Journal tags: web

316

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In between

I was chatting with my new colleague Alex yesterday about a link she had shared in Slack. It was the Nielsen Norman Group’s annual State of Mobile User Experience report.

There’s nothing too surprising in there, other than the mention of Apple’s app clips and Google’s instant apps.

Remember those?

Me neither.

Perhaps I lead a sheltered existence, but as an iPhone user, I don’t think I’ve come across a single app clip in the wild.

I remember when they were announced. I was quite worried about them.

See, the one thing that the web can (theoretically) offer that native can’t is instant access to a resource. Go to this URL—that’s it. Whereas for a native app, the flow is: go to this app store, find the app, download the app.

(I say that the benefit is theoretical because the website found at the URL should download quickly—the reality is that the bloat of “modern” web development imperils that advantage.)

App clips—and instant apps—looked like a way to route around the convoluted install process of native apps. That’s why I was nervous when they were announced. They sounded like a threat to the web.

In reality, the potential was never fulfilled (if my own experience is anything to go by). I wonder why people didn’t jump on app clips and instant apps?

Perhaps it’s because what they promise isn’t desirable from a business perspective: “here’s a way for users to accomplish their tasks without downloading your app.” Even though app clips can in theory be a stepping stone to installing the full app, from a user’s perspective, their appeal is the exact opposite.

Or maybe they’re just too confusing to understand. I think there’s an another technology that suffers from the same problem: progressive web apps.

Hear me out. Progressive web apps are—if done well—absolutely amazing. You get all of the benefits of native apps in terms of UX—they even work offline!—but you retain the web’s frictionless access model: go to a URL; that’s it.

So what are they? Are they websites? Yes, sorta. Are they apps? Yes, sorta.

That’s confusing, right? I can see how app clips and instant apps sound equally confusing: “you can use them straight away, like going to a web page, but they’re not web pages; they’re little bits of apps.”

I’m mostly glad that app clips never took off. But I’m sad that progressive web apps haven’t taken off more. I suspect that their fates are intertwined. Neither suffer from technical limitations. The problem they both face is inertia:

The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.

True of progressive web apps. Equally true of app clips.

But when I was chatting to Alex, she made me look at app clips in a different way. She described a situation where somebody might need to interact with some kind of NFC beacon from their phone. Web NFC isn’t supported in many browsers yet, so you can’t rely on that. But you don’t want to make people download a native app just to have a quick interaction. In theory, an app clip—or instant app—could do the job.

In that situation, app clips aren’t a danger to the web—they’re polyfills for hardware APIs that the web doesn’t yet support!

I love having my perspective shifted like that.

The specific situations that Alex and I were discussing were in the context of museums. Musuems offer such interesting opportunities for the physical and the digital to intersect.

Remember the pen from Cooper Hewitt? Aaron spoke about it at dConstruct 2014—a terrific presentation that’s well worth revisiting and absorbing.

The other dConstruct talk that’s very relevant to this liminal space between the web and native apps is the 2012 talk from Scott Jenson. I always thought the physical web initiative had a lot of promise, but it may have been ahead of its time.

I loved the thinking behind the physical web beacons. They were deliberately dumb, much like the internet itself. All they did was broadcast a URL. That’s it. All the smarts were to be found at the URL itself. That meant a service could get smarter over time. It’s a lot easier to update a website than swap out a piece of hardware.

But any kind of technology that uses Bluetooth, NFC, or other wireless technology has to get over the discovery problem. They’re invisible technologies, so by default, people don’t know they’re even there. But if you make them too discoverable— intrusively announcing themselves like one of the commercials in Minority Report—then they’re indistinguishable from spam. There’s a sweet spot of discoverability right in the middle that’s hard to get right.

Over the past couple of years—accelerated by the physical distancing necessitated by The Situation—QR codes stepped up to the plate.

They still suffer from some discoverability issues. They’re not human-readable, so you can’t be entirely sure that the URL you’re going to go to isn’t going to be a Rick Astley video. But they are visible, which gives them an advantage over hidden wireless technologies.

They’re cheaper too. Printing a QR code sticker costs less than getting a plastic beacon shipped from China.

QR codes turned out to be just good enough to bridge the gap between the physical and digital for those one-off interactions like dining outdoors during a pandemic:

I can see why they chose the web over a native app. Online ordering is the only way to place your order at this place. Telling people “You have to go to this website” …that seems reasonable. But telling people “You have to download this app” …that’s too much friction.

Ironically, the nail in the coffin for app clips and instant apps might’ve been hammered in by Apple and Google when they built QR-code recognition into their camera software.

Five websites

Some lovely people have recently made some lovely websites.

Dan has launched his type foundry, Simple Type Co. and it’s gorgeous!

For as long as I’ve been making websites, Dan’s designs have been an inspiration: Corkd, Dribbble, his own website; whenever he unveils something it always sits just right with me.

Oh, and I love the tagline for Simple Type Co.:

Never perfect. Always a-okay.

Someone who is a perfectionist is Marcin. He’s been working on his book about keyboards for years now (the Kickstarter project will launch in February) and he’s made a stunning website for the book called Shift Happens. Click around and find out.

Mandy has a lovely new professional website, courtesy of Ethan. It’s called everything changes. I love the subtletly of the different colour schemes for dark and light modes. It’s almost as if Ethan knows a thing or two about responsive design.

Look! Jason has new professional website too. The text is just scrumptious. It’s almost as if Jason knows a thing or two about typography.

And look! Lynn has done it again—a new site design for a new year. Beautiful stuff, as always—have a look through the archive if you want to the creativity she puts into this every single year.

All of these people are my web design heroes.

2022 in numbers

I posted 1057 times on adactio in 2022. sparkline

That’s a bit more than in 2021.

November was the busiest month with 137 posts. sparkline

February was the quietest with 65 posts. sparkline

That included about 237 notes with photos sparkline and 214 replies. sparkline

I published one article, the transcript of my talk, In And Out Of Style.

I watched an awful lot of television but managed to read 25 books. sparkline

Elsewhere, I huffduffed 130 audio files and added 55 tune settings on The Session in 2022.

I spoke at ten events.

I travelled within Europe and the USA to a total of 18 destinations. sparkline

Words I wrote in 2022

Here’s a highlight reel of some of my blog posts from 2022:

I also published the transcript of my conference talk, In And Out Of Style, a journey through the history of CSS.

That fediverse feeling

Right now, Twitter feels like Dunkirk beach in May 1940. And look, here comes a plucky armada of web servers running Mastodon instances!

Others have written some guides to getting started on Mastodon:

There are also tools like Twitodon to help you migrate from Twitter to Mastodon.

Getting on board isn’t completely frictionless. Understanding how Mastodon works can be confusing. But then again, so was Twitter fifteen years ago.

Right now, many Mastodon instances are struggling with the influx of new sign-ups. But this is temporary. And actually, it’s also very reminiscent of the early unreliable days of Twitter.

I don’t want to go into the technical details of Mastodon and the fediverse—even though those details are fascinating and impressive. What I’m really struck by is the vibe.

In a nutshell, I’m loving it! It feels …nice.

I was fully expecting Mastodon to be full of meta-discussions about Mastodon, but in the past few weeks I’ve enjoyed people posting about stone circles, astronomy, and—obviously—cats and dogs.

The process of finding people to follow has been slow, but in a good way. I’ve enjoyed seeking people out. It’s been easier to find the techy folks, but I’ve also been finding scientists, journalists, and artists.

On the one hand, the niceness of the experience isn’t down to technical architecture; it’s all about the social norms. On the other hand, those social norms are very much directed by technical decisions. The folks working on the fediverse for the past few years have made very thoughtful design decisions to amplify niceness and discourage nastiness. It’s all very gratifying to experience!

Personally, I’m posting to Mastodon via my own website. As much as I’m really enjoying Mastodon, I still firmly believe that nothing beats having control of your own content on your domain.

But I also totally get that not everyone has the same set of priorities as me. And frankly, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to have their own domain name.

It’s like there’s a spectrum of ownership. On one end, there’s publishing on your own website. On the other end, there’s publishing on silos like Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Instagram, and MySpace.

Publishing on Mastodon feels much closer to the website end of the spectrum than it does to the silo end of the spectrum. If something bad happens to the Mastodon instance you’re on, you can up and move to a different instance, taking your social graph with you.

In a way, it’s like delegating domain ownership to someone you trust. If you don’t have the time, energy, resources, or interest in having your own domain, but you trust someone who’s running a Mastodon instance, it’s the next best thing to publishing on your own website.

Simon described it well when he said Mastodon is just blogs:

A Mastodon server (often called an instance) is just a shared blog host. Kind of like putting your personal blog in a folder on a domain on shared hosting with some of your friends.

Want to go it alone? You can do that: run your own dedicated Mastodon instance on your own domain.

And rather than compare Mastodon to Twitter, Simon makes a comparison with RSS:

Do you still miss Google Reader, almost a decade after it was shut down? It’s back!

A Mastodon server is a feed reader, shared by everyone who uses that server.

Lots of other folks are feeling the same excitement in the air that I’m getting:

Bastian wrote:

Real conversations. Real people. Interesting content. A feeling of a warm welcoming group. No algorithm to mess around with our timelines. No troll army to destory every tiny bit of peace. Yes, Mastodon is rough around the edges. Many parts are not intuitive. But this roughness somehow added to the positive experience for me.

This could really work!

Brent Simmons wrote:

The web is wide open again, for the first time in what feels like forever.

I concur! Though, like Paul, I love not being beholden to either Twitter or Mastodon:

I love not feeling bound to any particular social network. This website, my website, is the one true home for all the stuff I’ve felt compelled to write down or point a camera at over the years. When a social network disappears, goes out of fashion or becomes inhospitable, I can happily move on with little anguish.

But like I said, I don’t expect everyone to have the time, means, or inclination to do that. Mastodon definitely feels like it shares the same indie web spirit though.

Personally, I recommend experiencing Mastodon through the website rather than a native app. Mastodon instances are progressive web apps so you can add them to your phone’s home screen.

You can find me on Mastodon as @adactio@mastodon.social

I’m not too bothered about what instance I’m on. It really only makes a difference to my local timeline. And if I do end up finding an instance I prefer, then I know that migrating will be quite straightforward, by design. Perhaps I should be on an instance with a focus on front-end development or the indie web. I still haven’t found much of an Irish traditional music community on the fediverse. I’m wondering if maybe I should start a Mastodon instance for that.

While I’m a citizen of mastodon.social, I’m doing my bit by chipping in some money to support it: sponsorship levels on Patreon start at just $1 a month. And while I can’t offer much technical assistance, I opened my first Mastodon pull request with a suggested improvement for the documentation.

I’m really impressed with the quality of the software. It isn’t perfect but considering that it’s an open source project, it’s better than most VC-backed services with more and better-paid staff. As Giles said, comparing it to Twitter:

I’m using Mastodon now and it’s not the same, but it’s not shit either. It’s different. It takes a bit of adjustment. And I’m enjoying it.

Most of all, I love, love, love that Mastodon demonstrates that things can be different. For too long we’ve been told that behavioural advertising was an intrinsic part of being online, that social networks must inevitably be monolithic centralised beasts, that we have to relinquish control to corporations in order to be online. The fediverse is showing us a better way. And this isn’t just a proof of concept either. It’s here now. It’s here to stay, if you want it.

Syndicating to Mastodon

I’ve been contemplating a checkbox. The label for this checkbox reads:

This is a bot account

Let me back up…

In what seems like decades ago, but was in fact just a few weeks, Elon Musk bought Twitter and began burning it to the ground. His admirers insist he’s playing some form of four-dimensional chess, but to the rest of us, his actions are indistinguishable from a spoilt rich kid not understanding what a social network is.

It wasn’t giving me much cause for anguish personally. For the past eight years, I’ve only used Twitter as a syndication endpoint for my own notes. But I understand that’s a very privileged position to be in. Most people on Twitter don’t have the same luxury of independence. It’s genuinely maddening and saddening to see their years of sharing destroyed by one cruel idiot.

Lots of people started moving to Mastodon. I figured I should do the same for my syndicated notes.

At first, I signed up for an account on mastodon.cloud. No particular reason. But that’s where I saw this very insightful post from Anil Dash:

When it came time to reckon with social media’s failings, nobody ran to the “web3” platforms. Nobody asked “can I get paid per message”? Nobody asked about the blockchain. The community of people who’ve been quietly doing this work for years (decades!) ended up being the ones who welcomed everyone over, as always.

I was getting my account all set up and beginning to follow some other folks, when I realised that I actually already had an exisiting account over on mastodon.social. Doh! Turns out that I signed up back in 2017 to kick the tyres, but never did much else because there weren’t many other people around back then. Oh, how times have changed!

Anyway, I thought I had really screwed up by having two accounts but this turned out to be an opportunity to experience some of the thoughtfulness in Mastodon’s design. The process of migrating from one Mastodon account to another—on a completely different instance—was very smooth! It was clear that this wasn’t an afterthought. This is an essential part of the fediverse and the design of the migration flow reflects that.

This gives me enormous peace of mind. If I ever want to switch to a different instance and still keep my network intact, I know it won’t be a problem. Mastodon is like the opposite of the roach-motel mentality that permeates most VC-backed so-called social networks.

As I played around some more—reading, following, exploring—my feelings of fondness only grew stronger. I like this place a lot!

I definitely wanted to syndicate my notes to Mastodon. At first, I implemented a straightforward RSS-to-Mastodon syndication using IFTTT (IF This, Then That), thanks to Matthias’s excellent tutorial.

But that didn’t feel quite right. When I syndicate to Twitter, I make a conscious choice each time. There’s a “Twitter” toggle that I can enable or disable in my posting interface. Mastodon deserved the same level of thoughtfulness.

So I switched off the IFTTT recipe and started exploring the Mastodon API. It’s going to sound like a humblebrag when I tell you that I got cross-posting working in almost no time at all, but that’s not a testament to my coding prowess (I’m really not very good), but rather a testament to the Mastodon API, which was a joy to work with.

  1. On your Mastodon instance, go to /settings/applications.
  2. Click on New Application.
  3. Fill in the details about your website and select write:statuses (and probably write:media) from the Scopes list.
  4. Copy Your access token to use in API calls.
  5. Write some sloppy code (in my case, PHP that uses CURL).

I did hit a wall when it came to posting images. That took me a while to get working, and I couldn’t figure out why. Was it something at Mastodon’s end while it was struggling under the influx of new users? As it turns out, no. It was entirely down to me being an idiot. (You know that situation where you’re working on a problem for ages and you’ve become convinced it’s an extremely gnarly rocket-science problem, but then turns out to be something stupid like a typo? Yeah. That.)

Then there’s the whole question of how to receive replies, likes, and reboosts from Mastodon here on my own site. Luckily, that was super easy, thanks to Brid.gy. One click and I was done. I love Brid.gy!

Take this note, for example. There’s a version on Twitter and a version on Mastodon. The original version on my own site gets responses from both places.

If I’m replying to a response on Twitter, I do not syndicate that to Mastodon.

Likewise, if I’m replying to a response on Mastodon, I do not syndicate that to Twitter.

Oh, one thing worth mentioning: if you’re sending a reply to something on Mastodon using the API, there’s an in_reply_to_id field for you to provide. But you should also include the full @username@instance of the person you’re replying to at the beginning of the message to ensure that it’s displayed as a reply rather than showing up as a regular post. Note the difference between this note on my site and its syndicated version on Mastodon.

Anyway, now I’m posting to Mastodon, but I’m doing it through the the interface of my own website. Which brings me to that checkbox in Mastodon’s profile settings:

This is a bot account

The help text reads:

Signal to others that the account mainly performs automated actions and might not be monitored

If I were doing the automatic cross-posting from RSS, I’d definitely tick that box. But as I’m making a conscious decision whenever I syndicate to Mastodon, I think I’m going to leave that checkbox unticked.

My cross-posting is not automated and I’m very much monitoring my Mastodon account …because I’m enjoying my Mastodon experience more than I’ve enjoyed anything online for quite some time. Highly recommended!

In person

I’ve had the opportunity to gather with my peers a few times over the past couple of months.

There was dConstruct, which I hosted. That was just lovely.

Then a few weeks ago, in spite of train strikes and travel snags, I went to Bristol to give a talk at Web Dev Conf, a really nice gathering.

This past weekend I was in London for State Of The Browser, this time as neither host nor speak, but as an attendee. It was really good!

I noticed something rather lovely. There was enough cross-over in the audiences for these events that I got to see some people more than once. That’s something that used to happen all the time but became very rare over the past two years because of The Situation.

None of the organisers of these events were pretending that Covid has gone away. Each event had different processes in place to mitigate risk. I wrote about the steps I took for dConstruct. For some people, those measures might seem to go too far. For other people, they don’t go far enough. This is a challenge that every in-person event is facing and from what I’ve seen, they’re all doing their level best.

None of these events were particularly large. Attendence was maybe somewhere between 100 and 200 people at each one. I know that there’s still a risk in any kind of indoor gathering but these events feel safer than the really big tech gatherings (like the one in Berlin where I got the ’rona—that was literally tens of thousands of people).

Anyway, all three events were thoroughly enjoyable. Partly that’s because the talks were good, but also because the socialising was really, really nice—all the nicer for being in relatively safe environments.

It’s not exactly an earth-shattering observation to point out that the social side of conferences is just as valuable as the content. But now that so many of us are working remotely, I feel like that aspect of in-person events has become even more important.

Or maybe I’m just appreciating that aspect of in-person events after spending such a long time with screen-mediated interactions only.

No code

When I wrote about democratising dev, I made brief mention of the growing “no code” movement:

Personally, I would love it if the process of making websites could be democratised more. I’ve often said that my nightmare scenario for the World Wide Web would be for its fate to lie in the hands of an elite priesthood of programmers with computer science degrees. So I’m all in favour of no-code tools …in theory.

But I didn’t describe what no-code is, as I understand it.

I’m taking the term at face value to mean a mechanism for creating a website—preferably on a domain you control—without having to write anything in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, or any back-end programming language.

By that definition, something like WordPress.com (as opposed to WordPress itself) is a no-code tool:

Create any kind of website. No code, no manuals, no limits.

I’d also put Squarespace in the same category:

Start with a flexible template, then customize to fit your style and professional needs with our website builder.

And its competitor, Wix:

Discover the platform that gives you the freedom to create, design, manage and develop your web presence exactly the way you want.

Webflow provides the same kind of service, but with a heavy emphasis on marketing websites:

Your website should be a marketing asset, not an engineering challenge.

Bubble is trying to cover a broader base:

Bubble lets you create interactive, multi-user apps for desktop and mobile web browsers, including all the features you need to build a site like Facebook or Airbnb.

Wheras Carrd opts for a minimalist one-page approach:

Simple, free, fully responsive one-page sites for pretty much anything.

All of those tools emphasise that don’t need to need to know how to code in order to have a professional-looking website. But there’s a parallel universe of more niche no-code tools where the emphasis is on creativity and self-expression instead of slickness and professionalism.

neocities.org:

Create your own free website. Unlimited creativity, zero ads.

mmm.page:

Make a website in 5 minutes. Messy encouraged.

hotglue.me:

unique tool for web publishing & internet samizdat

I’m kind of fascinated by these two different approaches: professional vs. expressionist.

I’ve seen people grapple with this question when they decide to have their own website. Should it be a showcase of your achievements, almost like a portfolio? Or should it be a glorious mess of imagery and poetry to reflect your creativity? Could it be both? (Is that even doable? Or desirable?)

Robin Sloan recently published his ideas—and specs—for a new internet protocol called Spring ’83:

Spring ‘83 is a protocol for the transmission and display of something I am calling a “board”, which is an HTML fragment, limited to 2217 bytes, unable to execute JavaScript or load external resources, but otherwise unrestricted. Boards invite publishers to use all the richness of modern HTML and CSS. Plain text and blue links are also enthusiastically supported.

It’s not a no-code tool (you need to publish in HTML), although someone could easily provide a no-code tool to sit on top of the protocol. Conceptually though, it feels like it’s an a similar space to the chaotic good of neocities.org, mmm.page, and hotglue.me with maybe a bit of tilde.town thrown in.

It feels like something might be in the air. With Spring ’83, the Block protocol, and other experiments, people are creating some interesting small pieces that could potentially be loosely joined. No code required.

Democratising dev

I met up with a supersmart programmer friend of mine a little while back. He was describing some work he was doing with React. He was joining up React components. There wasn’t really any problem-solving or debugging—the individual components had already been thoroughly tested. He said it felt more like construction than programming.

My immediate thought was “that should be automated.”

Or at the very least, there should be some way for just about anyone to join those pieces together rather than it requiring a supersmart programmer’s time. After all, isn’t that the promise of design systems and components—freeing us up to tackle the meaty problems instead of spending time on the plumbing?

I thought about that conversation when I was listening to Laurie’s excellent talk in Berlin last month.

Chatting to Laurie before the talk, he was very nervous about the conclusion that he had reached and was going to share: that the time is right for web development to be automated. He figured it would be an unpopular message. Heck, even he didn’t like it.

But I reminded him that it’s as old as the web itself. I’ve seen videos from very early World Wide Web conferences where Tim Berners-Lee was railing against the idea that anyone would write HTML by hand. The whole point of his WorldWideWeb app was that anyone could create and edit web pages as easily as word processing documents. It’s almost an accident of history that HTML happened to be just easy enough—but also just powerful enough—for many people to learn and use.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Laurie’s talk. (Except for a weird bit where he dunks on people moaning about “the fundamentals”. I think it’s supposed to be punching up, but I’m not sure that’s how it came across. As Chris points out, fundamentals matter …at least when it comes to concepts like accessibility and performance. I think Laurie was trying to dunk on people moaning about fundamental technologies like languages and frameworks. Perhaps the message got muddled in the delivery.)

I guess Laurie was kind of talking about this whole “no code” thing that’s quite hot right now. Personally, I would love it if the process of making websites could be democratised more. I’ve often said that my nightmare scenario for the World Wide Web would be for its fate to lie in the hands of an elite priesthood of programmers with computer science degrees. So I’m all in favour of no-code tools …in theory.

The problem is that unless they work 100%, and always produce good accessible performant code, then they’re going to be another example of the law of leaky abstractions. If a no-code tool can get someone 90% of the way to what they want, that seems pretty good. But if that person than has to spend an inordinate amount of time on the remaining 10% then all the good work of the no-code tool is somewhat wasted.

Funnily enough, the person who coined that law, Joel Spolsky, spoke right after Laurie in Berlin. The two talks made for a good double bill.

(I would link to Joel’s talk but for some reason the conference is marking the YouTube videos as unlisted. If you manage to track down a URL for the video of Joel’s talk, let me know and I’ll update this post.)

In a way, Joel was making the same point as Laurie: why is it still so hard to do something on the web that feels like it should be easily repeatable?

He used the example of putting an event online. Right now, the most convenient way to do it is to use a third-party centralised silo like Facebook. It works, but now the business model of Facebook comes along for the ride. Your event is now something to be tracked and monetised by advertisers.

You could try doing it yourself, but this is where you’ll run into the frustrations shared by Joel and Laurie. It’s still too damn hard and complicated (even though we’ve had years and years of putting events online). Despite what web developers tell themselves, making stuff for the web shouldn’t be that complicated. As Trys put it:

We kid ourselves into thinking we’re building groundbreakingly complex systems that require bleeding-edge tools, but in reality, much of what we build is a way to render two things: a list, and a single item. Here are some users, here is a user. Here are your contacts, here are your messages with that contact. There ain’t much more to it than that.

And yet here we are. You can either have the convenience of putting something on a silo like Facebook, or you can have the freedom of doing it yourself, indie web style. But you can’t have both it seems.

This is a criticism often levelled at the indie web. The barrier to entry to having your own website is too high. It’s a valid criticism. To have your own website, you need to have some working knowledge of web hosting and at least some web technologies (like HTML).

Don’t get me wrong. I love having my own website. Like, I really love it. But I’m also well aware that it doesn’t scale. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to learn new skills just to make a web page about, say, an event they want to publicise.

That’s kind of the backstory to the project that Joel wanted to talk about: the block protocol. (Note: it has absolutely nothing to do with blockchain—it’s just an unfortunate naming collision.)

The idea behind the project is to create a kind of crowdsourced pattern library—user interfaces for creating common structures like events, photos, tables, and lists. These patterns already exist in today’s silos and content management systems, but everyone is reinventing the wheel independently. The goal of this project is make these patterns interoperable, and therefore portable.

At first I thought that would be a classic /927 situation, but I’m pleased to see that the focus of the project is not on formats (we’ve been there and done that with microformats, RDF, schema.org, yada yada). The patterns might end up being web components or they might not. But the focus is on the interface. I think that’s a good approach.

That approach chimes nicely with one of the principles of the indie web:

UX and design is more important than protocols, formats, data models, schema etc. We focus on UX first, and then as we figure that out we build/develop/subset the absolutely simplest, easiest, and most minimal protocols and formats sufficient to support that UX, and nothing more. AKA UX before plumbing.

That said, I don’t think this project is a cure-all. Interoperable (portable) chunks of structured content would be great, but that’s just one part of the challenge of scaling the indie web. You also need to have somewhere to put those blocks.

Convenience isn’t the only thing you get from using a silo like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Medium. You also get “free” hosting …until you don’t (see GeoCities, MySpace, and many, many more).

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had a place on the web that they could truly call their own? Today you need to have an uneccesary degree of technical understanding to publish something at a URL you control.

I’d love to see that challenge getting tackled.

Re-evaluating technology

There’s a lot of emphasis put on decision-making: making sure you’re making the right decision; evaluating all the right factors before making a decision. But we rarely talk about revisiting decisions.

I think perhaps there’s a human tendency to treat past decisions as fixed. That’s certainly true when it comes to evaluating technology.

I’ve been guilty of this. I remember once chatting with Mark about something written in PHP—probably something I had written—and I made some remark to the effect of “I know PHP isn’t a great language…” Mark rightly called me on that. The language wasn’t great in the past but it has come on in leaps and bounds. My perception of the language, however, had not updated accordingly.

I try to keep that lesson in mind whenever I’m thinking about languages, tools and frameworks that I’ve investigated in the past but haven’t revisited in a while.

Andy talks about this as the tech tool carousel:

The carousel is like one of those on a game show that shows the prizes that can be won. The tool will sit on there until I think it’s gone through enough maturing to actually be a viable tool for me, the team I’m working with and the clients I’m working for.

Crucially a carousel is circular: tools and technologies come back around for re-evaluation. It’s all too easy to treat technologies as being on a one-way conveyer belt—once they’ve past in front of your eyes and you’ve weighed them up, that’s it; you never return to re-evaluate your decision.

This doesn’t need to be a never-ending process. At some point it becomes clear that some technologies really aren’t worth returning to:

It’s a really useful strategy because some tools stay on the carousel and then I take them off because they did in fact, turn out to be useless after all.

See, for example, anything related to cryptobollocks. It’s been well over a decade and blockchains remain a solution in search of problems. As Molly White put it, it’s not still the early days:

How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains?

Back to the web (the actual un-numbered World Wide Web)…

Nolan Lawson wrote an insightful article recently about how he senses that the balance has shifted away from single page apps. I’ve been sensing the same shift in the zeitgeist. That said, both Nolan and I keep an eye on how browsers are evolving and getting better all the time. If you weren’t aware of changes over the past few years, it would be easy to still think that single page apps offer some unique advantages that in fact no longer hold true. As Nolan wrote in a follow-up post:

My main point was: if the only reason you’re using an SPA is because “it makes navigations faster,” then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate that.

For another example, see this recent XKCD cartoon:

“You look around one day and realize the things you assumed were immutable constants of the universe have changed. The foundations of our reality are shifting beneath our feet. We live in a house built on sand.”

The day I discovered that Apple Maps is kind of good now

Perhaps the best example of a technology that warrants regular re-evaluation is the World Wide Web itself. Over the course of its existence it has been seemingly bettered by other more proprietary technologies.

Flash was better than the web. It had vector graphics, smooth animations, and streaming video when the web had nothing like it. But over time, the web caught up. Flash was the hare. The World Wide Web was the tortoise.

In more recent memory, the role of the hare has been played by native apps.

I remember talking to someone on the Twitter design team who was designing and building for multiple platforms. They were frustrated by the web. It just didn’t feel as fully-featured as iOS or Android. Their frustration was entirely justified …at the time. I wonder if they’ve revisited their judgement since then though.

In recent years in particular it feels like the web has come on in leaps and bounds: service workers, native JavaScript APIs, and an astonishing boost in what you can do with CSS. Most important of all, the interoperability between browsers is getting better and better. Universal support for new web standards arrives at a faster rate than ever before.

But developers remain suspicious, still prefering to trust third-party libraries over native browser features. They made a decision about those libraries in the past. They evaluated the state of browser support in the past. I wish they would re-evaluate those decisions.

Alas, inertia is a very powerful force. Sticking with a past decision—even if it’s no longer the best choice—is easier than putting in the effort to re-evaluate everything again.

What’s the phrase? “Strong opinions, weakly held.” We’re very good at the first part and pretty bad at the second.

Just the other day I was chatting with one of my colleagues about an online service that’s available on the web and also as a native app. He was showing me the native app on his phone and said it’s not a great app.

“Why don’t you add the website to your phone?” I asked.

“You know,” he said. “The website’s going to be slow.”

He hadn’t tested this. But years of dealing with crappy websites on his phone in the past had trained him to think of the web as being inherently worse than native apps (even though there was nothing this particular service was doing that required any native functionality).

It has become a truism now. Native apps are better than the web.

And you know what? Once upon a time, that would’ve been true. But it hasn’t been true for quite some time …at least from a technical perspective.

But even if the technologies in browsers have reached parity with native apps, that won’t matter unless we can convince people to revisit their previously-formed beliefs.

The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.

Image previews with the FileReader API

I added a “notes” section to this website eight years ago. I set it up so that notes could be syndicated to Twitter. Ever since then, that’s the only way I post to Twitter.

A few months later I added photos to my notes. Again, this would get syndicated to Twitter.

Something’s bothered me for a long time though. I initially thought that if I posted a photo, then the accompanying text would serve as a decription of the image. It could effectively act as the alt text for the image, I thought. But in practice it didn’t work out that way. The text was often a commentary on the image, which isn’t the same as a description of the contents.

I needed a way to store alt text for images. To make it more complicated, it was possible for one note to have multiple images. So even though a note was one line in my database, I somehow needed a separate string of text with the description of each image in a single note.

I eventually settled on using the file system instead of the database. The images themselves are stored in separate folders, so I figured I could have an accompanying alt.txt file in each folder.

Take this note from yesterday as an example. Different sizes of the image are stored in the folder /images/uploaded/19077. Here’s a small version of the image and here’s the original. In that same folder is the alt text.

This means I’m reading a file every time I need the alt text instead of reading from a database, which probably isn’t the most performant way of doing it, but it seems to be working okay.

Here’s another example:

In order to add the alt text to the image, I needed to update my posting interface. By default it’s a little textarea, followed by a file upload input, followed by a toggle (a checkbox under the hood) to choose whether or not to syndicate the note to Twitter.

The interface now updates automatically as soon as I use that input type="file" to choose any images for the note. Using the FileReader API, I show a preview of the selected images right after the file input.

Here’s the code if you ever need to do something similar. I’ve abstracted it somewhat in that gist—you should be able to drop it into any page that includes input type="file" accept="image/*" and it will automatically generate the previews.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy this was. The FileReader API worked just as expected without any gotchas. I think I always assumed that this would be quite complex to do because once upon a time, it was quite complex (or impossible) to do. But now it’s wonderfully straightforward. Story of the web.

My own version of the script does a little bit more; it also generates another little textarea right after each image preview, which is where I write the accompanying alt text.

I’ve also updated my server-side script that handles the syndication to Twitter. I’m using the /media/metadata/create method to provide the alt text. But for some reason it’s not working. I can’t figure out why. I’ll keep working on it.

In the meantime, if you’re looking at an image I’ve posted on Twitter and you’re judging me for its lack of alt text, my apologies. But each tweet of mine includes a link back to the original note on this site and you will most definitely find the alt text for the image there.

Bugblogging

A while back I wrote a blog post called Web Audio API weirdness on iOS. I described a bug in Mobile Safari along with a hacky fix. I finished by saying:

If you ever find yourself getting weird but inconsistent behaviour on iOS using the Web Audio API, this nasty little hack could help.

Recently Jonathan Aldrich posted a thread about the same bug. He included a link to my blog post. He also said:

Thanks so much for your post, this was a truly pernicious problem!

That warms the cockles of my heart. It’s very gratifying to know that documenting the bug (and the fix) helped someone out. Or, as I put it:

Yay for bugblogging!

Forgive the Germanic compound word, but in this case I think it fits.

Bugblogging doesn’t need to involve a solution. Just documenting a bug is a good thing to do. Recently I documented a bug with progressive web apps on iOS. Before that I documented a bug in Facebook Container for Firefox. When I documented some weird behaviour with the Web Share API in Safari on iOS, I wasn’t even sure it was a bug but Tess was pretty sure it was and filed a proper bug report.

I’ve benefited from other people bugblogging. Phil Nash wrote Service workers: beware Safari’s range request. That was exactly what I needed to solve a problem I’d been having. And then that post about Phil solving my problem helped Peter Rukavina solve a similar issue so he wrote Phil Nash and Jeremy Keith Save the Safari Video Playback Day.

Again, this warmed the cockles of my heart. Bugblogging is worth doing just for the reward of that feeling.

There’s a similar kind of blog post where, instead of writing about a bug, you write about a particular technique. In one way, this is the opposite of bugblogging because you’re writing about things working exactly as they should. But these posts have a similar feeling to bugblogging because they also result in a warm glow when someone finds them useful.

Here are some recent examples of these kinds of posts—tipblogging?—that I’ve found useful:

All three are very handy tips. Thanks, Eric! Thanks, Rich! Thanks, Stephanie!

Suspicion

I’ve already had some thoughtful responses to yesterday’s post about trust. I wrapped up my thoughts with a request:

I would love it if someone could explain why they avoid native browser features but use third-party code.

Chris obliged:

I can’t speak for the industry, but I have a guess. Third-party code (like the referenced Bootstrap and React) have a history of smoothing over significant cross-browser issues and providing better-than-browser ergonomic APIs. jQuery was created to smooth over cross-browser JavaScript problems. That’s trust.

Very true! jQuery is the canonical example of a library smoothing over the bumpy landscape of browser compatibilities. But jQuery is also the canonical example of a library we no longer need because the browsers have caught up …and those browsers support standards directly influenced by jQuery. That’s a library success story!

Charles Harries takes on my question in his post Libraries over browser features:

I think this perspective of trust has been hammered into developers over the past maybe like 5 years of JavaScript development based almost exclusively on inequality of browser feature support. Things are looking good in 2022; but as recently as 2019, 4 of the 5 top web developer needs had to do with browser compatibility.

Browser compatibility is one of the underlying promises that libraries—especially the big ones that Jeremy references, like React and Bootstrap—make to developers.

So again, it’s browser incompatibilities that made libraries attractive.

Jim Nielsen responds with the same message in his post Trusting Browsers:

We distrust the browser because we’ve been trained to. Years of fighting browser deficiencies where libraries filled the gaps. Browser enemy; library friend.

For example: jQuery did wonders to normalize working across browsers. Write code once, run it in any browser — confidently.

Three for three. My question has been answered: people gravitated towards libraries because browsers had inconsistent implementations.

I’m deliberately using the past tense there. I think Jim is onto something when he says that we’ve been trained not to trust browsers to have parity when it comes to supporting standards. But that has changed.

Charles again:

This approach isn’t a sustainable practice, and I’m trying to do as little of it as I can. Jeremy is right to be suspicious of third-party code. Cross-browser compatibility has gotten a lot better, and campaigns like Interop 2022 are doing a lot to reduce the burden. It’s getting better, but the exasperated I-just-want-it-to-work mindset is tough to uninstall.

I agree. Inertia is a powerful force. No matter how good cross-browser compatibility gets, it’s going to take a long time for developers to shed their suspicion.

Jim is glass-half-full kind of guy:

I’m optimistic that trust in browser-native features and APIs is being restored.

He also points to a very sensible mindset when it comes to third-party libraries and frameworks:

In this sense, third-party code and abstractions can be wonderful polyfills for the web platform. The idea being that the default posture should be: leverage as much of the web platform as possible, then where there are gaps to creating great user experiences, fill them in with exploratory library or framework features (features which, conceivably, could one day become native in browsers).

Yes! A kind of progressive enhancement approach to using third-party code makes a lot of sense. I’ve always maintained that you should treat libraries and frameworks like cattle, not pets. Don’t get too attached. If the library is solving a genuine need, it will be replaced by stable web standards in browsers (again, see jQuery).

I think that third-party libraries and frameworks work best as polyfills. But the whole point of polyfills is that you only use them when the browsers don’t supply features natively (and you also go back and remove the polyfill later when browsers do support the feature). But that’s not how people are using libraries and frameworks today. Developers are reaching for them by default instead of treating them as a last resort.

I like Jim’s proposed design princple:

Where available, default to browser-native features over third party code, abstractions, or idioms.

(P.S. It’s kind of lovely to see this kind of thoughtful blog-to-blog conversation happening. Right at a time when Twitter is about to go down the tubes, this is a demonstration of an actual public square with more nuanced discussion. Make your own website and join the conversation!)

Trust

I’ve noticed a strange mindset amongst front-end/full-stack developers. At least it seems strange to me. But maybe I’m the one with the strange mindset and everyone else knows something I don’t.

It’s to do with trust and suspicion.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m suspicious of third-party code and dependencies in general. Every dependency you add to a project is one more potential single point of failure. You have to trust that the strangers who wrote that code knew what they were doing. I’m still somewhat flabbergasted that developers regularly add dependencies—via npm or yarn or whatever—that then pull in even more dependencies, all while assuming good faith and competence on the part of every person involved.

It’s a touching expression of faith in your fellow humans, but I’m not keen on the idea of faith-based development.

I’m much more trusting of native browser features—HTML elements, CSS features, and JavaScript APIs. They’re not always perfect, but a lot of thought goes into their development. By the time they land in browsers, a whole lot of smart people have kicked the tyres and considered many different angles. As a bonus, I don’t need to install them. Even better, end users don’t need to install them.

And yet, the mindset I’ve noticed is that many developers are suspicious of browser features but trusting of third-party libraries.

When I write and talk about using service workers, I often come across scepticism from developers about writing the service worker code. “Is there a library I can use?” they ask. “Well, yes” I reply, “but then you’ve got to understand the library, and the time it takes you to do that could be spent understanding the native code.” So even though a library might not offer any new functionality—just a different idion—many developers are more likely to trust the third-party library than they are to trust the underlying code that the third-party library is abstracting!

Developers are more likely to trust, say, Bootstrap than they are to trust CSS grid or custom properties. Developers are more likely to trust React than they are to trust web components.

On the one hand, I get it. Bootstrap and React are very popular. That popularity speaks volumes. If lots of people use a technology, it must be a safe bet, right?

But if we’re talking about popularity, every single browser today ships with support for features like grid, custom properties, service workers and web components. No third-party framework can even come close to that install base.

And the fact that these technologies have shipped in stable browsers means they’re vetted. They’ve been through a rigourous testing phase. They’ve effectively got a seal of approval from each individual browser maker. To me, that seems like a much bigger signal of trustworthiness than the popularity of a third-party library or framework.

So I’m kind of confused by this prevalent mindset of trusting third-party code more than built-in browser features.

Is it because of the job market? When recruiters are looking for developers, their laundry list is usually third-party technologies: React, Vue, Bootstrap, etc. It’s rare to find a job ad that lists native browser technologies: flexbox, grid, service workers, web components.

I would love it if someone could explain why they avoid native browser features but use third-party code.

Until then, I shall remain perplexed.

When should there be a declarative version of a JavaScript API?

I feel like it’s high time I revived some interest in my proposal for button type="share". Last I left it, I was gathering use cases and they seem to suggest that the most common use case for the Web Share API is sharing the URL of the current page.

If you want to catch up on the history of this proposal, here’s what I’ve previously written:

Remember, my proposal isn’t to replace the JavaScript API, it’s to complement it with a declarative option. The declarative option doesn’t need to be as fully featured as the JavaScript API, but it should be able to cover the majority use case. I think this should hold true of most APIs.

A good example is the Constraint Validation API. For the most common use cases, the required attribute and input types like “email”, “url”, and “number” have you covered. If you need more power, reach for the JavaScript API.

A bad example is the Geolocation API. The most common use case is getting the user’s current location. But there’s no input type="geolocation" (or button type="geolocation"). Your only choice is to use JavaScript. It feels heavy-handed.

I recently got an email from Taylor Hunt who has come up with a good litmus test for JavaScript APIs that should have a complementary declarative option:

I’ve been thinking about how a lot of recently-proposed APIs end up having to deal with what Chrome devrel’s been calling the “user gesture/activation budget”, and wondering if that’s a good indicator of when something should have been HTML in the first place.

I think he’s onto something here!

Think about any API that requires a user gesture. Often the documentation or demo literally shows you how to generate a button in JavaScript in order to add an event handler to it in order to use the API. Surely that’s an indication that a new button type could be minted?

The Web Share API is a classic example. You can’t invoke the API after an event like the page loading. You have to invoke the API after a user-initiated event like, oh, I don’t know …clicking on a button!

The Fullscreen API has the same restriction. You can’t make the browser go fullscreen unless you’re responding to user gesture, like a click. So why not have button type="fullscreen" in HTML to encapsulate that? And again, the fallback in non-supporting browsers is predictable—it behaves like a regular button—so this is trivial to polyfill. I should probably whip up a polyfill to demonstrate this.

I can’t find a list of all the JavaScript APIs that require a user gesture, but I know there’s more that I’m just not thinking of. I’d love to see if they’d all fit this pattern of being candidates for a new button type value.

The only potential flaw in this thinking is that some APIs that require a user gesture might also require a secure context (either being served over HTTPS or localhost). But as far as I know, HTML has never had the concept of features being restricted by context. An element is either supported or it isn’t.

That said, there is some prior art here. If you use input type="password" in a non-secure context—like a page being served over HTTP—the browser updates the interface to provide scary warnings. Perhaps browsers could do something similar for any new button types that complement secure-context JavaScript APIs.

Web notifications on iOS

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t enable notifications on my phone. Text messages are the only exception. I don’t want to get notified if a new email arrives (I avoid email on my phone completely) and I certainly don’t want some social media app telling me somebody liked or faved something.

But the number one feature I’d like to see in Safari on iOS is web notifications.

It’s not for me personally, see. It’s because it’s the number one reason why people are choosing not to go all in progressive web apps.

Safari on iOS is the last holdout. But that equates to enough marketshare that many companies feel they can’t treat notifications as a progressive enhancement. While I may not agree with that decision myself, I get it.

When I’m evangelising the benefits of building on the open web instead of making separate iOS and Android apps, I inevitably get asked about notifications. As long as mobile Safari doesn’t support them—even though desktop Safari does—I’m somewhat stumped. There’s no polyfill for this feature other than building an entire native app, which is a bit extreme as polyfills go.

And of course, unlike on your Mac, you don’t have the option of using a different browser on your iPhone. As long as mobile Safari doesn’t support web notifications, nothing on iOS can support web notifications.

I’ve got progressive web apps on the home screen of my phone that match their native equivalents feature-for-feature. Twitter. Instagram. They’re really good. In some ways they’re superior to the native apps; the Twitter website is much calmer, and the Instagram website has no advertising. But if I wanted to get notifications from any of those sites, I’d have to keep the native apps installed just for that one feature.

So in the spirit of complaining about web browsers in a productive way, I just want to throw this plea out there: Apple, please support web notifications in mobile Safari!

The good news is that web notifications on iOS might be on their way. Huzzah!

Alas, we’re reliant on Maximiliano’s detective work to even get a glimpse of a future feature like this. Apple has no public roadmap for Safari. There’s this status page on the Webkit blog but it’s incomplete—web notifications don’t appear at all. In any case, WebKit and Safari aren’t the same thing. The only way of knowing if a feature might be implemented in Safari is if it shows up in Safari Technology Preview, at which point it’s already pretty far along.

So while my number one feature request for mobile Safari is web notifications, a close second would be a public roadmap.

It only seems fair. If Apple devrels are asking us developers what features we’d like to see implemented—as they should!—then shouldn’t those same developers also be treated with enough respect to share a roadmap with them? There’s not much point in us asking for features if, unbeknownst to us, that feature is already being worked on.

But, like I said, my number one request remains: web notifications on iOS …please!

A bug with progressive web apps on iOS

Dave recently wrote some good advice about what to do—and what not to do—when it comes to complaining about web browsers. I wrote something on this topic a little while back:

If there’s something about a web browser that you’re not happy with (or, indeed, if there’s something you’re really happy with), take the time to write it down and publish it

To summarise Dave’s advice, avoid conspiracy theories and snark; stick to specifics instead.

It’s very good advice that I should heed (especially the bit about avoiding snark). In that spirit, I’d like to document what I think is a bug on iOS.

I don’t need to name the specific browser, because there is basically only one browser allowed on iOS. That’s not snark; that’s a statement of fact.

This bug involves navigating from a progressive web app that has been installed on your home screen to an external web view.

To illustrate the bug, I’ll use the example of The Session. If you want to recreate the bug, you’ll need to have an account on The Session. Let me know if you want to set up a temporary account—I can take care of deleting it afterwards.

Here are the steps:

  1. Navigate to thesession.org in Safari on an iOS device.
  2. Add the site to your home screen.
  3. Open the installed site from your home screen—it will launch in standalone mode.
  4. Log in with your username and password.
  5. Using the site menu, navigate to the links section of the site.
  6. Click on any external link.
  7. After the external link opens in a web view, tap on “Done” to close the web view.

Expected behaviour: you are returned to the page you were on with no change of state.

Actual behaviour: you are returned to the page you were on but you are logged out.

So the act of visiting an external link in a web view while in a progressive web app in standalone mode seems to cause a loss of cookie-based authentication.

This isn’t permanent. Clicking on any internal link restores the logged-in state.

It is surprising though. My mental model for opening an external link in a web view is that it sits “above” the progressive web app, which remains in stasis “behind” it. But the page must actually be reloading, either when the web view is opened or when the web view is closed. And that reload is behaving like a fetch event without credentials.

Anyway, that’s my bug report. It may already be listed somewhere on the WebKit Bugzilla but I lack the deductive skills to find it. I’m not even sure if that’s the right place for this kind of bug. It might be specific to the operating system rather than the rendering engine.

This isn’t a high priority bug, but it is one of those cumulatively annoying software paper cuts.

Hope this helps!

Screenshots

I wrote about how I created a page on The Session with instructions for installing the site to your home screen. When I said that I included screenshots on that page, I may have underplayed the effort involved. It was real faff.

I’ve got an iPhone so generating screenshots (and video) from that wasn’t too bad. But I don’t have access to an Android phone. I found myself scouring the web for templates that I could use to mockup a screenshot of the address bar.

That got me thinking…

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a service that generated those screenshots for you? You give it a URL, and it spits out screenshots of the site complete with overlays showing the installation flow on Android and iOS. It could even generate the img markup, complete with differently-scaled images for the srcset attribute.

Download the images. Copy that markup. Paste it into a page on your site. Boom! Now you’ve got somewhere to point your visitors to if you’d like them to install your progressive web app.

There are already some services out there for generating screenshots of mobile phones but they’re missing is the menu overlays for adding to home screen.

The devrels at both Google and Microsoft have been doing a great job of promoting progressive web apps. They’ve built tools to help you with tasks like generating icons or creating your web app manifest. It would be sooooo nifty if those tools also generated instructional screenshots for adding to home screen!

Installing progressive web apps

I don’t know about you, but it seems like everyone I follow on Twitter is playing Wordle. Although I don’t play the game myself, I think it’s pretty great.

Not only does Wordle have a very sweet backstory, but it’s also unashamedly on the web. If you want to play, you go to the URL powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle. That’s it. No need to download an app.

That hasn’t stopped some nefarious developers trying to trick people into downloading their clones of Wordle from app stores. App stores, which are meant to be curated and safe, are in fact filled with dodgy knock-offs and scams. Contrary to popular belief, the web is quite literally a safer bet.

Wordle has a web app manifest, which means you can add it to your home screen and it will behave just like a native app (although I don’t believe it has offline support). That’s great, but the process of adding a web app to your home screen on iOS is ludicrously long-winded.

Macworld published an article detailing how to get the real Wordle app on your iPhone or iPad. On the one hand it’s great to see this knowledge being spread. On the other hand it’s dispiriting that it’s even necessary to tell people that they can do this, like it’s a hidden nerdy secret just for power users.

At this point I’ve pretty much given up on Apple ever doing anything about this pathetic situation. So what can I do instead?

Well, taking my cue from that Macworld article, the least I can do is inform people how they can add a progressive web app to their home screen.

That’s what I’ve done on thesession.org. I’ve published a page on how to install The Session to your home screen.

On both Android and iPhone the journey to installing a progressive web app begins with incomprehensible iconography. On Android you must first tap on the unlabeled kebab icon—three vertical dots. On iOS you must first tap on the unlabeled share icon—a square with an arrow coming out of it.

The menu icon on Android. The share icon on iOS.

When it comes to mobile operating systems, consumer choice means you choose which kind of mystery meat to eat.

I’ve included screenshots to help people identify these mysterious portals. For iOS I’ve also included a video to illustrate the quest to find the secret menu item buried beneath the share icon.

I’ve linked to the page with the installation instructions from the site’s “help” page and the home page.

Handy tip: when you’re adding a start_url value to your web app manifest, it’s common to include a query string like this:

start_url: "/?homescreen"

I’m guessing most people to that so they can get analytics on how many people are starting from an icon tap. I don’t do analytics on The Session but I’m still using that query string in my start_url. On the home page of the site, I check for the existence of the query string. If it exists, I don’t show the link to the installation page. So once someone has installed the site to their home screen, they shouldn’t see that message when they launch The Session.

If you’ve got a progressive web app, it might be worth making a page with installation instructions rather than relying on browsers to proactively inform your site’s visitors. You’d still need to figure out the right time and place to point people to that page, but at least the design challenge would be in your hands.

Should you decide to take a leaf out of the Android and iOS playbooks and use mystery meat navigation to link to such a page, there’s an emoji you could potentially use: 📲

It’s still worse than using actual words, but it might be better than some random combination of dots, squares and arrows.

(I’m not really serious about using that emoji, but if you do, be sure to use a sensible aria-label value on the enclosing a element.)

Media queries with display-mode

It’s said that the best way to learn about something is to teach it. I certainly found that to be true when I was writing the web.dev course on responsive design.

I felt fairly confident about some of the topics, but I felt somewhat out of my depth when it came to some of the newer modern additions to browsers. The last few modules in particular were unexplored areas for me, with topics like screen configurations and media features. I learned a lot about those topics by writing about them.

Best of all, I got to put my new-found knowledge to use! Here’s how…

The Session is a progressive web app. If you add it to the home screen of your mobile device, then when you launch the site by tapping on its icon, it behaves just like a native app.

In the web app manifest file for The Session, the display-mode property is set to “standalone.” That means it will launch without any browser chrome: no address bar and no back button. It’s up to me to provide the functionality that the browser usually takes care of.

So I added a back button in the navigation interface. It only appears on small screens.

Do you see the assumption I made?

I figured that the back button was most necessary in the situation where the site had been added to the home screen. That only happens on mobile devices, right?

Nope. If you’re using Chrome or Edge on a desktop device, you will be actively encourged to “install” The Session. If you do that, then just as on mobile, the site will behave like a standalone native app and launch without any browser chrome.

So desktop users who install the progressive web app don’t get any back button (because in my CSS I declare that the back button in the interface should only appear on small screens).

I was alerted to this issue on The Session:

It downloaded for me but there’s a bug, Jeremy - there doesn’t seem to be a way to go back.

Luckily, this happened as I was writing the module on media features. I knew exactly how to solve this problem because now I knew about the existence of the display-mode media feature. It allows you to write media queries that match the possible values of display-mode in a web app manifest:

.goback {
  display: none;
}
@media (display-mode: standalone) {
  .goback {
    display: inline;
  }
}

Now the back button shows up if you “install” The Session, regardless of whether that’s on mobile or desktop.

Previously I made the mistake of inferring whether or not to show the back button based on screen size. But the display-mode media feature allowed me to test the actual condition I cared about: is this user navigating in standalone mode?

If I hadn’t been writing about media features, I don’t think I would’ve been able to solve the problem. It’s a really good feeling when you’ve just learned something new, and then you immediately find exactly the right use case for it!