Tags: rendering

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Split

When I talk about evaluating technology for front-end development, I like to draw a distinction between two categories of technology.

On the one hand, you’ve got the raw materials of the web: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This is what users will ultimately interact with.

On the other hand, you’ve got all the tools and technologies that help you produce the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: pre-processors, post-processors, transpilers, bundlers, and other build tools.

Personally, I’m much more interested and excited by the materials than I am by the tools. But I think it’s right and proper that other developers are excited by the tools. A good balance of both is probably the healthiest mix.

I’m never sure what to call these two categories. Maybe the materials are the “external” technologies, because they’re what users will interact with. Whereas all the other technologies—that mosty live on a developer’s machine—are the “internal” technologies.

Another nice phrase is something I heard during Chris’s talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, when he quoted Brad, who talked about the front of the front end and the back of the front end.

I’m definitely more of a front-of-the-front-end kind of developer. I have opinions on the quality of the materials that get served up to users; the output should be accessible and performant. But I don’t particularly care about the tools that produced those materials on the back of the front end. Use whatever works for you (or whatever works for your team).

As a user-centred developer, my priority is doing what’s best for end users. That’s not to say I don’t value developer convenience. I do. But I prioritise user needs over developer needs. And in any case, those two needs don’t even come into conflict most of the time. Like I said, from a user’s point of view, it’s irrelevant what text editor or version control system you use.

Now, you could make the argument that anything that is good for developer convenience is automatically good for user experience because faster, more efficient development should result in better output. While that’s true in theory, I highly recommend Alex’s post, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch.

Where it gets interesting is when a technology that’s designed for developer convenience is made out of the very materials being delivered to users. For example, a CSS framework like Bootstrap is made of CSS. That’s different to a tool like Sass which outputs CSS. Whether or not a developer chooses to use Sass is irrelevant to the user—the final output will be CSS either way. But if a developer chooses to use a CSS framework, that decision has a direct impact on the user experience. The user must download the framework in order for the developer to get the benefit.

So whereas Sass sits at the back of the front end—where I don’t care what you use—Bootstrap sits at the front of the front end. For tools like that, I don’t think saying “use whatever works for you” is good enough. It’s got to be weighed against the cost to the user.

Historically, it’s been a similar story with JavaScript libraries. They’re written in JavaScript, and so they’re going to be executed in the browser. If a developer wanted to use jQuery to make their life easier, the user paid the price in downloading the jQuery library.

But I’ve noticed a welcome change with some of the bigger JavaScript frameworks. Whereas the initial messaging around frameworks like React touted the benefits of state management and the virtual DOM, I feel like that’s not as prevalent now. You’re much more likely to hear people—quite rightly—talk about the benefits of modularity and componentisation. If you combine that with the rise of Node—which means that JavaScript is no longer confined to the browser—then these frameworks can move from the front of the front end to the back of the front end.

We’ve certainly seen that at Clearleft. We’ve worked on multiple React projects, but in every case, the output was server-rendered. Developers get the benefit of working with a tool that helps them. Users don’t pay the price.

For me, this question of whether a framework will be used on the client side or the server side is crucial.

Let me tell you about a Clearleft project that sticks in my mind. We were working with a big international client on a product that was going to be rolled out to students and teachers in developing countries. This was right up my alley! We did plenty of research into network conditions and typical device usage. That then informed a tight performance budget. Every design decision—from web fonts to images—was informed by that performance budget. We were producing lean, mean markup, CSS, and JavaScript. But we weren’t the ones implementing the final site. That was being done by the client’s offshore software team, and they insisted on using React. “That’s okay”, I thought. “React can be used server-side so we can still output just what’s needed, right?” Alas, no. These developers did everything client side. When the final site launched, the log-in screen alone required megabytes of JavaScript just to render a form. It was, in my opinion, entirely unfit for purpose. It still pains me when I think about it.

That was a few years ago. I think that these days it has become a lot easier to make the decision to use a framework on the back of the front end. Like I said, that’s certainly been the case on recent Clearleft projects that involved React or Vue.

It surprises me, then, when I see the question of server rendering or client rendering treated almost like an implementation detail. It might be an implementation detail from a developer’s perspective, but it’s a key decision for the user experience. The performance cost of putting your entire tech stack into the browser can be enormous.

Alex Sanders from the development team at The Guardian published a post recently called Revisiting the rendering tier . In it, he describes how they’re moving to React. Now, if this were a move to client-rendered React, that would make a big impact on the user experience. The thing is, I couldn’t tell from the article whether React was going to be used in the browser or on the server. The article talks about “rendering”—which is something that browsers do—and “the DOM”—which is something that only exists in browsers.

So I asked. It turns out that this plan is very much about generating HTML and CSS on the server before sending it to the browser. Excellent!

With that question answered, I’m cool with whatever they choose to use. In this case, they’re choosing to use CSS-in-JS (although, to be pedantic, there’s no C anymore so technically it’s SS-in-JS). As long as the “JS” part is JavaScript on a server, then it makes no difference to the end user, and therefore no difference to me. Not my circus, not my monkeys. For users, the end result is the same whether styling is applied via a selector in an external stylesheet or, for example, via an inline style declaration (and in some situations, a server-rendered CSS-in-JS solution might be better for performance). And so, as a user-centred developer, this is something that I don’t need to care about.

Except…

I have misgivings. But just to be clear, these misgivings have nothing to do with users. My misgivings are entirely to do with another group of people: the people who make websites.

There’s a second-order effect. By making React—or even JavaScript in general—a requirement for styling something on a web page, the barrier to entry is raised.

At least, I think that the barrier to entry is raised. I completely acknowledge that this is a subjective judgement. In fact, the reason why a team might decide to make JavaScript a requirement for participation might well be because they believe it makes it easier for people to participate. Let me explain…

It wasn’t that long ago that devs coming from a Computer Science background were deriding CSS for its simplicity, complaining that “it’s broken” and turning their noses up at it. That rhetoric, thankfully, is waning. Nowadays they’re far more likely to acknowledge that CSS might be simple, but it isn’t easy. Concepts like the cascade and specificity are real head-scratchers, and any prior knowledge from imperative programming languages won’t help you in this declarative world—all your hard-won experience and know-how isn’t fungible. Instead, it seems as though all this cascading and specificity is butchering the modularity of your nicely isolated components.

It’s no surprise that programmers with this kind of background would treat CSS as damage and find ways to route around it. The many flavours of CSS-in-JS are testament to this. From a programmer’s point of view, this solution has made things easier. Best of all, as long as it’s being done on the server, there’s no penalty for end users. But now the price is paid in the diversity of your team. In order to participate, a Computer Science programming mindset is now pretty much a requirement. For someone coming from a more declarative background—with really good HTML and CSS skills—everything suddenly seems needlessly complex. And as Tantek observed:

Complexity reinforces privilege.

The result is a form of gatekeeping. I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s being done with the best of intentions, in pursuit of efficiency and productivity. But these code decisions are reflected in hiring practices that exclude people with different but equally valuable skills and perspectives.

Rachel describes HTML, CSS and our vanishing industry entry points:

If we make it so that you have to understand programming to even start, then we take something open and enabling, and place it back in the hands of those who are already privileged.

I think there’s a comparison here with toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is obviously terrible for women, but it’s also really shitty for men in the way it stigmatises any male behaviour that doesn’t fit its worldview. Likewise, if the only people your team is interested in hiring are traditional programmers, then those programmers are going to resent having to spend their time dealing with semantic markup, accessibility, styling, and other disciplines that they never trained in. Heydon correctly identifies this as reluctant gatekeeping:

By assuming the role of the Full Stack Developer (which is, in practice, a computer scientist who also writes HTML and CSS), one takes responsibility for all the code, in spite of its radical variance in syntax and purpose, and becomes the gatekeeper of at least some kinds of code one simply doesn’t care about writing well.

This hurts everyone. It’s bad for your team. It’s even worse for the wider development community.

Last year, I was asked “Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night?” I responded:

My greatest fear for the web is that it becomes the domain of an elite priesthood of developers. I firmly believe that, as Tim Berners-Lee put it, “this is for everyone.” And I don’t just mean it’s for everyone to use—I believe it’s for everyone to make as well. That’s why I get very worried by anything that raises the barrier to entry to web design and web development.

I’ve described a number of dichotomies here:

  • Materials vs. tools,
  • Front of the front end vs. back of the front end,
  • User experience vs. developer experience,
  • Client-side rendering vs. server-side rendering,
  • Declarative languages vs. imperative languages.

But the split that worries the most is this:

  • The people who make the web vs. the people who are excluded from making the web.

Browsers

Microsoft’s Edge browser is going to switch its rendering engine over to Chromium.

I am deflated and disappointed.

There’s just no sugar-coating this. I’m sure the decision makes sound business sense for Microsoft, but it’s not good for the health of the web.

Very soon, the vast majority of browsers will have an engine that’s either Blink or its cousin, WebKit. That may seem like good news for developers when it comes to testing, but trust me, it’s a sucky situation of innovation and agreement. Instead of a diverse browser ecosystem, we’re going to end up with incest and inbreeding.

There’s one shining exception though. Firefox. That browser was originally created to combat the seemingly unstoppable monopolistic power of Internet Explorer. Now that Microsoft are no longer in the rendering engine game, Firefox is once again the only thing standing in the way of a complete monopoly.

I’ve been using Firefox as my main browser for a while now, and I can heartily recommend it. You should try it (and maybe talk to your relatives about it at Christmas). At this point, which browser you use no longer feels like it’s just about personal choice—it feels part of something bigger; it’s about the shape of the web we want.

Jeffrey wrote that browser diversity starts with us:

The health of Firefox is critical now that Chromium will be the web’s de facto rendering engine.

Even if you love Chrome, adore Gmail, and live in Google Docs or Analytics, no single company, let alone a user-tracking advertising giant, should control the internet.

Andy Bell also writes about browser diversity:

I’ll say it bluntly: we must support Firefox. We can’t, as a community allow this browser engine monopoly. We must use Firefox as our main dev browsers; we must encourage our friends and families to use it, too.

Yes, it’s not perfect, nor are Mozilla, but we can help them to develop and grow by using Firefox and reporting issues that we find. If we just use and build for Chromium, which is looking likely (cough Internet Explorer monopoly cough), then Firefox will fall away and we will then have just one major engine left. I don’t ever want to see that.

Uncle Dave says:

If the idea of a Google-driven Web is of concern to you, then I’d encourage you to use Firefox. And don’t be a passive consumer; blog, tweet, and speak about its killer features. I’ll start: Firefox’s CSS Grid, Flexbox, and Variable Font tools are the best in the business.

Mozilla themselves came out all guns blazing when they said Goodbye, EdgeHTML:

Microsoft is officially giving up on an independent shared platform for the internet. By adopting Chromium, Microsoft hands over control of even more of online life to Google.

Tim describes the situation as risking a homogeneous web:

I don’t think Microsoft using Chromium is the end of the world, but it is another step down a slippery slope. It’s one more way of bolstering the influence Google currently has on the web.

We need Google to keep pushing the web forward. But it’s critical that we have other voices, with different viewpoints, to maintain some sense of balance. Monocultures don’t benefit anyone.

Andre Alves Garzia writes that while we Blink, we lose the web:

Losing engines is like losing languages. People may wish that everyone spoke the same language, they may claim it leads to easier understanding, but what people fail to consider is that this leads to losing all the culture and way of thought that that language produced. If you are a Web developer smiling and happy that Microsoft might be adopting Chrome, and this will make your work easier because it will be one less browser to test, don’t be! You’re trading convenience for diversity.

I like that analogy with language death. If you prefer biological analogies, it’s worth revisiting this fantastic post by Rachel back in August—before any of us knew about Microsoft’s decision—all about the ecological impact of browser diversity:

Let me be clear: an Internet that runs only on Chrome’s engine, Blink, and its offspring, is not the paradise we like to imagine it to be.

That post is a great history lesson, documenting how things can change, and how decisions can have far-reaching unintended consequences.

So these are the three browser engines we have: WebKit/Blink, Gecko, and EdgeHTML. We are unlikely to get any brand new bloodlines in the foreseeable future. This is it.

If we lose one of those browser engines, we lose its lineage, every permutation of that engine that would follow, and the unique takes on the Web it could allow for.

And it’s not likely to be replaced.

In AMP we trust

AMP Conf was one of those deep dive events, with two days dedicated to one single technology: AMP.

Except AMP isn’t really one technology, is it? And therein lies the confusion. This was at the heart of the panel I was on. When we talk about AMP, we could be talking about one of three things:

  1. The AMP format. A bunch of web components. For instance, instead of using an img element on an AMP page, you use an amp-img element instead.
  2. The AMP rules. There’s one JavaScript file, hosted on Google’s servers, that turns those web components from spans into working elements. No other JavaScript is allowed. All your styles must be in a style element instead of an external file, and there’s a limit on what you can do with those styles.
  3. The AMP cache. The source of most confusion—and even downright enmity—this is what’s behind the fact that when you launch an AMP result from Google search, you don’t go to another website. You see Google’s cached copy of the page instead of the original.

The first piece of AMP—the format—is kind of like a collection of marginal gains. Where the img element might have some performance issues, the amp-img element optimises for perceived performance. But if you just used the AMP web components, it wouldn’t be enough to make your site blazingly fast.

The second part of AMP—the rules—is where the speed gains start to really show. You can’t have an external style sheet, and crucially, you can’t have any third-party scripts other than the AMP script itself. This is key to making AMP pages super fast. It’s not so much about what AMP does; it’s more about what it doesn’t allow. If you never used a single AMP component, but stuck to AMP’s rules disallowing external styles and scripts, you could easily make a page that’s even faster than what AMP can do.

At AMP Conf, Natalia pointed out that The Guardian’s non-AMP pages beat out the AMP pages for performance. So why even have AMP pages? Well, that’s down to the third, most contentious, part of the AMP puzzle.

The AMP cache turns the user experience of visiting an AMP page from fast to instant. While you’re still on the search results page, Google will pre-render an AMP page in the background. Not pre-fetch, pre-render. That’s why it opens so damn fast. It’s also what causes the most confusion for end users.

From my unscientific polling, the behaviour of AMP results confuses the hell out of people. The fact that the page opens instantly isn’t the problem—far from it. It’s the fact that you don’t actually go to an another page. Technically, you’re still on Google. An analogous mental model would be an RSS reader, or an email client: you don’t go to an item or an email; you view it in situ.

Well, that mental model would be fine if it were consistent. But in Google search, only some results will behave that way (the AMP pages) and others will behave just like regular links to other websites. No wonder people are confused! Some search results take them away and some search results keep them on Google …even though the page looks like a different website.

The price that we pay for the instantly-opening AMP pages from the Google cache is the URL. Because we’re looking at Google’s pre-rendered copy instead of the original URL, the address bar is not pointing to the site the browser claims to be showing. Everything in the body of the browser looks like an article from The Guardian, but if I look at the URL (which is what security people have been telling us for years is important to avoid being phished), then I’ll see a domain that is not The Guardian’s.

But wait! Couldn’t Google pre-render the page at its original URL?

Yes, they could. But they won’t.

This was a point that Paul kept coming back to: trust. There’s no way that Google can trust that someone else’s URL will play by the AMP rules (no external scripts, only loading embedded content via web components, limited styles, etc.). They can only trust the copies that they themselves are serving up from their cache.

By the way, there was a joint AMP/search panel at AMP Conf with representatives from both teams. As you can imagine, there were many questions for the search team, most of which were Glomar’d. But one thing that the search people said time and again was that Google was not hosting our AMP pages. Now I don’t don’t know if they were trying to make some fine-grained semantic distinction there, but that’s an outright falsehood. If I click on a link, and the URL I get taken to is a Google property, then I am looking at a page hosted by Google. Yes, it might be a copy of a document that started life somewhere else, but if Google are serving something from their cache, they are hosting it.

This is one of the reasons why AMP feels like such a bait’n’switch to me. When it first came along, it felt like a direct competitor to Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News. But the big difference, we were told, was that you get to host your own content. That appealed to me much more than having Facebook or Apple host the articles. But now it turns out that Google do host the articles.

This will be the point at which Googlers will say no, no, no, you can totally host your own AMP pages …but you won’t get the benefits of pre-rendering. But without the pre-rendering, what’s the point of even having AMP pages?

Well, there is one non-cache reason to use AMP and it’s a political reason. Beleaguered developers working for publishers of big bloated web pages have a hard time arguing with their boss when they’re told to add another crappy JavaScript tracking script or bloated library to their pages. But when they’re making AMP pages, they can easily refuse, pointing out that the AMP rules don’t allow it. Google plays the bad cop for us, and it’s a very valuable role. Sarah pointed this out on the panel we were on, and she was spot on.

Alright, but what about The Guardian? They’ve already got fast pages, but they still have to create separate AMP pages if they want to get the pre-rendering benefits when they show up in Google search results. Sorry, says Google, but it’s the only way we can trust that the pre-rendered page will be truly fast.

So here’s the impasse we’re at. Google have provided a list of best practices for making fast web pages, but the only way they can truly verify that a page is sticking to those best practices is by hosting their own copy, URLs be damned.

This was the crux of Paul’s argument when he was on the Shop Talk Show podcast (it’s a really good episode—I was genuinely reassured to hear that Paul is not gung-ho about drinking the AMP Kool Aid; he has genuine concerns about the potential downsides for the web).

Initially, I accepted this argument that Google just can’t trust the rest of the web. But the more I talked to people at AMP Conf—and I had some really, really good discussions with people away from the stage—the more I began to question it.

Here’s the thing: the regular Google search can’t guarantee that any web page is actually 100% the right result to return for a search. Instead there’s a lot of fuzziness involved: based on the content, the markup, and the number of trusted sources linking to this, it looks like it should be a good result. In other words, Google search trusts websites to—by and large—do the right thing. Sometimes websites abuse that trust and try to game the system with sneaky tricks. Google responds with penalties when that happens.

Why can’t it be the same for AMP pages? Let me host my own AMP pages (maybe even host my own AMP script) and then when the Googlebot crawls those pages—the same as it crawls any other pages—that’s when it can verify that the AMP page is abiding by the rules. If I do something sneaky and trick Google into flagging a page as fast when it actually isn’t, then take my pre-rendering reward away from me.

To be fair, Google has very, very strict rules about what and how to pre-render the AMP results it’s caching. I can see how allowing even the potential for a false positive would have a negative impact on the user experience of Google search. But c’mon, there are already false positives in regular search results—fake news, spam blogs. Googlers are smart people. They can solve—or at least mitigate—these problems.

Google says it can’t trust our self-hosted AMP pages enough to pre-render them. But they ask for a lot of trust from us. We’re supposed to trust Google to cache and host copies of our pages. We’re supposed to trust Google to provide some mechanism to users to get at the original canonical URL. I’d like to see trust work both ways.

Where to start?

A lot of the talks at this year’s Chrome Dev Summit were about progressive web apps. This makes me happy. But I think the focus is perhaps a bit too much on the “app” part on not enough on “progressive”.

What I mean is that there’s an inevitable tendency to focus on technologies—Service Workers, HTTPS, manifest files—and not so much on the approach. That’s understandable. The technologies are concrete, demonstrable things, whereas approaches, mindsets, and processes are far more nebulous in comparison.

Still, I think that the most important facet of building a robust, resilient website is how you approach building it rather than what you build it with.

Many of the progressive app demos use server-side and client-side rendering, which is great …but that aspect tends to get glossed over:

Browsers without service worker support should always be served a fall-back experience. In our demo, we fall back to basic static server-side rendering, but this is only one of many options.

I think it’s vital to not think in terms of older browsers “falling back” but to think in terms of newer browsers getting a turbo-boost. That may sound like a nit-picky semantic subtlety, but it’s actually a radical difference in mindset.

Many of the arguments I’ve heard against progressive enhancement—like Tom’s presentation at Responsive Field Day—talk about the burdensome overhead of having to bolt on functionality for older or less-capable browsers (even Jake has done this). But the whole point of progressive enhancement is that you start with the simplest possible functionality for the greatest number of users. If anything gets bolted on, it’s the more advanced functionality for the newer or more capable browsers.

So if your conception of progressive enhancement is that it’s an added extra, I think you really need to turn that thinking around. And that’s hard. It’s hard because you need to rewire some well-engrained pathways.

There is some precedence for this though. It was really, really hard to convince people to stop using tables for layout and starting using CSS instead. That was a tall order—completely change the way you approach building on the web. But eventually we got there.

When Ethan came out with Responsive Web Design, it was an equally difficult pill to swallow, not because of the technologies involved—media queries, percentages, etc.—but because of the change in thinking that was required. But eventually we got there.

These kinds of fundamental changes are inevitably painful …at first. After years of building websites using tables for layout, creating your first CSS-based layout was demoralisingly difficult. But the second time was a bit easier. And the third time, easier still. Until eventually it just became normal.

Likewise with responsive design. After years of building fixed-width websites, trying to build in a fluid, flexible way was frustratingly hard. But the second time wasn’t quite as hard. And the third time …well, eventually it just became normal.

So if you’re used to thinking of the all-singing, all-dancing version of your site as the starting point, it’s going to be really, really hard to instead start by building the most basic, accessible version first and then work up to the all-singing, all-dancing version …at first. But eventually it will just become normal.

For now, though, it’s going to take work.

The recent redesign of Google+ is true case study in building a performant, responsive, progressive site:

With server-side rendering we make sure that the user can begin reading as soon as the HTML is loaded, and no JavaScript needs to run in order to update the contents of the page. Once the page is loaded and the user clicks on a link, we do not want to perform a full round-trip to render everything again. This is where client-side rendering becomes important — we just need to fetch the data and the templates, and render the new page on the client. This involves lots of tradeoffs; so we used a framework that makes server-side and client-side rendering easy without the downside of having to implement everything twice — on the server and on the client.

This took work. Had they chosen to rely on client-side rendering alone, they could have built something quicker. But I think it was worth laying that solid foundation. And the next time they need to build something this way, it’s going to be less work. Eventually it just becomes normal.

But it all starts with thinking of the server-side rendering as the default. Server-side rendering is not a fallback; client-side rendering is an enhancement.

That’s exactly the kind of mindset that enables Jack Franklin to build robust, resilient websites:

Now we’ll build the React application entirely on the server, before adding the client-side JavaScript right at the end.

I had a chance to chat briefly with Jack at the Edge conference in London and I congratulated him on the launch of a Go Cardless site that used exactly this technique. He told me that the decision to flip the switch and make it act as a single page app came right at the end of the project. Server-side rendering was the default; client-side rendering was added later.

The key to building modern, resilient, progressive sites doesn’t lie in browser technologies or frameworks; it lies in how we think about the task at hand; how we approach building from the ground up rather than the top down. Changing the way we fundamentally think about building for the web is inevitably going to be challenging …at first. But it will also be immensely rewarding.