It turns out that in 2022, for a lot of apps, the dream of write once run anywhere has finally arrived.
Every year browsers and web technologies become more capable and more powerful. Every year there are more kinds of app that you can make cross platform.
So before you start your next project, why don’t you take a look at cross platform web apps. Maybe they aren’t right for your project, but maybe, like me, you’ll discover that you can code once and run everywhere. And I think that’s amazing.
I think, with the sheer volume of functionality available to us nowadays on the front-end, it can be easy to forget how powerful and strong the functionality is that we get right off shelf with HTML. Yes, you read that right, functionality.
Broadly, these are websites which are still web pages, not web applications; they’re pages of essentially static information, personal websites, blogs, and so on, but they are slightly dynamic. They might have a style selector at the top of each page, causing a cookie to be set, and the server to serve a different stylesheet on every subsequent page load.
This rings sadly true to me:
Also, I never thought about “serverless” like this:
Recently we’ve seen the rise in popularity of AWS Lambda, a “functions as a service” provider. From my perspective this is literally a reinvention of CGI, except a) much more complicated for essentially the same functionality, b) with vendor lock-in, c) with a much more complex and bespoke deployment process which requires the use of special tools.
This is very convincing.
Some interesting thoughts from Tim here. What if CSS could “displace” design decisions from one area to another?
For example, a flexible line spacing value in one container could influence margins that surround the text block. That change in spaciousness may mean that nearby headings need size or spacing adjustments to stay feeling connected.
This feels like the complete opposite way that most people approach design systems—modular, componentised, and discrete—but very in-line with the way that CSS has been designed—interconnected, relational and cascading.
This is kind of a Utopia lite: pop in your minimum and maximum font sizes along with a modular scale and it spits out some custom properties for
To complement her talk at Beyond Tellerrand, Stephanie goes through some of the powerful CSS features that enable intrinsic web design. These are all great tools for the declarative design approach I was talking about:
This is a great case study of switching from a framework mindset to native browser technologies.
Though this is quite specific to Jack’s own situation, I do feel like there’s something in the air here. The native browser features are now powerful and stable enough to make the framework approach feel outdated.
And if you do want to use third-party dependencies, Jack makes a great case for choosing smaller single-responsibility helpers rather than monolithic frameworks.
Replacing lit-html would be an undertaking but much less so than replacing React: it’s used in our codebase purely for having our components (re)-render HTML. Replacing lit-html would still mean that we can keep our business logic, ultimately maintaining the value they provide to end-users. Lit-Html is one small Lego brick in our system, React (or Angular, or similar) is the entire box.
We noticed a trend: students who pick a UI framework like Bootstrap or Material UI get off the ground quickly and make rapid progress in the first few days. But as time goes on, they get bogged down. The daylight grows between what they need, and what the component library provides. And they wind up spending so much time trying to bend the components into the right shape.
I remember one student spent a whole afternoon trying to modify the masthead from a CSS framework to support their navigation. In the end, they decided to scrap the third-party component, and they built an alternative themselves in 10 minutes.
This tracks with my experience. These kinds of frameworks don’t save time; they defer it.
The one situation where that works well, as Josh also points out, is prototyping.
If the goal is to quickly get something up and running, and you don’t need the UI to be 100% professional, I do think it can be a bit of a time-saver to quickly drop in a bunch of third-party components.
Robin adds a long-zoom perspective on my recent post:
This is a great succinct definition of progressive enhancement:
Progressive enhancement is a web development strategy by which we ensure that the essential content and functionality of a website is accessible to as many users as possible, while providing an improved experience using newer features for users whose devices are capable of supporting them.
This is a great little tip from Eric for those situations when you want an element to be centred but you want the content inside that element to remain uncentred:
max-inline-size: max-content; margin-inline: auto;
And I completely concur with his closing thoughts on CSS today:
It’s a nice little example of the quiet revolution that’s been happening in CSS of late. Hard things are becoming easy, and more than easy, simple. Simple in the sense of “direct and not complex”, not in the sense of “obvious and basic”. There’s a sense of growing maturity in the language, and I’m really happy to see it.
Rather than thinking, “how do I combine a bunch of disparate content, templates, and tooling into a functioning website?”, you might think “how do I start at a functioning website with content and then use templates and build tooling to enhance it?”
I think Jim is onto something here. The more dependencies you have in your build process, the likelier it is that over time one of them will become a single point of failure. A progressive enhancement approach to build tools means you’d still be able to launch your site (even if it’s not in its ideal state).
I want to be able to view, edit, and if need be ship a website, even if the build process fails. In essence, if the build does fail I can still take all the source files, put them on a server, and the website remains functional (however crude).
This is exactly the pattern of usage I’ve been advocating for with web components—instead of creating a custom element from scratch, wrap an existing HTML element and use the custom element to turbo-charge it, like Zach is doing:
By enhancing native HTML instead of replacing it, we can provide a solid baseline experience, and add progressive enhancement as the cherry on top.
A cautionary tale on why you should keep your dependencies to a minimum and simplify your build process (if you even need one):
If it’s not link rot that gets you then it’s this heat death of the universe problem with entropy setting in slowly over time. And the only way to really defend against it is to build things progressively, to make sure that you’re not tied to one dependency or another. That complex build process? That’s a dependency. Your third party link to some third party font service that depends on their servers running forever? Another dependency.
This is a really excellent four-part series on web performance that really dives into the technical details and asks all the right questions:
Give the browser some solid rules and hints, then let it make the right decisions for the people that visit it, based on their device, connection quality and capabilities. This is how they will get a genuinely great user experience, rather than a fragmented, broken one.
Thanks to the mistrust of big tech, the creation of better tools for developers, and the weird and wonderful creativity of ordinary people, we’re seeing an incredibly unlikely comeback: the web is thriving again.
Smart analysis from Anil, though I’m not sure I’d agree with his emphasis on tools and frameworks—it’s the technology built into browsers that has really come along in leaps and bounds, allowing people to do more with less code.
But then there’s this:
So if we have the tech, then why hasn’t it happened already? The biggest thing that may be missing is just awareness of the modern web’s potential. Unlike the Facebooks and Googles of the world, the open, creative web doesn’t have a billion-dollar budget for promoting itself. Years of control from the tech titans has resulted in the conventional wisdom that somehow the web isn’t “enough”, that you have to tie yourself to proprietary platforms if you want to build a big brand or a big business.
True! Anil also points to an act of rebellion and resistance:
Get your own site going, though, and you’ll have a sustainable way of being in control of your own destiny online.
I can see myself almost certainly needing to use this clever technique at some point so I’m going to squirrel it away now for future me.