Journal tags: power

9

sparkline

Upgrades and polyfills

I started getting some emails recently from people having issues using The Session. The issues sounded similar—an interactive component that wasn’t, well …interacting.

When I asked what device or browser they were using, the answer came back the same: Safari on iPad. But not a new iPad. These were older iPads running older operating systems.

Now, remember, even if I wanted to recommend that they use a different browser, that’s not an option:

Safari is the only browser on iOS devices.

I don’t mean it’s the only browser that ships with iOS devices. I mean it’s the only browser that can be installed on iOS devices.

You can install something called Chrome. You can install something called Firefox. Those aren’t different web browsers. Under the hood they’re using Safari’s rendering engine. They have to.

It gets worse. Not only is there no choice when it comes to rendering engines on iOS, but the rendering engine is also tied to the operating system.

If you’re on an old Apple laptop, you can at least install an up-to-date version of Firefox or Chrome. But you can’t install an up-to-date version of Safari. An up-to-date version of Safari requires an up-to-date version of the operating system.

It’s the same on iOS devices—you can’t install a newer version of Safari without installing a newer version of iOS. But unlike the laptop scenario, you can’t install any version of Firefox of Chrome.

It’s disgraceful.

It’s particularly frustrating when an older device can’t upgrade its operating system. Upgrades for Operating system generally have some hardware requirements. If your device doesn’t meet those requirements, you can’t upgrade your operating system. That wouldn’t matter so much except for the Safari issue. Without an upgraded operating system, your web browsing experience stagnates unnecessarily.

For want of a nail

  • A website feature isn’t working so
  • you need to upgrade your browser which means
  • you need to upgrade your operating sytem but
  • you can’t upgrade your operating system so
  • you need to buy a new device.

Apple doesn’t allow other browsers to be installed on iOS devices so people have to buy new devices if they want to use the web. Handy for Apple. Bad for users. Really bad for the planet.

It’s particularly galling when it comes to iPads. Those are exactly the kind of casual-use devices that shouldn’t need to be caught in the wasteful cycle of being used for a while before getting thrown away. I mean, I get why you might want to have a relatively modern phone—a device that’s constantly with you that you use all the time—but an iPad is the perfect device to just have lying around. You shouldn’t feel pressured to have the latest model if the older version still does the job:

An older tablet makes a great tableside companion in your living room, an effective e-book reader, or a light-duty device for reading mail or checking your favorite websites.

Hang on, though. There’s another angle to this. Why should a website demand an up-to-date browser? If the website has been built using the tried and tested approach of progressive enhancement, then everyone should be able to achieve their goals regardless of what browser or device or operating system they’re using.

On The Session, I’m using progressive enhancement and feature detection everywhere I can. If, for example, I’ve got some JavaScript that’s going to use querySelectorAll and addEventListener, I’ll first test that those methods are available.

if (!document.querySelectorAll || !window.addEventListener) {
  // doesn't cut the mustard.
  return;
}

I try not to assume that anything is supported. So why was I getting emails from people with older iPads describing an interaction that wasn’t working? A JavaScript error was being thrown somewhere and—because of JavaScript’s brittle error-handling—that was causing all the subsequent JavaScript to fail.

I tracked the problem down to a function that was using some DOM methods—matches and closest—as well as the relatively recent JavaScript forEach method. But I had polyfills in place for all of those. Here’s the polyfill I’m using for matches and closest. And here’s the polyfill I’m using for forEach.

Then I spotted the problem. I was using forEach to loop through the results of querySelectorAll. But the polyfill works on arrays. Technically, the output of querySelectorAll isn’t an array. It looks like an array, it quacks like an array, but it’s actually a node list.

So I added this polyfill from Chris Ferdinandi.

That did the trick. I checked with the people with those older iPads and everything is now working just fine.

For the record, here’s the small collection of polyfills I’m using. Polyfills are supposed to be temporary. At some stage, as everyone upgrades their browsers, I should be able to remove them. But as long as some people are stuck with using an older browser, I have to keep those polyfills around.

I wish that Apple would allow other rendering engines to be installed on iOS devices. But if that’s a hell-freezing-over prospect, I wish that Safari updates weren’t tied to operating system updates.

Apple may argue that their browser rendering engine and their operating system are deeply intertwingled. That line of defence worked out great for Microsoft in the ‘90s.

Web browsers on iOS

Safari is the only browser on iOS devices.

I don’t mean it’s the only browser that ships with iOS devices. I mean it’s the only browser that can be installed on iOS devices.

You can install something called Chrome. You can install something called Firefox. Those aren’t different web browsers. Under the hood they’re using Safari’s rendering engine. They have to. The app store doesn’t allow other browsers to be listed. The apps called Chrome and Firefox are little more than skinned versions of Safari.

If you’re a web developer, there are two possible reactions to hearing this. One is “Duh! Everyone knows that!”. The other is “What‽ I never knew that!”

If you fall into the first category, I’m guessing you’ve been a web developer for a while. The fact that Safari is the only browser on iOS devices is something you’ve known for years, and something you assume everyone else knows. It’s common knowledge, right?

But if you’re relatively new to web development—heck, if you’ve been doing web development for half a decade—you might fall into the second category. After all, why would anyone tell you that Safari is the only browser on iOS? It’s common knowledge, right?

So that’s the situation. Safari is the only browser that can run on iOS. The obvious follow-on question is: why?

Apple at this point will respond with something about safety and security, which are certainly important priorities. So let me rephrase the question: why on iOS?

Why can I install Chrome or Firefox or Edge on my Macbook running macOS? If there are safety or security reasons for preventing me from installing those browsers on my iOS device, why don’t those same concerns apply to my macOS device?

At one time, the mobile operating system—iOS—was quite different to the desktop operating system—OS X. Over time the gap has narrowed. At this point, the operating systems are converging. That makes sense. An iPhone, an iPad, and a Macbook aren’t all that different apart from the form factor. It makes sense that computing devices from the same company would share an underlying operating system.

As this convergence continues, the browser question is going to have to be decided in one direction or the other. As it is, Apple’s laptops and desktops strongly encourage you to install software from their app store, though it is still possible to install software by other means. Perhaps they’ll decide that their laptops and desktops should only be able to install software from their app store—a decision they could justify with safety and security concerns.

Imagine that situation. You buy a computer. It comes with one web browser pre-installed. You can’t install a different web browser on your computer.

You wouldn’t stand for it! I mean, Microsoft got fined for anti-competitive behaviour when they pre-bundled their web browser with Windows back in the 90s. You could still install other browsers, but just the act of pre-bundling was seen as an abuse of power. Imagine if Windows never allowed you to install Netscape Navigator?

And yet that’s exactly the situation in 2020.

You buy a computing device from Apple. It might be a Macbook. It might be an iPad. It might be an iPhone. But you can only install your choice of web browser on one of those devices. For now.

It is contradictory. It is hypocritical. It is indefensible.

BetrayURL

Back in February, I wrote about an excellent proposal by Jake for how browsers could display URLs in a safer way. Crucially, this involved highlighting the important part of the URL, but didn’t involve hiding any part. It’s a really elegant solution.

Turns out it was a Trojan horse. Chrome are now running an experiment where they will do the exact opposite: they will hide parts of the URL instead of highlighting the important part.

You can change this behaviour if you’re in the less than 1% of people who ever change default settings in browsers.

I’m really disappointed to see that Jake’s proposal isn’t going to be implemented. It was a much, much better solution.

No doubt I will hear rejoinders that the “solution” that Chrome is experimenting with is pretty similar to what Jake proposed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jake’s solution empowered users with knowledge without taking anything away. What Chrome will be doing is the opposite of that, infantalising users and making decisions for them “for their own good.”

Seeing a complete URL is going to become a power-user feature, like View Source or user style sheets.

I’m really sad about that because, as Jake’s proposal demonstrates, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Design systems roundup

When I started writing a post about architects, gardeners, and design systems, it was going to be a quick follow-up to my post about web standards, dictionaries, and design systems. I had spotted an interesting metaphor in one of Frank’s posts, and I thought it was worth jotting it down.

But after making that connection, I kept writing. I wanted to point out the fetishism we have for creation over curation; building over maintenance.

Then the post took a bit of a dark turn. I wrote about how the most commonly cited reasons for creating a design system—efficiency and consistency—are the same processes that have led to automation and dehumanisation in the past.

That’s where I left things. Others have picked up the baton.

Dave wrote a post called The Web is Industrialized and I helped industrialize it. What I said resonated with him:

This kills me, but it’s true. We’ve industrialized design and are relegated to squeezing efficiencies out of it through our design systems. All CSS changes must now have a business value and user story ticket attached to it. We operate more like Taylor and his stopwatch and Gantt and his charts, maximizing effort and impact rather than focusing on the human aspects of product development.

But he also points out the many benefits of systemetising:

At the same time, I have seen first hand how design systems can yield improvements in accessibility, performance, and shared knowledge across a willing team. I’ve seen them illuminate problems in design and code. I’ve seen them speed up design and development allowing teams to build, share, and validate prototypes or A/B tests before undergoing costly guesswork in production. There’s value in these tools, these processes.

Emphasis mine. I think that’s a key phrase: “a willing team.”

Ethan tackles this in his post The design systems we swim in:

A design system that optimizes for consistency relies on compliance: specifically, the people using the system have to comply with the system’s rules, in order to deliver on that promised consistency. And this is why that, as a way of doing something, a design system can be pretty dehumanizing.

But a design system need not be a constraining straitjacket—a means of enforcing consistency by keeping creators from colouring outside the lines. Used well, a design system can be a tool to give creators more freedom:

Does the system you work with allow you to control the process of your work, to make situational decisions? Or is it simply a set of rules you have to follow?

This is key. A design system is the product of an organisation’s culture. That’s something that Brad digs into his post, Design Systems, Agile, and Industrialization:

I definitely share Jeremy’s concern, but also think it’s important to stress that this isn’t an intrinsic issue with design systems, but rather the organizational culture that exists or gets built up around the design system. There’s a big difference between having smart, reusable patterns at your disposal and creating a dictatorial culture designed to enforce conformity and swat down anyone coloring outside the lines.

Brad makes a very apt comparison with Agile:

Not Agile the idea, but the actual Agile reality so many have to suffer through.

Agile can be a liberating empowering process, when done well. But all too often it’s a quagmire of requirements, burn rates, and story points. We need to make sure that design systems don’t suffer the same fate.

Jeremy’s thoughts on industrialization definitely struck a nerve. Sure, design systems have the ability to dehumanize and that’s something to actively watch out for. But I’d also say to pay close attention to the processes and organizational culture we take part in and contribute to.

Matthew Ström weighed in with a beautifully-written piece called Breaking looms. He provides historical context to the question of automation by relaying the story of the Luddite uprising. Automation may indeed be inevitable, according to his post, but he also provides advice on how to approach design systems today:

We can create ethical systems based in detailed user research. We can insist on environmental impact statements, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and human rights reports. We can write design principles, document dark patterns, and educate our colleagues about accessibility.

Finally, the ouroboros was complete when Frank wrote down his thoughts in a post called Who cares?. For him, the issue of maintenance and care is crucial:

Care applies to the built environment, and especially to digital technology, as social media becomes the weather and the tools we create determine the expectations of work to be done and the economic value of the people who use those tools. A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement. Tools are always beholden to values. This is well-trodden territory.

Well-trodden territory indeed. Back in 2015, Travis Gertz wrote about Design Machines:

Designing better systems and treating our content with respect are two wonderful ideals to strive for, but they can’t happen without institutional change. If we want to design with more expression and variation, we need to change how we work together, build design teams, and forge our tools.

Also on the topic of automation, in 2018 Cameron wrote about Design systems and technological disruption:

Design systems are certainly a new way of thinking about product development, and introduce a different set of tools to the design process, but design systems are not going to lessen the need for designers. They will instead increase the number of products that can be created, and hence increase the demand for designers.

And in 2019, Kaelig wrote:

In order to be fulfilled at work, Marx wrote that workers need “to see themselves in the objects they have created”.

When “improving productivity”, design systems tooling must be mindful of not turning their users’ craft into commodities, alienating them, like cogs in a machine.

All of this is reminding me of Kranzberg’s first law:

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

I worry that sometimes the messaging around design systems paints them as an inherently positive thing. But design systems won’t fix your problems:

Just stay away from folks who try to convince you that having a design system alone will solve something.

It won’t.

It’s just the beginning.

At the same time, a design system need not be the gateway drug to some kind of post-singularity future where our jobs have been automated away.

As always, it depends.

Remember what Frank said:

A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement.

The reasons for creating a design system matter. Those reasons will probably reflect the values of the company creating the system. At the level of reasons and values, we’ve gone beyond the bounds of the hyperobject of design systems. We’re dealing in the area of design ops—the whys of systemising design.

This is why I’m so wary of selling the benefits of design systems in terms of consistency and efficiency. Those are obviously tempting money-saving benefits, but followed to their conclusion, they lead down the dark path of enforced compliance and eventually, automation.

But if the reason you create a design system is to empower people to be more creative, then say that loud and proud! I know that creativity, autonomy and empowerment is a tougher package to sell than consistency and efficiency, but I think it’s a battle worth fighting.

Design systems are neither good nor bad (nor are they neutral).

Addendum: I’d just like to say how invigorating it’s been to read the responses from Dave, Ethan, Brad, Matthew, and Frank …all of them writing on their own websites. Rumours of the demise of blogging may have been greatly exaggerated.

Opening up the AMP cache

I have a proposal that I think might alleviate some of the animosity around Google AMP. You can jump straight to the proposal or get some of the back story first…

The AMP format

Google AMP is exactly the kind of framework I’d like to get behind. Unlike most front-end frameworks, its components take a declarative approach—no knowledge of JavaScript required. I think Lea’s excellent Mavo is the only other major framework that takes this inclusive approach. All the configuration happens in markup, and all the styling happens in CSS. Excellent!

But I cannot get behind AMP.

Instead of competing on its own merits, AMP is unfairly propped up by the search engine of its parent company, Google. That makes it very hard to evaluate whether AMP is being used on its own merits. Instead, the evidence suggests that most publishers of AMP pages are doing so because they feel they have to, rather than because they want to. That’s a real shame, because as a library of web components, AMP seems pretty good. But there’s just no way to evaluate AMP-the-format without taking into account AMP-the-ecosystem.

The AMP ecosystem

Google AMP ostensibly exists to make the web faster. Initially the focus was specifically on mobile performance, but that distinction has since fallen by the wayside. The idea is that by using AMP’s web components, your pages will be speedy. Though, as Andy Davies points out, this isn’t always the case:

This is where I get confused… https://independent.co.uk only have an AMP site yet it’s performance is awful from a user perspective - isn’t AMP supposed to prevent this?

See also: Google AMP lowered our page speed, and there’s no choice but to use it:

According to Google’s own Page Speed Insights audit (which Google recommends to check your performance), the AMP version of articles got an average performance score of 87. The non-AMP versions? 95.

Publishers who already have fast web pages—like The Guardian—are still compelled to make AMP versions of their stories because of the search benefits reserved for AMP. As Terence Eden reported from a meeting of the AMP advisory committee:

We heard, several times, that publishers don’t like AMP. They feel forced to use it because otherwise they don’t get into Google’s news carousel — right at the top of the search results.

Some people felt aggrieved that all the hard work they’d done to speed up their sites was for nothing.

The Google AMP team are at pains to point out that AMP is not a ranking factor in search. That’s true. But it is unfairly privileged in other ways. Only AMP pages can appear in the Top Stories carousel …which appears above any other search results. As I’ve said before:

Now, if you were to ask any right-thinking person whether they think having their page appear right at the top of a list of search results would be considered preferential treatment, I think they would say hell, yes! This is the only reason why The Guardian, for instance, even have AMP versions of their content—it’s not for the performance benefits (their non-AMP pages are faster); it’s for that prime real estate in the carousel.

From A letter about Google AMP:

Content that “opts in” to AMP and the associated hosting within Google’s domain is granted preferential search promotion, including (for news articles) a position above all other results.

That’s not the only way that AMP pages get preferential treatment. It turns out that the secret to the speed of AMP pages isn’t the web components. It’s the prerendering.

The AMP cache

If you’ve ever seen an AMP page in a list of search results, you’ll have noticed the little lightning icon. If you’ve ever tapped on that search result, you’ll have noticed that the page loads blazingly fast!

That’s not down to AMP-the-format, alas. That’s down to the fact that the page has been prerendered by Google before you even went to it. If any page were prerendered that way, it would load blazingly fast. But currently, this privilege is reserved for AMP pages only.

If, after tapping through to that AMP page, you looked at the address bar of your browser, you might have noticed something odd. Even though you might have thought you were visiting The Washington Post, or The New York Times, the URL of the (blazingly fast) page you’re looking at is still under Google’s domain. That’s because Google hosts any AMP pages that it prerenders.

Google calls this “the AMP cache”, but it would be better described as “AMP hosting”. The web page sent down the wire is hosted on Google’s domain.

Here’s that AMP letter again:

When a user navigates from Google to a piece of content Google has recommended, they are, unwittingly, remaining within Google’s ecosystem.

Through gritted teeth, I will refer to this as “the AMP cache”, because that’s what everyone else calls it. But make no mistake, Google is hosting—not caching—these pages.

But why host the pages on a Google domain? Why not prerender the original URLs?

Prerendering and privacy

Scott summed up the situation with AMP nicely:

The pitch I think site owners are hearing is: let us host your pages on our domain and we’ll promote them in search results AND preload them so they feel “instant.” To opt-in, build pages using this component syntax.

But perhaps we could de-couple the AMP format from the AMP cache.

That’s what Terence suggests:

My recommendation is that Google stop requiring that organisations use Google’s proprietary mark-up in order to benefit from Google’s promotion.

The AMP letter, too:

Instead of granting premium placement in search results only to AMP, provide the same perks to all pages that meet an objective, neutral performance criterion such as Speed Index.

Scott reiterates:

It’s been said before but it would be so good for the web if pages with a Lighthouse score over say, 90 could get into that top search result area, even if they’re not built using Google’s AMP framework. Feels wrong to have to rebuild/reproduce an already-fast site just for SEO.

This was also what I was calling for. But then Malte pointed out something that stumped me. Privacy.

Here’s the problem…

Let’s say Google do indeed prerender already-fast pages when they’re listed in search results. You, a search user, type something into Google. A list of results come back. Google begins pre-rendering some of them. But you don’t end up clicking through to those pages. Nonetheless, the servers those pages are hosted on have received a GET request coming from a Google search. Those publishers now know that a particular (cookied?) user could have clicked through to their site. That’s very different from knowing when someone has actually arrived at a particular site.

And that’s why Google host all the AMP pages that they prerender. Given the privacy implications of prerendering non-Google URLs, I must admit that I see their point.

Still, it’s a real shame to miss out on the speed benefit of prerendering:

Prerendering AMP documents leads to substantial improvements in page load times. Page load time can be measured in different ways, but they consistently show that prerendering lets users see the content they want faster. For now, only AMP can provide the privacy preserving prerendering needed for this speed benefit.

A modest proposal

Why is Google’s AMP cache just for AMP pages? (Y’know, apart from the obvious answer that it’s in the name.)

What if Google were allowed to host non-AMP pages? Google search could then prerender those pages just like it currently does for AMP pages. There would be no privacy leaks; everything would happen on the same domain—google.com or ampproject.org or whatever—just as currently happens with AMP pages.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that Google should make a 1:1 model of the web just to prerender search results. I think that the implementation would need to have two important requirements:

  1. Hosting needs to be opt-in.
  2. Only fast pages should be prerendered.

Opting in

Currently, by publishing a page using the AMP format, publishers give implicit approval to Google to host that page on Google’s servers and serve up this Google-hosted version from search results. This has always struck me as being legally iffy. I’ve looked in the AMP documentation to try to find any explicit granting of hosting permission (e.g. “By linking to this JavaScript file, you hereby give Google the right to serve up our copies of your content.”), but no luck. So even with the current situation, I think a clear opt-in for hosting would be beneficial.

This could be a meta element. Maybe something like:

<meta name="caches-allowed" content="google">

This would have the nice benefit of allowing comma-separated values:

<meta name="caches-allowed" content="google, yandex">

(The name is just a strawman, by the way—I’m not suggesting that this is what the final implementation would actually look like.)

If not a meta element, then perhaps this could be part of robots.txt? Although my feeling is that this needs to happen on a document-by-document basis rather than site-wide.

Many people will, quite rightly, never want Google—or anyone else—to host and serve up their content. That’s why it’s so important that this behaviour needs to be opt-in. It’s kind of appalling that the current hosting of AMP pages is opt-in-by-proxy-sort-of.

Criteria for prerendering

Which pages should be blessed with hosting and prerendering? The fast ones. That’s sorta the whole point of AMP. But right now, there’s a lot of resentment by people with already-fast websites who quite rightly feel they shouldn’t have to use the AMP format to benefit from the AMP ecosystem.

Page speed is already a ranking factor. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to extend its benefits to hosting and prerendering. As mentioned above, there are already a few possible metrics to use:

  • Page Speed Index
  • Lighthouse
  • Web Page Test

Ah, but what if a page has good score when it’s indexed, but then gets worse afterwards? Not a problem! The version of the page that’s measured is the same version of the page that gets hosted and prerendered. Google can confidently say “This page is fast!” After all, they’re the ones serving up the page.

That does raise the question of how often Google should check back with the original URL to see if it has changed/worsened/improved. The answer to that question is however long it currently takes to check back in on AMP pages:

Each time a user accesses AMP content from the cache, the content is automatically updated, and the updated version is served to the next user once the content has been cached.

Issues

This proposal does not solve the problem with the address bar. You’d still find yourself looking at a page from The Washington Post or The New York Times (or adactio.com) but seeing a completely different URL in your browser. That’s not good, for all the reasons outlined in the AMP letter.

In fact, this proposal could potentially make the situation worse. It would allow even more sites to be impersonated by Google’s URLs. Where currently only AMP pages are bad actors in terms of URL confusion, opening up the AMP cache would allow equal opportunity URL confusion.

What I’m suggesting is definitely not a long-term solution. The long-term solutions currently being investigated are technically tricky and will take quite a while to come to fruition—web packages and signed exchanges. In the meantime, what I’m proposing is a stopgap solution that’s technically a lot simpler. But it won’t solve all the problems with AMP.

This proposal solves one problem—AMP pages being unfairly privileged in search results—but does nothing to solve the other, perhaps more serious problem: the erosion of site identity.

Measuring

Currently, Google can assess whether a page should be hosted and prerendered by checking to see if it’s a valid AMP page. That test would need to be widened to include a different measurement of performance, but those measurements already exist.

I can see how this assessment might not be as quick as checking for AMP validity. That might affect whether non-AMP pages could be measured quickly enough to end up in the Top Stories carousel, which is, by its nature, time-sensitive. But search results are not necessarily as time-sensitive. Let’s start there.

Assets

Currently, AMP pages can be prerendered without fetching anything other than the markup of the AMP page itself. All the CSS is inline. There are no initial requests for other kinds of content like images. That’s because there are no img elements on the page: authors must use amp-img instead. The image itself isn’t loaded until the user is on the page.

If the AMP cache were to be opened up to non-AMP pages, then any content required for prerendering would also need to be hosted on that same domain. Otherwise, there’s privacy leakage.

This definitely introduces an extra level of complexity. Paths to assets within the markup might need to be re-written to point to the Google-hosted equivalents. There would almost certainly need to be a limit on the number of assets allowed. Though, for performance, that’s no bad thing.

Make no mistake, figuring out what to do about assets—style sheets, scripts, and images—is very challenging indeed. Luckily, there are very smart people on the Google AMP team. If that brainpower were to focus on this problem, I am confident they could solve it.

Summary

  1. Prerendering of non-Google URLs is problematic for privacy reasons, so Google needs to be able to host pages in order to prerender them.
  2. Currently, that’s only done for pages using the AMP format.
  3. The AMP cache—and with it, prerendering—should be decoupled from the AMP format, and opened up to other fast web pages.

There will be technical challenges, but hopefully nothing insurmountable.

I honestly can’t see what Google have to lose here. If their goal is genuinely to reward fast pages, then opening up their AMP cache to fast non-AMP pages will actively encourage people to make fast web pages (without having to switch over to the AMP format).

I’ve deliberately kept the details vague—what the opt-in should look like; what the speed measurement should be; how to handle assets—I’m sure smarter folks than me can figure that stuff out.

I would really like to know what other people think about this proposal. Obviously, I’d love to hear from members of the Google AMP team. But I’d also love to hear from publishers. And I’d very much like to know what people in the web performance community think about this. (Write a blog post and send me a webmention.)

What am I missing here? What haven’t I thought of? What are the potential pitfalls (and are they any worse than the current acrimonious situation with Google AMP)?

I would really love it if someone with a fast website were in a position to say, “Hey Google, I’m giving you permission to host this page so that it can be prerendered.”

I would really love it if someone with a slow website could say, “Oh, shit! We’d better make our existing website faster or Google won’t host our pages for prerendering.”

And I would dearly love to finally be able to embrace AMP-the-format with a clear conscience. But as long as prerendering is joined at the hip to the AMP format, the injustice of the situation only harms the AMP project.

Google, open up the AMP cache.

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…

Ends and means

The latest edition of the excellent History Of The Web newsletter is called The Day(s) The Web Fought Back. It recounts the first time that websites stood up against bad legislation in the form of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), and goes to recount the even more effective use of blackout protests against SOPA and PIPA.

I remember feeling very heartened to see WikiPedia, Google and others take a stand on January 18th, 2012. But I also remember feeling uneasy. In this particular case, companies were lobbying for a cause I agreed with. But what if they were lobbying for a cause I didn’t agree with? Large corporations using their power to influence politics seems like a very bad idea. Isn’t it still a bad idea, even if I happen to agree with the cause?

Cloudflare quite rightly kicked The Daily Stormer off their roster of customers. Then the CEO of Cloudflare quite rightly wrote this in a company-wide memo:

Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.

There’s an uncomfortable tension here. When do the ends justify the means? Isn’t the whole point of having principles that they hold true even in the direst circumstances? Why even claim that corporations shouldn’t influence politics if you’re going to make an exception for net neutrality? Why even claim that free speech is sacrosanct if you make an exception for nazi scum?

Those two examples are pretty extreme and I can easily justify the exceptions to myself. Net neutrality is too important. Stopping fascism is too important. But where do I draw the line? At what point does something become “too important?”

There are more subtle examples of corporations wielding their power. Google are constantly using their monopoly position in search and browser marketshare to exert influence over website-builders. In theory, that’s bad. But in practice, I find myself agreeing with specific instances. Prioritising mobile-friendly sites? Sounds good to me. Penalising intrusive ads? Again, that seems okey-dokey to me. But surely that’s not the point. So what if I happen to agree with the ends being pursued? The fact that a company the size and power of Google is using their monopoly for any influence is worrying, regardless of whether I agree with the specific instances. But I kept my mouth shut.

Now I see Google abusing their monopoly again, this time with AMP. They may call the preferential treatment of Google-hosted AMP-formatted pages a “carrot”, but let’s be honest, it’s an abuse of power, plain and simple.

By the way, I have no doubt that the engineers working on AMP have the best of intentions. We are all pursuing the same ends. We all want a faster web. But we disagree on the means. If Google search results gave preferential treatment to any fast web pages, that would be fine. But by only giving preferential treatment to pages written in a format that they created, and hosted on their own servers, they are effectively forcing everyone to use AMP. I know for a fact that there are plenty of publications who are producing AMP content, not because they are sold on the benefits of the technology, but because they feel strong-armed into doing it in order to compete.

If the ends justify the means, then it’s easy to write off Google’s abuse of power. Those well-intentioned AMP engineers honestly think that they have the best interests of the web at heart:

We were worried about the web not existing anymore due to native apps and walled gardens killing it off. We wanted to make the web competitive. We saw a sense of urgency and thus we decided to build on the extensible web to build AMP instead of waiting for standard and browsers and websites to catch up. I stand behind this process. I’m a practical guy.

There’s real hubris and audacity in thinking that one company should be able to tackle fixing the whole web. I think the AMP team are genuinely upset and hurt that people aren’t cheering them on. Perhaps they will dismiss the criticisms as outpourings of “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But that would be a mistake. The many thoughtful people who are extremely critical of AMP are on the same side as the AMP team when it comes the end-goal of better, faster websites. But burning the web to save it? No thanks.

Ben Thompson goes into more detail on the tension between the ends and the means in The Aggregator Paradox:

The problem with Google’s actions should be obvious: the company is leveraging its monopoly in search to push the AMP format, and the company is leveraging its dominant position in browsers to punish sites with bad ads. That seems bad!

And yet, from a user perspective, the options I presented at the beginning — fast loading web pages with responsive designs that look great on mobile and the elimination of pop-up ads, ad overlays, and autoplaying videos with sounds — sounds pretty appealing!

From that perspective, there’s a moral argument to be made for wielding monopoly power like Google is doing. No doubt the AMP team feel it would be morally wrong for Google not to use its influence in search to give preferential treatment to AMP pages.

Going back to the opening examples of online blackouts, was it morally wrong for companies to use their power to influence politics? Or would it have been morally wrong for them not to have used their influence?

When do the ends justify the means?

Here’s a more subtle example than Google AMP, but one which has me just as worried for the future of the web. Mozilla announced that any new web features they add to their browser will require HTTPS.

The end-goal here is one I agree with: HTTPS everywhere. On the face of it, the means of reaching that goal seem reasonable. After all, we already require HTTPS for sensitive JavaScript APIs like geolocation or service workers. But the devil is in the details:

Effective immediately, all new features that are web-exposed are to be restricted to secure contexts. Web-exposed means that the feature is observable from a web page or server, whether through JavaScript, CSS, HTTP, media formats, etc. A feature can be anything from an extension of an existing IDL-defined object, a new CSS property, a new HTTP response header, to bigger features such as WebVR.

Emphasis mine.

This is a step too far. Again, I am in total agreement that we should be encouraging everyone to switch to HTTPS. But requiring HTTPS in order to use CSS? The ends don’t justify the means.

If there were valid security reasons for making HTTPS a requirement, I would be all for enforcing this. But these are two totally separate areas. Enforcing HTTPS by withholding CSS support is no different to enforcing AMP by withholding search placement. In some ways, I think it might actually be worse.

There’s an assumption in this decision that websites are being made by professionals who will know how to switch to HTTPS. But the web is for everyone. Not just for everyone to use. It’s for everyone to build.

One of my greatest fears for the web is that building it becomes the domain of a professional priesthood. Anything that raises the bar to writing some HTML or CSS makes me very worried. Usually it’s toolchains that make things more complex, but in this case the barrier to entry is being brought right into the browser itself.

I’m trying to imagine future Codebar evenings, helping people to make their first websites, but now having to tell them that some CSS will be off-limits until they meet the entry requirements of HTTPS …even though CSS and HTTPS have literally nothing to do with one another. (And yes, there will be an exception for localhost and I really hope there’ll be an exception for file: as well, but that’s simply postponing the disappointment.)

No doubt Mozilla (and the W3C Technical Architecture Group) believe that they are doing the right thing. Perhaps they think it would be morally wrong if browsers didn’t enforce HTTPS even for unrelated features like new CSS properties. They believe that, in this particular case, the ends justify the means.

I strongly disagree. If you also disagree, I encourage you to make your voice heard. Remember, this isn’t about whether you think that we should all switch to HTTPS—we’re all in agreement on that. This is about whether it’s okay to create collateral damage by deliberately denying people access to web features in order to further a completely separate agenda.

This isn’t about you or me. This is about all those people who could potentially become makers of the web. We should be welcoming them, not creating barriers for them to overcome.

Seams

You can listen to an audio version of Seams.

“The function of science fiction,” said Ray Bradbury, “is not only to predict the future, but to prevent it.”

Dystopias are the default setting for science fiction. It’s rare to find utopian sci-fi, and when you do—as in the post-singularity Culture novels of Iain M.Banks—there’s always more than a germ of dystopia; the dystutopias that Margaret Atwood speaks of.

You’ve got your political dystopias—1984 and all its imitators. Then there’s alien invasion dystopias, machine-intelligence dystopias, and a whole slew of post-apocalyptic dystopias: nuclear war, pandemic disease, environmental collapse, genetic engineering …take your pick. From the cosy catastrophes of John Wyndham to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this is the stock and trade of speculative fiction.

Of all these undesirable futures, one that troubles more than any other is the Wall·E dystopia. I’m not talking about the environmental wasteland depicted on Earth. I mean the dystutopia depicted aboard the generation starship The Axiom. Here, humanity’s every need is catered to without requiring any thought. And so humanity atrophies, becoming physically obese and intellectually lazy.

It’s not a new idea. H. G. Wells had already shown us a distant future like this in his classic novel The Time Machine. In the far future of that book’s timeline, humanity splits into two. The savagery of the canabalistic Morlocks is contrasted with the docile passive stupidity of the Eloi, but as Jaron Lanier points out, both endpoints are equally horrific.

In Wall·E, the Eloi have advanced technology. Their technology has been designed according to a design principle enshrined in the title of a Dead Kennedys album: Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death.

That’s the reason why the Wall·E dystopia disturbs me so much. It’s all-too believable. For many years now, the rallying cry of digital designers has been epitomised by the title of Steve Krug’s terrific book, Don’t Make Me Think. But what happens when that rallying cry is taken too far? What happens when it stops being “don’t make think while I’m trying to complete a task” to simply “don’t make me think” full stop?

Convenience. Ease of use. Seamlessness.

On the face of it, these all seem like desirable traits in digital and physical products alike. But they come at a price. When we design, we try to do the work so that the user doesn’t have to. We do the thinking so the user doesn’t have to. Don’t make the user think. But taken too far, that mindset becomes dangerous.

Marshall McLuhan said that every extension is also an amputution. As we augment the abilities of people to accomplish their tasks, we should be careful not to needlessly curtail what they can do:

Here we are, a society hell bent on extending our reach through phones, through computers, through “seamless integration” and yet all along the way we’re unwittingly losing perhaps as much as we gain. The mediums we create are built to carry out specific tasks efficiently, but by doing so they have a tendency to restrict our options for accomplishing that task by other means. We begin to learn the “One” way to do it, when in fact there are infinite ways. The medium begins to restrict our thinking, our imagination, our potential.

The idea of “seamlessness” as a desirable trait in what we design is one that bothers me. Technology has seams. By hiding those seams, we may think we are helping the end user, but we are also making a conscience choice to deceive them (or at least restrict what they can do).

I see this a lot in the world of web devlopment. We’re constantly faced with challenges like dealing with users on slow networks or small screens. So we try to come up with solutions (bandwidth media queries, responsive images) that have at their heart an assumption that we know better than the end user what they should get.

I’m not saying that everything should be an option in a menu for the user to figure out—picking smart defaults is very much part of our job. But I do think there’s real value in giving the user the final choice.

I remember Jake giving a good example of this. If he’s travelling and he’s on a 3G network on his phone, or using shitty hotel WiFi on his laptop, and someone sends him a link to a video of some cats, he doesn’t mind if he gets the low-quality version as long as he gets to see the feline shenanigans in short order. But if he’s in the same situation and someone sends him a link to the just-released trailer for the new Star Trek movie, he’s willing to wait for hours so that he can watch in high-definition.

That’s a choice. All too often, these kind of choices are pre-made by designers and developers instead of being offered to the end user. We probably mean well, but there’s a real danger in assuming that just because someone is using a particular device that we can infer what their context is:

Mind reading is no way to base fundamental content decisions.

My point is that while we don’t want to overwhelm the user with choice overload, we also need to be careful not to unintentionally remove valuable choices that can empower people. In our quest to make experiences seamless, we run the risk of also making those experiences rigid and inflexible.

The drive for a “seamless experience” has been used to justify some harsh amputations. When Twitter declared war on the very developers it used to champion, and changed its API and terms of service so that tweets had to be displayed the same way everywhere, it was done in the name of “a consistent user experience.” Twitter knows best.

The web is made up of parts and there are seams between those parts: HTML, HTTP, and URLs. The software that can expose or hide those seams is the web browser. Web browsers are made by human beings and it’s the mindset and assumptions of those human beings that determines whether web browsers are enabling or disabling users to make use of those seams.

“View source” is a seam that exposes the HTML lying beneath every web page. That kind of X-ray vision can be quite powerful. Clearly it’s not an important feature for most users, but it is directly responsible for showing people how web pages are made …and intimating that anyone can do it. In the introduction to my first book I thanked “view source” along with my other teachers like Jeff Veen, Steve Champeon, and Jeffrey Zeldman.

These days, browsers don’t like to expose “view source” as easily as they once did. It’s hidden amongst the developer tools. There’s an assumption there that it’s not intended for regular users. The browser makers know best.

There are seams between the technologies that make up a web page: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The ability to enable or disable those layers can be empowering. It has become harder and harder to disable JavaScript in the browser. Another little amputation. The browser makers know best.

The CSS that styles web pages can be over-ridden by the end user. This is not a bug. It is a very powerful feature. That feature is being removed:

I understand that vendors can do whatever they want to control how you experience the web, because it is their software, their product, but removing user stylesheets feels sooo un-web to me, which is irony. A browser’s largest responsibility is to give people access to the web. It’s like the web is this open hand, but software is this closed fist.

Then there’s the URL. The ultimate seam.

Historically, browsers have exposed this seam, but now—just as with “view source” and user stylesheets—the visibility of the URL is being relegated to being a power-user tool.

The ultimate amputation.

The irony here is that the justification for this change is not the usual mantra of providing “a more seamless user experience.” Instead, the justification is supposedly security.

This strike me as really strange. Security is the one area where seamlessness is definitely not a desirable characteristic. A secure system requires people to be mindful and aware of their situation. This is certainly true on the web, as Tom points out:

Hiding information away makes me less able to make decisions: it makes me a less informed user.

The whole reason that phishing is a problem is because users don’t pay any bloody attention to what they see in their location bar. Putting less information in the location bar makes the location bar less useful and thus there’s less point paying any attention to it.

Tom has hit on the fundamental mismatch here. Chrome is a piece of software that wants to provide a good user experience—“don’t make me think!”—while at the same trying to make users mindful of their surroundings:

Security requires educated, pro-active, informed thinking users.

Usability is about making the whole process of using the web seamless and thoughtless: a child should be able to do it.

So from the security standpoint, obfuscating the URL is exactly the wrong thing to do.

In order to actually stay safe online, you need to see the “seams” of the web, you need to pay attention, use your brain.

Chrome knows best.

Making it harder to “view source” might seem like an inconsequentail decision. Removing the ability to apply user stylesheets might seem like an inconsequential decision. Heck, even hiding the URL might seem like an inconsequential decision. But each one of those decisions has repercussions. And each one of those decisions reflects an underlying viewpoint.

Make no mistake, all software is political. We talk about opinionated software but really, all software is opinionated, whether we like it or not. Seemingly inconsequential interface decisions are actually reflections of assumptions, biases and beliefs.

As Nat points out, like all political decisions, this is about power:

There’s been much debate about whether the URLs are ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’ and whether people really understand them. This debate misses the point.

The URLs are the cornerstone of the interconnected, decentralised web. Removing the URLs from the browser is an attempt to expand and consolidate centralised power.

If that’s the case, then it really doesn’t matter what we think about Chrome removing visible URLs. What appears to be a design decision about the user interface is in fact a manifestation of a much deeper vision. It’s a vision of a future where people can have everything their heart desires without having to expend needless thought. It’s a bright future filled with seamless experiences.

Welcome aboard The Axiom.

Buy n Large knows best.

August in America, day twenty-three

Powers Of Ten is a remarkable short film created by Charles and Ray Eames in 1968. It deals with scale, going out to the distance of our galactic neighbourhood and down to the Planck measurement.

It all begins in a park in Chicago.

Ever since first seeing the film I thought it would be fun to find the exact spot around which the universe is explored by the Eameses. I also thought I probably wasn’t the first geek to think that. But my preliminary googling didn’t turn up any prior art. So I put the call out on Twitter:

Within minutes, Matthew came through for me:

Although, as Dan pointed out, that opening shot was actually filmed in LA:

The actual live action of the picnic scene was filmed in Los Angeles, where Charles and Ray could oversee all aspects of production for the critical opening moments.

Nonetheless, armed with latitude and longitude coordinates, Jessica and I set out to find the one metre square patch of Chicago that’s used as the starting point for the film. We began the trek from our riverside hotel, stopping for an Intelligentsia coffee along the way, passing by the bean to take obligatory mirror shots, and through Millenium Park down to the Field Museum and the Schedd Aquarium, the perfect spot to stop for a Chicago-style hot dog.

With a bit more walking, we made it to the lat/lon coordinates—a more arboreal location now than it was back when Powers Of Ten was filmed. I did what any self-respecting nerd in my situation would do: I made a new spot on Foursquare.

Mission accomplished. After that, we hopped on a water taxi back up to Navy Pier. This short boat ride made Jessica inordinately happy. It certainly was a lovely day to be out on the water. ‘Though I had to keep reminding myself that we were on a lake, not an ocean.

When we got back to our hotel, we asked at reception if there might be a riverside view that we could move to. There was and we did. Now when we look out of our hotel window, we can see the stunning architecture of downtown Chicago in all its glory.