Tags: cli

142

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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.

Friday, November 18th, 2022

Remix and the Alternate Timeline of Web Development - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

It sounds like Remix takes a sensible approach to progressive enhancement.

The lost thread

The speed with which Twitter recedes in your mind will shock you. Like a demon from a folktale, the kind that only gains power when you invite it into your home, the platform melts like mist when that invitation is rescinded.

Wednesday, October 26th, 2022

Programming Portals

A terrific piece by Maggie Appleton that starts with a comparison of graphical user interfaces and command line tools—which reminds me of the trade-offs between seamless and seamful design—and then moves into a proposed paradigm for declarative design tools:

Small, scoped areas within a graphical interface that allow users to read and write simple programmes

Wednesday, October 19th, 2022

JavaScript

A recurring theme in my writing and talks is “lay off the JavaScript, people!” But I have to make a conscious effort to specify that I mean client-side JavaScript.

I thought it would be obvious from the context that I was talking about the copious amounts of JavaScript being shipped to end users to download, parse, and execute. But nothing’s ever really obvious. If I don’t explicitly say JavaScript in the browser, then someone inevitably thinks I’m having a go at JavaScript, the language.

I have absolutely nothing against JavaScript the language. Just like I have nothing against Python or Ruby or any other language that you might write with on your machine or your web server. But as soon as you deliver bytes over the wire, I start having opinions. It just so happens that JavaScript is the universal language for client-side coding so that’s why I call for restraint with JavaScript specifically.

There was a time when JavaScript only existed in web browsers. That changed with Node. Now it’s possible to write code for your web server and code for web browsers using the same language. Very handy!

But just because it’s the same language doesn’t mean you should treat it the same in both circumstance. As Remy puts it:

There are two JavaScripts.

One for the server - where you can go wild.

One for the client - that should be thoughtful and careful.

I was reading something recently that referred to Eleventy as a JavaScript library. It really brought me up short. I mean, on the one hand, yes, it’s a library of code and it’s written in JavaScript. It is absolutely technically correct to call it a JavaScript library.

But in my mind, a JavaScript library is something you ship to web browsers—jQuery, React, Vue, and so on. Whereas Eleventy executes its code in order to generate HTML and that’s what gets sent to end users. Conceptually, it’s like the opposite of a JavaScript library. Eleventy does its work before any user requests a URL—JavaScript libraries do their work after a user requests a URL.

To me it seems obvious that there should an entirely different mindset for writing code intended for a web browser. But nothing’s ever really obvious.

I remember when Node was getting really popular and npm came along as a way to manage all the bundles of code that people were assembling in their Node programmes. Makes total sense. But then I thought I heard about people using npm to do the same thing for client-side code. “That can’t be right!” I thought. I must’ve misunderstood. So I talked to someone from npm and explained how I must be misunderstanding something.

But it turned out that people really were treating client-side JavaScript no different than server-side JavaScript. People really were pulling in megabytes of other people’s code to ship to end users so that they could, I dunno, left pad numbers or something.

Listen, I don’t care what you get up to in the privacy of your own codebase. But don’t poison the well of the web with profligate client-side JavaScript.

Monday, October 17th, 2022

Envisioning Our Shared Storm with Andrew Dana Hudson - Long Now

This observation feels spot-on to me:

The shift that I noticed, totally anecdotally, is literary writers are starting to write more dystopian climate futures and science fiction writers are starting to write about climate solutions.

Thursday, October 13th, 2022

Two JavaScripts

There are two JavaScripts.

One for the server - where you can go wild.

One for the client - that should be thoughtful and careful.

Yes! This! I’m always astounded to see devs apply the same mindset to backend and frontend development, just because it happens to be in the same language. I don’t care what you use on your own machine or your own web server, but once you’re sending something down the wire to end users, you need to prioritise their needs over your own.

It’s the JavaScript on the client side that’s the problem. What’s given to the visitor.

I’d ask you, if you’re still reading, that you consider a separation of JavaScript between client and server. If you’re a dev, consider the payload, your bundle and work to reduce the cost to your visitor. Heck, think progressive enhancement.

The Web’s Next Transition | Epic Web Dev by Kent C. Dodds

The primary benefit of Progressive Enhancement is not that “your app works without JavaScript” (though that’s a nice side-benefit) but rather that the mental model is drastically simpler.

I think that’s the primary benefit to developers. The primary benefit to users is that what you build will faster and more resilient.

Anyway, this is a really good deep dive into different architectural choices for building on the web. Although I was surprised by this assertion in the first paragraph:

The most popular architecture employed by web developers today is the Single Page App (SPA)

Citation needed. Single Page Apps do indeed dominate the discussion, but I don’t think that necessarily matches the day-to-day reality.

Tuesday, September 27th, 2022

The Future History of the Nuclear Renaissance With Isabelle Boemeke

I really like the format of this bit of journo-fiction. An interview from the future looking back at the turning point of today.

It probably helps that I’m into nuclearpunk just as much as solarpunk, so I approve this message.

Atomkraft? Ja, bitte!

Monday, September 19th, 2022

CSS { In Real Life } | Web Sustainability and the Ethical Dilemma

But is it always the case that faster websites are greener websites? We reluctantly have to consider another facet: if making a website for a car manufacturer faster leads to an increase in the number of cars sold, can we really say that our website is greener?

This is very timely for me, given that Clearleft is currently engaged on a project that’s making me decidedly queasy for this exact reason—the success metrics of the project would be net negative for the world.

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.

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.

Sunday, May 15th, 2022

6, 97: Why scorpions?

A fascinating and inspiring meditation on aerodynamics.

Thursday, April 28th, 2022

How to Imagine Climate Futures - Long Now

The best climate fiction can do more than spur us to action to save the world we have — it can help us conceptualize the worlds, both beautiful and dire, that may lie ahead. These stories can be maps to the future, tools for understanding the complex systems that intertwine with the changing climates to come.

Monday, January 3rd, 2022

The Year in Cheer

192 more stories of progress from 2021.

99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About in 2021

Some welcome perspective on healthcare, conservation, human rights, and energy.

Wednesday, December 1st, 2021

Webrise

Prompted by my talk, The State Of The Web, Brian zooms out to get some perspective on how browser power is consolidated.

The web is made of clients and servers. There’s a huge amount of diversity in the server space but there’s very little diversity when it comes to clients because making a browser has become so complex and expensive.

But Brian hopes that this complexity and expense could be distributed amongst a large amount of smaller players.

10 companies agreeing to invest $10k apiece to advance and maintain some area of shared interest is every bit as useful as 1 agreeing to invest $100k generally. In fact, maybe it’s more representative.

We believe that there is a very long tail of increasingly smaller companies who could do something, if only they coordinated to fund it together. The further we stretch this out, the more sources we enable, the more its potential adds up.

Sunday, November 7th, 2021

Untitled: a novel

Ben is writing a chapter a day of this cli-fi story. You can subscribe to the book by email or RSS.

Thursday, October 7th, 2021

Have Single-Page Apps Ruined the Web? | Transitional Apps with Rich Harris, NYTimes - YouTube

This is a terrific and nuanced talk that packs a lot into less than twenty minutes.

I heartily concur with Rich’s assessment that most websites aren’t apps or documents but something in between. It’s a continuum. And I really like Rich’s proposed approach: transitional web apps.

(The secret sauce in transitional web apps is progressive enhancement.)

Have Single-Page Apps Ruined the Web? | Transitional Apps with Rich Harris, NYTimes

Sunday, October 3rd, 2021

Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors | Fix

Twelve short stories of solarpunk cli-fi “envisioning the next 180 years of equitable climate progress.”

Whether built on abundance or adaptation, reform or a new understanding of survival, these stories provide flickers of hope, even joy, and serve as a springboard for exploring how fiction can help create a better reality.