I live, who my friends are, what my income level is, and where I’ve been on the web …none of these are requirements for showing me an ad.

It is entirely possible to advertise to me and treat me with respect at the same time. The Deck already does this.

And you know what? Ad networks had their chance. They had their chance to treat us with respect with the Do Not Track initiative. We asked them to respect our wishes. They told us get screwed.

Now those same ad providers are crying because we’re installing ad blockers. They can get screwed.

Anyway.

It is entirely possible to advertise within AMP pages …just not using blocking JavaScript.

For a nicely nuanced take on what AMP could mean for journalism, see Joshua Benton’s article on Nieman Lab—Get AMP’d: Here’s what publishers need to know about Google’s new plan to speed up your website.

Why not just make faster web pages?

Excellent question!

For a site like adactio.com, the difference between the regular HTML version of an article and the corresponding AMP version of the same article is pretty small. It’s a shame that I can’t just say “Hey, the current version of the article is the AMP version”, but that would require that I only use a subset of HTML and that I add some required guff to my page (including an unnecessary JavaScript file).

But for most of the news sites out there, the difference between their regular HTML pages and the corresponding AMP versions will be pretty significant. That’s because the regular HTML versions are bloated with third-party scripts, oversized assets, and cruft around the actual content.

Now it is in theory possible for these news sites to get rid of all those things, and I sincerely hope that they will. But that’s a big political struggle. I am rooting for developers—like the good folks at VOX—who have to battle against bosses who honestly think that journalism requires invasive JavaScript. Best of luck.

Along comes Google saying “If you want to play in our sandbox, you’re going to have to abide by our rules.” Those rules include performance best practices (for the most part—I take issue with some of the requirements, and I’ll go into that in more detail in a moment).

Now when the boss says “Slap a three megabyte JavaScript library on it so we can show a carousel”, the developers can only respond with “Google says No.”

When the boss says “Slap a ton of third-party trackers on it so we can monetise those eyeballs”, the developers can only respond with “Google says No.”

Google have used their influence like this before and it has brought them accusations of monopolistic abuse. Some people got very upset when they began labelling (and later ranking) mobile-friendly pages. Personally, I’ve got no issue with that.

In this particular case, Google aren’t mandating what you can and can’t do on your regular HTML pages; only what you can and can’t do on the corresponding AMP page.

Which brings up another question…

Will the AMP web kill the open web?

If we all start creating AMP versions of our pages, and those pages are faster than our regular HTML versions, won’t everyone just see the AMP versions without ever seeing the “full” versions?

Tim articulates a legitimate concern:

This promise of improved distribution for pages using AMP HTML shifts the incentive. AMP isn’t encouraging better performance on the web; AMP is encouraging the use of their specific tool to build a version of a web page. It doesn’t feel like something helping the open web so much as it feels like something bringing a little bit of the walled garden mentality of native development onto the web.

That troubles me. Using a very specific tool to build a tailored version of my page in order to “reach everyone” doesn’t fit any definition of the “open web” that I’ve ever heard.

Fair point. But I also remember that a lot of people were upset by RSS. They didn’t like that users could go for months at a time without visiting the actual website, and yet they were reading every article. They were reading every article in non-browser user agents in a format that wasn’t HTML. On paper that sounds like the antithesis of the open web, but in practice there was always something very webby about RSS, and RSS feed readers—it put the power back in the hands of the end users.

Some people chose not to play ball. They only put snippets in their RSS feeds, not the full articles. Maybe some publishers will do the same with the AMP versions of their articles: “To read more, click here…”

But I remember what generally tended to happen to the publishers who refused to put the full content in their RSS feeds. We unsubscribed.

Still, I share the concern that any one company—whether it’s Facebook, Apple, or Google—should wield so much power over how we publish on the web. I don’t think you have to be a conspiracy theorist to view the AMP project as an attempt to replace the existing web with an alternate web, more tightly controlled by Google (albeit a faster, more performant, tightly-controlled web).

My hope is that the current will flow in both directions. As well as publishers creating AMP versions of their pages in order to appease Google, perhaps they will start to ask “Why can’t our regular pages be this fast?” By showing that there is life beyond big bloated invasive web pages, perhaps the AMP project will work as a demo of what the whole web could be.

I’ve been playing around with the AMP HTML spec. It has some issues. The good news is that it’s open source and the project owners seem receptive to feedback.

JavaScript

No external JavaScript is allowed in an AMP HTML document. This covers third-party libraries, advertising and tracking scripts. This is A-okay with me.

The reasons given for this ban are related to performance and I agree with them completely. Big bloated JavaScript libraries are one of the biggest performance killers on the web. I’m happy to leave them at the door (although weirdly, web fonts—another big performance killer—are allowed in).

But then there’s a bit of an about-face. In order to have a valid AMP HTML page, you must include a piece of third-party JavaScript. In this case, the third party is Google and the JavaScript file is what handles the loading of assets.

This seems a bit strange to me; on the one hand claiming that third-party JavaScript is bad for performance and on the other, requiring some third-party JavaScript. As Justin says:

For me this is loading one thing too many… the AMP JS library. Surely the document itself is going to be faster than loading a library to try and make it load faster.

On the plus side, this third-party JavaScript is loaded asynchronously. It seems to mostly be there to handle the rendering of embedded content: images, videos, audio, etc.

Embedded content

If you want audio, video, or images on your page, you must use propriet… custom elements like amp-audio, amp-video, and amp-img. In the case of images, I can see how this is a way of getting around the browser’s lookahead pre-parser (although responsive images also solve this problem). In the case of audio and video, the standard audio and video elements already come with a way of specifying preloading behaviour using the preload attribute. Very odd.

Justin again:

I’m not sure if this is solving anything at the moment that we’re not already fixing with something like responsive images.

To use amp-img for images within the flow of a document, you’ll need to specify the dimensions of the image. This makes sense from a rendering point of view—knowing the width and height ahead of time avoids repaints and reflows. Alas, in many of the cases here on adactio.com, I don’t know the dimensions of the images I’m including. So any of my AMP HTML pages that include images will be invalid.

Overall, the way that AMP HTML handles embedded content looks like a whole lot of wheel reinvention. I like the idea of providing custom elements as an option for authors. I hate the idea of making them a requirement.

Metadata

If you want to provide metadata about your document, AMP HTML currently requires the use of Google’s Schema.org vocabulary. This has a big whiff of vendor lock-in to it. I’ve flagged this up as an issue and Aaron is pushing a change so hopefully this will be resolved soon.

Accessibility

In its initial release, the AMP HTML spec came with some nasty surprises for accessibility. The biggest is probably the requirement to include this in your viewport meta element:

maximum-scale=1,user-scalable=no

Yowzers! That’s some slap in the face to decent web developers everywhere. Fortunately this has been flagged up and I’m hoping it will be fixed soon.

If it doesn’t get fixed, it’s quite a non-starter. It beggars belief that Google would mandate to authors that they must make their pages inaccessible to pinch/zoom. I would hope that many developers would rebel against such a draconian injunction. If that happens, it’ll be interesting to see what becomes of those theoretically badly-formed AMP HTML documents. Technically, they will fail validation, but for very good reason. Will those accessible documents be rejected?

Please get involved on this issue if this is important to you (hint: this should be important to you).

There are a few smaller issues. Initially the :focus pseudo-class was disallowed in author CSS, but that’s being fixed.

Currently AMP HTML documents must have this line:

<style>body {opacity: 0}</style><noscript><style>body {opacity: 1}</style></noscript>

shudders

That’s a horrible conflation of JavaScript availability and CSS. It’s being fixed though, and soon all the opacity jiggery-pokery will only happen via JavaScript, which will be a big improvement: it should either all happen in CSS or all happen in JavaScript, but not the current mixture of the two.

Discovery

The AMP HTML version of your page is not the canonical version. You can specify where the real HTML version of your document is by using rel="canonical". Great!

But how do you link from your canonical page out to the AMP HTML version? Currently you’re supposed to use rel="amphtml". No, they haven’t checked the registry. Again. I’ll go in and add it.

In the meantime, I’m also requesting that the amphtml value can be combined with the alternate value, seeing as rel values can be space separated:

rel="alternate amphtml" type="text/html"

See? Not that different to RSS:

rel="alterate" type="application/rss+xml"

POSSE

When I publish something on adactio.com in HTML, it already gets syndicated to different places. This is the Indie Web idea of POSSE: Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. As well as providing RSS feeds, I’ve also got Twitter bots that syndicate to Twitter. An If This, Then That script pushes posts to Facebook. And if I publish a photo, it goes to Flickr. Now that Medium is finally providing a publishing API, I’ll probably start syndicating articles there as well. The more, the merrier.

From that perspective, providing AMP HTML pages feels like just one more syndication option. If it were the only option, and I felt compelled to provide AMP versions of my content, I’d be very concerned. But for now, I’ll give it a whirl and see how it goes.

Here’s a bit of PHP I’m using to convert a regular piece of HTML into AMP HTML—it’s horrible code; it uses regular expressions on HTML which, as we all know, will summon the Elder Gods.