Tags: code

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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.

Sunday, December 18th, 2022

Indiekit

Paul’s indie web project is live!

Meet the little Node.js server with all the parts needed to publish content to your personal website and share it on social networks.

You can read the accompanying blog post.

Thursday, November 17th, 2022

You don’t need HTML!

View source on this bit of tongue-in-cheek fun from Terence.

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!

Wednesday, November 16th, 2022

Bird’s-eye View · Paul Robert Lloyd

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.

Monday, November 7th, 2022

Towards Growing Peaches Online - by Claire L. Evans

A beautiful meditation on Christopher Alexander by Claire L. Evans.

Wednesday, August 24th, 2022

Lean Web Club

New from Mr. Vanilla JS himself, Chris Ferdinandi:

A learning space for people who hate the complexity of modern web development.

It’ll be $29 a month or $299 a year (giving you two months worth for free).

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2022

rottytooth/Olympus: The language where computation happens through the will of the gods

A new programming language where you pray to Greek gods.

An invocation has three parts: the god’s name and adoration (praising of that god), supplication to show the humbleness of the asker, followed by a request to add one or several of what we ordinarily call “commands” to the program.

Here’s the source code for “99 bottles of beer” in Olympus and here it is transpiled into JavaScript.

Tuesday, August 16th, 2022

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.

Wednesday, August 10th, 2022

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.

Wednesday, July 13th, 2022

The Grug Brained Developer

If only all thinkpieces on complexity in software development were written in such an entertaining style! (Although, admittedly, that would get very old very fast.)

A layman’s guide to thinking like the self-aware smol brained

Tuesday, June 28th, 2022

Tuesday, June 21st, 2022

Bjørn Karmann › Occlusion Grotesque

A typeface co-designed with a tree over the course of five years.

Yes, a tree.

Occlusion Grotesque is an experimental typeface that is carved into the bark of a tree. As the tree grows, it deforms the letters and outputs new design variations, that are captured annually.

Monday, June 20th, 2022

AddyOsmani.com - Software Engineering - The Soft Parts

Write about what you learn. It pushes you to understand topics better. Sometimes the gaps in your knowledge only become clear when you try explaining things to others. It’s OK if no one reads what you write. You get a lot out of just doing it for you.

Lots of good advice from Addy:

Saying no is better than overcommitting.

The cost of convenience — surma.dev

I believe that we haven’t figured out when and how to give a developer access to an abstraction or how to evaluate when an abstraction is worth using. Abstractions are usually designed for a set of specific use-cases. The problems, however, start when a developer wants to do something that the abstraction did not anticipate.

Smart thoughts from Surma on the design of libraries, frameworks, and other abstractions:

Abstractions that take work off of developers are valuable! Of course, they are. The problems only occur when a developer feels chained to the abstractions in a situation where they’d rather do something differently. The important part is to not force patterns onto them.

This really resonated with parts of my recent talk at CSS Day when I was talking about Sass and jQuery:

If you care about DX and the adoption of your abstraction, it is much more beneficial to let developers use as much of their existing skills as possible and introduce new concepts one at a time.

Tuesday, June 7th, 2022

Introducing Opportunities & Experiments: Taking the Guesswork out of Performance - WebPageTest Blog

WebPageTest just got even better! Now you can mimic the results of what would’ve previously required actually shipping, like adding third-party scripts, switching from a client-rendered to a server-rendered architecture and other changes that could potentially have a big effect on performance. Now you can run an experiment to get the results before actual implementation.

Wednesday, May 4th, 2022

Why I don’t miss React: a story about using the platform - Jack Franklin

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.

Sunday, May 1st, 2022

Trust • Robin Rendle

Robin adds a long-zoom perspective on my recent post:

I am extremely confident that pretty much any HTML I write today will render the same way in 50 years’ time. How confident am I that my CSS will work correctly? Mmmm…70%. Hand-written JavaScript? Way less, maybe 50%. A third-party service I install on a website or link to? 0% confident. Heck, I’m doubtful that any third-party service will survive until next year, let alone 50 years from now.

Saturday, April 30th, 2022

Trust and suspicion | Keenan Payne

Another thoughtful reponse to my recent post.

Reflections on native browser features and third-party library adoption.