Baldur Bjarnason writes an immense treatise on the current sad state of software, grounded in the historical perspective of the past sad state of software.
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I keep seeing Single-Page-Apps with huge JS files that only, in terms of concrete User Experience (UX) benefits, deliver client-side validation of forms plus analytics. Apps rarely leverage the potential of a Single-Page-App. It’s still just the same ‘click, wait for load’ navigation cycle. Same as the one you get with Multi-Page-Apps. Except buggier and with a much slower initial loading time.
When you look at performance, cross-platform and mobile support, reliability, and accessibility, nearly every Single-Page-App you can find in the wild is a failure on multiple fronts.
Replacing those with even a mediocre Multi-Page-App is generally going to be a substantial win. You usually see improvements on all of the issues mentioned above. You get the same general UX except with more reliable loading, history management, and loading features—provided by the browser.
Before you dismiss Baldur as a hater based on what I’ve just quoted, you should really read the whole article. The issue he points to is not with the technical architecture of single page apps, but with management.
Single-Page-Apps can be fantastic. Most teams will mess them up because most teams operate in dysfunctional organisations.
Baldur’s conclusion chimes a lot with what I’ve been saying in conference talks this year: the biggest challenges facing the web are not technical in nature.
The biggest hindrance to the web’s progress isn’t non-expert developers, tooling, libraries, Single-Page-Apps, or Multi-Page-Apps.
It’s always humans.
Following on from that link about the battle between control vs. using what the browser already gives you, Baldur sums up the situation:
To pick a specific example: the problem with an over-engineered form is that the amount of code required to replace no engineering (i.e. native form controls with basic styling) is enormous and almost always only partially successful (i.e. under-engineered).
They are under-engineered because they are over-engineered—tried to replace native controls.
And so we get two schools of engineering thought:
- Keep it simple.
If, as it’s starting to look like from my perspective, these two communities are incapable of learning from each other, then maybe we should start consider some sort of community divorce?
You get to keep WebGL, Shadow DOM, WASM, React, and Angular.
(I know which group I’d rather be in.)
This isn’t a “the web is doomed, DOOMED, I tells ya” kind of blog post. It’s more in the “the web in its current form isn’t sustainable and will collapse into a simpler, more sustainable form, possibly several” genre.
Baldur points to the multiple causes of the web’s current quagmire.
I honestly have no idea on how to mitigate this harm or even how long the decline is going to take. My hope is that if we can make the less complex, more distributed aspects of the web safer and more robust, they will be more likely to thrive when the situation has forced the web as a whole to break up and simplify.
The divide between what you read in developer social media and what you see on web dev websites, blogs, and actual practice has never in my recollection been this wide. I’ve never before seen web dev social media and forum discourse so dominated by the US west coast enterprise tech company bubble, and I’ve been doing this for a couple of decades now.
Baldur is really feeling the dev perception.
Web dev driven by npm packages, frameworks, and bundling is to the field of web design what Java and C# in 2010s was to web servers. If you work in enterprise software it’s all you can see. Web developers working on CMS themes (or on Rails-based projects) using jQuery and plain old JS—maybe with a couple of libraries imported directly via a script tag—are the unseen dark matter of the web dev community.
I think Baldur is onto something here with his categorisation of software. There’s the software based on innovation, something truly novel:
Innovation’s the word. Pushing the boundaries. You know the phrases. Usually spouted by that dude at the party.
Then there’s the software based on itertion, making a better version of a proven tool:
We are now in a place where we have entire genres of software that have decades of history, are backed by stacks of new and old research, have dozens of successful, well-made exemplar apps, and a broad enough conceptual space to allow for new variations on the theme.
In short, we have genre software and we have avant-garde software, and I’ve always been more interested in genre fiction than literary fiction.
The system makes the website. Don’t blame the web developer, blame the organisation. A web developer embedded in a large system isn’t the one making the websites.
To make a progressively enhanced website that performs well and loads quickly even on slow connections, you need to first make an organisation that values those qualities over others.
Continuous web death.
The modern journalist is not an expert on the web. They and their colleagues have spent a large part of the last twenty-five years dismissing the open web at every stage. They are not the people you can trust to either accurately assess the web or to make usable websites. You can’t even trust them to make sensible decisions about web strategy. Just look at their damn websites!
This philosophy doesn’t apply to every website out there, but it sure as hell applies to a lot of them.
A damning assessment of Tim Berners-Lee’s defeatist portrayal of the W3C:
No matter which side is right, the W3C faces an existential crisis.
- The W3C is a shepherd of the web for all, the web on everything, and a web of trust. But now it is fundamentally compromising its own principles in the name of maintaining industry relevance.
- Or, the W3C is merely an industry body for browser vendors to collaborate and its mission statement is nothing more than PR to increase buy-in from the smaller, largely powerless, members.
Both can’t be true. Neither is good news for the organisation.
I like this approach to reading widely and staying up to date enough.