Tags: apps



Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

We’re all trying to find the guy who did this

Imagine the web is a storefront, React is a hot dog car, and here’s Create React App dressed as a hot dog:

HTML is the cornerstone of the web — so why does creating a “React app” produce an empty HTML file? Why are we not taking advantage of the most basic feature of the web—the ability to see content quickly before all the interactive code loads? Why do we wait to start loading the data until after all the client-side code has finished loading?

Tuesday, January 24th, 2023

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.

Tuesday, December 13th, 2022

Pluralistic: Web apps could de-monopolize mobile devices (13 Dec 2022) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

But you can’t have a web app without a web-app-compatible browser, and you can’t get a web-app-compatible browser in Apple’s App Store. The only browsers permitted in the App Store are those based on WebKit, the browser engine behind Safari. This means that every browser on iOS, from Firefox to Edge to Chrome, is just a reskinned version of Safari.

Monday, November 28th, 2022

jwz: PSA: Do Not Use Services That Hate The Internet

If you’re thinking of signing up to Hive or Post:

If posts in a social media app do not have URLs that can be linked to and viewed in an unauthenticated browser, or if there is no way to make a new post from a browser, then that program is not a part of the World Wide Web in any meaningful way.

Consign that app to oblivion.

Saturday, November 5th, 2022

Negativity bias

When I wrote about my hopes and fears for the View Transitions API, a few people latched on to this sentiment:

If the View Transitions API only works for single page apps, it could be the single worst thing to happen to the web in years.

But I also wrote:

If the View Transitions API works across page navigations, it could be the single best thing to happen to the web in years.

I think it’s worth focusing on that.

Part of the problem is that I gave my hopes and fears an equal airing. But they’re not equally likely.

Take the possibility that the View Transitions API only ships for single page apps, but never ships for regular page transitions. The consequences of that would be big—the API would act as an incentive to build single page apps. But the likelihood of that happening is small. In fact, according to Jake, there’s already an implemention for page transitions in the works at Chrome.

Now what if the View Transitions API ships for pages? The consequences would be equally big—the API would act as an incentive to ditch single page apps and build in a more performant, resilient way. Best of all, the chances of that happening are very large indeed (pretty much a certainty now, given Jake’s update).

So I made a comparison between both of the consequences, which are equally large, but I didn’t make a corresponding comparison of the likelihoods, which are not equally large. Mea culpa!

I should’ve made it clearer that, although the consequences would be really bad if the View Transitions API only supports single page apps, the actual likelihood of that is pretty slim.

That’s probably my negativity bias showing through. (The reason I have a negativity bias is because I am a human. Like, have you ever noticed that if you get feedback on something and 98% of it is positive, you inevitably fixate on the 2%?)

Anyway, the real takeaway here is that if the View Transitions API ships for pages, then the consequences will be really, really good! It would be another nail in the coffin for monolithic JavaScript frameworks slowing down the web. And best of all, the likelihood of this happening is very high!

So let me amend my closing sentences from my previous post:

If the View Transitions API only works for single page apps—which is very unlikely—it could be the single worst thing to happen to the web in years.

If the View Transitions API works across page navigations—which is very, very likely—it could be the single best thing to happen to the web in years.

The glass is half full and it’s only going to get fuller. Time to start planning for a turbo-charged web now.

If you’ve got a website with full page navigations, start thinking about how you’ll be able to apply the View Transitions API as a progressive enhancement to improve the user experience.

If you’ve got a single page app, start thinking about how to ditch a whole bunch of uneccessary dependencies to make a more lightweight foundation of HTML instead of JavaScript, and still get all those slick transitions you get in a single page app!

Time for transitions

I am simultaneously very excited and very nervous about the View Transitions API.

You may know it by its former name—Shared Element Transitions. The name change is very recent.

I’ve been saying for years that some kind of API like this would be brilliant:

I honestly think if browsers implemented this, 80% of client-rendered Single Page Apps could be done as regular good ol’-fashioned websites.

Miriam Suzanne describes the theory of View Transitions succinctly:

Shared-element transitions are designed to work with standard web navigation across multiple page loads, as well as page transitions in ‘single-page’ apps (often called SPAs).

This all sounds brilliant. But the devil is in the implementation details. Right now, the API only works for single page apps. This is totally understandable. For purely pragmatic reasons, single page apps are a simple use case to solve for. It’s going to take a lot more work to get this API to work for multi-page apps (or as we used to call them, websites).

If we get a View Transitions API that works across page navigations, it could potentially turbo-charge the web. It will act as a disencentive to building single page apps—you’d be able to provide swish transitions without sacrificing performance or resilience at the alter of a heavy-handed JavaScript-only architecture.

But if the API only ever works for single page apps (which is the current situation), then it will act as an incentive to make any kind of website into a single page app, regardless of whether it’s actually the appropriate architecture.

That prospect has me very worried indeed.

I’m making my feelings on this known just in case any of the implementators out there are thinking, “Hey, maybe it’s fine that this API only works for single page apps—I’m sure most people would be happy with that.”

If the View Transitions API works across page navigations, it could be the single best thing to happen to the web in years.

If the View Transitions API only works for single page apps, it could be the single worst thing to happen to the web in years.

Update: Jake says:

We’re currently landing code in Chrome for the MPA version.

Very happy to hear that! It’s already in the spec, but it’s good to hear that the implementation isn’t going to lag too much.

Also, read this follow-up.

Monday, October 24th, 2022

The transitional web | Go Make Things

I’ve smelt the same change in the wind that Chris describes here—there’s finally a reckoning happening in the world of JavaScript frameworks and single page apps.

Thursday, October 20th, 2022

Why We’re Breaking Up with CSS-in-JS | Brad Frost

I’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth many times over my years building on the web. I too feel like there’s something in the air right now, and people are finally acknowledging that most single page apps are crap.

But Brad makes the interesting point that, because they were incubated when profligate client-side JavaScript was all the rage, web components may have ended up inheriting the wrong mindset:

So now the world of web components has egg on its face because the zeitgeist at the time of its design didn’t have such a strong focus on SSR/HTML-first/ progressive enhancement. Had web components been designed in the current zeitgeist, things would almost certainly be different.

Thursday, September 8th, 2022

as days pass by — Farmbound, or how I built an app in 2022

Stuart writes up the process up making a mobile game as a web app—not a native app. The Wordle effect reverberates.

It’s a web app. Works for everyone. And I thought it would be useful to explain why it is, why I think that’s the way to do things, and some of the interesting parts of building an app for everyone to play which is delivered over the web rather than via app stores and downloads.

Worse than LaserDiscs?

Kevin takes my eleven-year old remark literally and points out at least you can emulate LaserDiscs:

So LaserDiscs aren’t the worst things to archive, networks of servers running code that isn’t available or archivable are, and we are building a lot more of those these days, whether on the web or in apps.

Wednesday, September 7th, 2022

“Writing an app is like coding for LaserDisc” – Terence Eden’s Blog

I love this: Terence takes eleven years to reflect on a comment I made on stage at an event here in Brighton. It’s all about the longevity of the web compared to native apps:

If you wrote an app for an early version of iOS or Android, it simply won’t run on modern hardware or software. APIs have changed, SDKs weren’t designed with forward compatibility, and app store requirements have evolved.

The web has none of that. The earliest websites are viewable on modern browsers.

As wrote at the time, I may have been juicing things up for entertainment:

Now here’s the thing when it comes to any discussion about mobile or the web or anything else of any complexity: an honest discussion would result in every single question being answered with “it depends”. A more entertaining discussion, on the other hand, would consist of deliberately polarised opinions. We went for the more entertaining discussion.

But I think this still holds true for me today:

The truth is that the whole “web vs. native” thing doesn’t interest me that much. I’m as interested in native iOS development as I am in native Windows development or native CD-ROM development. On a timescale measured in years, they are all fleeting, transient things. The web abides.

Thursday, August 11th, 2022

Let websites framebust out of native apps | Holovaty.com

Adrian brings an excellent historical perspective to the horrifying behaviour of Facebook’s in-app browsers:

Somewhere along the way, despite a reasonably strong anti-framing culture, framing moved from being a huge no-no to a huge shrug. In a web context, it’s maligned; in a native app context, it’s totally ignored.

Yup, frames are back—but this time they’re in native apps—with all their shocking security implications:

The more I think about it, the more I cannot believe webviews with unfettered JavaScript access to third-party websites ever became a legitimate, accepted technology. It’s bad for users, and it’s bad for websites.

By the way, this also explains that when you try browsing the web in an actual web browser on your mobile device, every second website shoves a banner in your face saying “download our app.” Browsers offer users some protection. In-app webviews offer users nothing but exploitation.

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2022

It’s Time to Build a Progressive Web App. Here’s How – The New Stack

Much as I appreciate the optimism of this evaluation, I don’t hold out much hope that people’s expectations are going to change any time soon:

Indeed, when given a choice, users will opt for the [native] app version of a platform because it’s been considered the gold standard for reliability. With progressive web apps (PWAs), that assumption is about to change.

Nonetheless, this is a level-headed look at what a progressive web app is, mercifully free of hand-waving:

  • App is served through HTTPS.
  • App has a web app manifest with at least one icon. (We’ll talk more about the manifest shortly.)
  • App has a registered service worker with a fetch event handler. (More on this later too.)

Monday, July 18th, 2022

My comments to Competition and Markets Authority on mobile browser competition - Alistair Shepherd

A thoughtful response to the current CMA consultation:

The inability to compete with native apps using Progressive Web Apps fully—particularly on iOS—also has a big impact on my work and the businesses I have worked with. Progressive Web Apps are extremely accessible for development, allowing for the creation of a simple app in a fraction of the time and complexity of a native app. This is fantastic for allowing smaller agencies and businesses to innovate on the web and on mobile devices and to reach consumers. However the poor support for PWA features by Safari and by not allowing them in the App Store, Apple forces app development to be difficult, time consuming and extremely expensive. I have spoken with many companies who would have liked an app to compete with their larger competitors but are unable to afford the huge costs in developing a native app.

Get your response in by Friday by emailing browsersandcloud@cma.gov.uk.

Tuesday, July 12th, 2022

I don’t care how you web dev; I just need more better web apps – Baldur Bjarnason

The problem I’ve regularly encountered in my work is that I don’t get to do my job the way I think is best for both me and my employer or client. The employer, who isn’t the web development expert, almost always has a clear idea of what real web development is supposed to look like: Single-Page-Apps and React (or React-like frameworks).

An intimation that it wouldn’t be the right solution for this particular problem is taken as an admission of incompetence.

I’ve experienced this. And I think this observation is even more true when it comes to recruitment.

Thursday, June 30th, 2022

10 Years of Meteor

While I’ve always been bothered by the downsides of SPAs, I always thought the gap would be bridged sooner or later, and that performance concerns would eventually vanish thanks to things like code splitting, tree shaking, or SSR. But ten years later, many of these issues remain. Many SPA bundles are still bloated with too many dependencies, hydration is still slow, and content is still duplicated in memory on the client even if it already lives in the DOM.

Yet something might be changing: for whatever reason, it feels like people are finally starting to take note and ask why things have to be this way.

Interesting to see a decade-long perspective. I especially like how Sacha revisits and reasseses design principles from ten years ago:

  1. Data on the Wire. Don’t send HTML over the network. Send data and let the client decide how to render it.

Verdict: 👎

It’s since become apparent that you often do need to send HTML over the network, and things seem to be moving back towards handling as much as possible of your HTML compilation on the server, not on the client.

Monday, June 27th, 2022

SPAs: theory versus practice | Read the Tea Leaves

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying things, I propose that the core of the debate can be summed up by these truisms:

  1. The best SPA is better than the best MPA.
  2. The average SPA is worse than the average MPA.

Saturday, June 25th, 2022

The Biggest Thing from WWDC 2022 - Webventures

Web Push on iOS will change the “we need to build a native app” decision.

I agree.

Push notifications are definitely not the sole reason to go native, but in my experience, it’s one of the first things clients ask for. They may very well be the thing that pushes your client over the edge and forces them, you and the entire project to accept the logic of the app store model.

Tuesday, June 7th, 2022

News from WWDC22: WebKit Features in Safari 16 Beta | WebKit

Good news and bad news…

The good news is that web notifications are coming to iOS—my number one wish!

The bad news is that it won’t happen until next year sometime.

Monday, May 23rd, 2022

The balance has shifted away from SPAs | Read the Tea Leaves

I’ve got the same hunch as Nolan:

There’s a feeling in the air. A zeitgeist. SPAs are no longer the cool kids they once were 10 years ago.

And I think he’s right to frame the appeal of single page apps in terms of control (even if that control comes at the expense of performance and first-load user experience).