Thursday, March 23rd, 2017
Saturday, March 18th, 2017
Google have released this encoder for JPEGs which promises 20-30% smaller file sizes without any perceptible loss of quality.
Wednesday, March 15th, 2017
I can forgive our answer machines if they sometimes get it wrong. It’s less easy to forgive the confidence with which the bad answer is presented, giving the impression that the answer is definitive. That’s a design problem.
Monday, March 13th, 2017
In AMP we trust
Except AMP isn’t really one technology, is it? And therein lies the confusion. This was at the heart of the panel I was on. When we talk about AMP, we could be talking about one of three things:
- The AMP format. A bunch of web components. For instance, instead of using an
imgelement on an AMP page, you use an
styleelement instead of an external file, and there’s a limit on what you can do with those styles.
- The AMP cache. The source of most confusion—and even downright enmity—this is what’s behind the fact that when you launch an AMP result from Google search, you don’t go to another website. You see Google’s cached copy of the page instead of the original.
The first piece of AMP—the format—is kind of like a collection of marginal gains. Where the
img element might have some performance issues, the
amp-img element optimises for perceived performance. But if you just used the AMP web components, it wouldn’t be enough to make your site blazingly fast.
The second part of AMP—the rules—is where the speed gains start to really show. You can’t have an external style sheet, and crucially, you can’t have any third-party scripts other than the AMP script itself. This is key to making AMP pages super fast. It’s not so much about what AMP does; it’s more about what it doesn’t allow. If you never used a single AMP component, but stuck to AMP’s rules disallowing external styles and scripts, you could easily make a page that’s even faster than what AMP can do.
At AMP Conf, Natalia pointed out that The Guardian’s non-AMP pages beat out the AMP pages for performance. So why even have AMP pages? Well, that’s down to the third, most contentious, part of the AMP puzzle.
The AMP cache turns the user experience of visiting an AMP page from fast to instant. While you’re still on the search results page, Google will pre-render an AMP page in the background. Not pre-fetch, pre-render. That’s why it opens so damn fast. It’s also what causes the most confusion for end users.
From my unscientific polling, the behaviour of AMP results confuses the hell out of people. The fact that the page opens instantly isn’t the problem—far from it. It’s the fact that you don’t actually go to an another page. Technically, you’re still on Google. An analogous mental model would be an RSS reader, or an email client: you don’t go to an item or an email; you view it in situ.
Well, that mental model would be fine if it were consistent. But in Google search, only some results will behave that way (the AMP pages) and others will behave just like regular links to other websites. No wonder people are confused! Some search results take them away and some search results keep them on Google …even though the page looks like a different website.
The price that we pay for the instantly-opening AMP pages from the Google cache is the URL. Because we’re looking at Google’s pre-rendered copy instead of the original URL, the address bar is not pointing to the site the browser claims to be showing. Everything in the body of the browser looks like an article from The Guardian, but if I look at the URL (which is what security people have been telling us for years is important to avoid being phished), then I’ll see a domain that is not The Guardian’s.
But wait! Couldn’t Google pre-render the page at its original URL?
Yes, they could. But they won’t.
This was a point that Paul kept coming back to: trust. There’s no way that Google can trust that someone else’s URL will play by the AMP rules (no external scripts, only loading embedded content via web components, limited styles, etc.). They can only trust the copies that they themselves are serving up from their cache.
By the way, there was a joint AMP/search panel at AMP Conf with representatives from both teams. As you can imagine, there were many questions for the search team, most of which were Glomar’d. But one thing that the search people said time and again was that Google was not hosting our AMP pages. Now I don’t don’t know if they were trying to make some fine-grained semantic distinction there, but that’s an outright falsehood. If I click on a link, and the URL I get taken to is a Google property, then I am looking at a page hosted by Google. Yes, it might be a copy of a document that started life somewhere else, but if Google are serving something from their cache, they are hosting it.
This is one of the reasons why AMP feels like such a bait’n’switch to me. When it first came along, it felt like a direct competitor to Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News. But the big difference, we were told, was that you get to host your own content. That appealed to me much more than having Facebook or Apple host the articles. But now it turns out that Google do host the articles.
This will be the point at which Googlers will say no, no, no, you can totally host your own AMP pages …but you won’t get the benefits of pre-rendering. But without the pre-rendering, what’s the point of even having AMP pages?
Alright, but what about The Guardian? They’ve already got fast pages, but they still have to create separate AMP pages if they want to get the pre-rendering benefits when they show up in Google search results. Sorry, says Google, but it’s the only way we can trust that the pre-rendered page will be truly fast.
So here’s the impasse we’re at. Google have provided a list of best practices for making fast web pages, but the only way they can truly verify that a page is sticking to those best practices is by hosting their own copy, URLs be damned.
This was the crux of Paul’s argument when he was on the Shop Talk Show podcast (it’s a really good episode—I was genuinely reassured to hear that Paul is not gung-ho about drinking the AMP Kool Aid; he has genuine concerns about the potential downsides for the web).
Initially, I accepted this argument that Google just can’t trust the rest of the web. But the more I talked to people at AMP Conf—and I had some really, really good discussions with people away from the stage—the more I began to question it.
Here’s the thing: the regular Google search can’t guarantee that any web page is actually 100% the right result to return for a search. Instead there’s a lot of fuzziness involved: based on the content, the markup, and the number of trusted sources linking to this, it looks like it should be a good result. In other words, Google search trusts websites to—by and large—do the right thing. Sometimes websites abuse that trust and try to game the system with sneaky tricks. Google responds with penalties when that happens.
Why can’t it be the same for AMP pages? Let me host my own AMP pages (maybe even host my own AMP script) and then when the Googlebot crawls those pages—the same as it crawls any other pages—that’s when it can verify that the AMP page is abiding by the rules. If I do something sneaky and trick Google into flagging a page as fast when it actually isn’t, then take my pre-rendering reward away from me.
To be fair, Google has very, very strict rules about what and how to pre-render the AMP results it’s caching. I can see how allowing even the potential for a false positive would have a negative impact on the user experience of Google search. But c’mon, there are already false positives in regular search results—fake news, spam blogs. Googlers are smart people. They can solve—or at least mitigate—these problems.
Google says it can’t trust our self-hosted AMP pages enough to pre-render them. But they ask for a lot of trust from us. We’re supposed to trust Google to cache and host copies of our pages. We’re supposed to trust Google to provide some mechanism to users to get at the original canonical URL. I’d like to see trust work both ways.
Wednesday, March 8th, 2017
Here’s the panel I was on at the AMP conference. It was an honour and a pleasure to share the stage with Nicole, Sarah, Gina, and Mike.
Friday, February 3rd, 2017
The largest complaint by far is that the URLs for AMP links differ from the canonical URLs for the same content, making sharing difficult. The current URLs are a mess.
This is something that the Google gang are aware of, and they say they’re working on a fix. But this post points out some other misgivings with AMP, like its governance policy:
This keeps the AMP HTML specification squarely in the hands of Google, who will be able to take it in any direction that they see fit without input from the community at large. This guise of openness is perhaps even worse than the Apple News Format, which at the very least does not pretend to be an open standard.
Thursday, January 12th, 2017
This is an interesting use of voodoo magic (or “machine learning” as we call it now) by Google to interpolate data in a small image to create a larger version. A win for performance.
Thursday, January 5th, 2017
So if AMP is useful it’s because it raises the stakes. If we (news developers) don’t figure out faster ways to load our pages for readers, then we’re going to lose a lot of magic.
A number of developers answered questions on the potential effects of Google’s AMP project. This answer resonates a lot with my own feelings:
AMP is basically web performance best practices dressed up as a file format. That’s a very clever solution to what is, at heart, a cultural problem: when management (in one form or another) comes to the CMS team at a news organization and asks to add more junk to the site, saying “we can’t do that because AMP” is a much more powerful argument than trying to explain why a pop-over “Like us on Facebook!” modal is driving our readers to drink.
But the danger is that AMP turns into a long-term “solution” instead of a stop-gap:
So in a sense, the best possible outcome is that AMP is disruptive enough to shake the boardroom into understanding the importance of performance in platform decisions (and making the hard business decisions this demands), but that developers are allowed to implement those decisions in standard HTML instead of adding yet another delivery format to their export pipeline.
The ideal situation looks a lot more like Tim’s proposal:
Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017
Wednesday, December 28th, 2016
Sunday, December 4th, 2016
Henrik points to some crucial information that slipped under the radar at the Chrome Dev Summit—the Android OS is going to treat progressive web apps much more like regular native apps. This is kind of a big deal.
It’s a good time to go all in on the web. I can’t wait to see what the next few years bring. Personally, I feel like the web is well poised to replace the majority of apps we now get from app stores.
Wednesday, November 30th, 2016
Sounds like AMP is a bit of a roach motel. You can check out anytime you like, but you can only leave with great difficulty.
Thursday, November 17th, 2016
Every front-end developer at Clearleft went to FFConf last Friday: me, Mark, Graham, Charlotte, and Danielle. We weren’t about to pass up the opportunity to attend a world-class dev conference right here in our home base of Brighton.
Normally FFConf would be a good opportunity to catch up with some Pauls from the Google devrel team, but because of an unfortunate scheduling clash this year, all the Pauls were at Chrome Dev Summit 2016 on the other side of the Atlantic.
I’ve been catching up on the videos from the event. There’s plenty of tech-related stuff: dev tools, web components, and plenty of talk about progressive web apps. But there was also a very, very heavy focus on performance. I don’t just mean performance at the shallow scale of file size and optimisation, but a genuine questioning of the impact of our developer workflows and tools.
He makes the point that if you really want fast rendering, nothing on the client side quite beats a server render.
Unfortunately, all too often, I hear people say that a progressive web app must be a single page app. And I am not so sure. You might not need a single page app. A single page app can end up being a lot of work and slower. There’s a lot of cargo-culting around single page apps.
Cell networks are basically kryptonite to the protocols and assumptions that the web was built on.
Today’s frameworks are mostly a sign of ignorance, or privilege, or both. The good news is that we can fix the ignorance.
Thursday, November 3rd, 2016
I don’t really have much of an opinion on his central point that browser makers should work more closely with framework makers. I’m not so sure I agree with the central premise that frameworks are going to be around for the long haul. I think good frameworks—like jQuery—should aim to make themselves redundant.
But anyway, along the way, Tom makes this observation:
Google has an institutional tendency to go it alone.
I don’t really mind these inventions. We’re not forced to adopt them, and generally, we don’t. Tom again:
See, that’s a really, really good point. It’s so much easier to get people to adjust their behaviour than to change it completely.
Sass is a really good example of this. You can take any
.css file, save it as a
.scss file, and now you’re using Sass. Then you can start using features (or not) as needed. Very smart.
Incidentally, I’m very curious to know how many people use the scss syntax (which is the same as CSS) compared to how many people use the sass indented syntax (the one with significant whitespace). In his brilliant Sass for Web Designers book, I don’t think Dan even mentioned the indented syntax.
Or compare the adoption of Sass to the adoption of HAML. Now, admittedly, the disparity there might be because Sass adds new features, whereas HAML is a purely stylistic choice. But I think the more fundamental difference is that Sass—with its scss syntax—only requires you to slightly adjust your behaviour, whereas something like HAML requires you to go all in right from the start.
This is something that has been on my mind a lately while I’ve been preparing my new talk on evaluating technology (the talk went down very well at An Event Apart San Francisco, by the way—that’s a relief). In the talk, I made a reference to one of Grace Hopper’s famous quotes:
Humans are allergic to change.
Now, Grace Hopper subsequently says:
I try to fight that.
I contrast that with the approach that Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau took with their World Wide Web project. The individual pieces were built on what people were already familiar with. URLs use slashes so they’d be feel similar to UNIX file paths. And the first fledging version of HTML took its vocabulary almost wholesale from a version of SGML already in use at CERN. In fact, you could pretty much take an existing CERN SGML file and open it as an HTML file in a web browser.
Oh, and that browser would ignore any tags it didn’t understand—behaviour that, in my opinion, would prove crucial to the growth and success of HTML. Because of its familiarity, its simplicity, and its forgiving error handling, HTML turned to be more successful than Tim Berners-Lee expected, as he wrote in his book Weaving The Web:
I expected HTML to be the basic waft and weft of the Web but documents of all types: video, computer aided design, sound, animation and executable programs to be the colored threads that would contain much of the content. It would turn out that HTML would become amazingly popular for the content as well.
Humans are allergic to change. And that’s okay.
Sunday, October 23rd, 2016
John is rightly puzzled by AMP:
Can someone explain to me why a website would publish AMP versions of their articles?
Sadly, there is an answer to that question: if a website is so bloated and horrible to use that people won’t stick around to read an article, then AMP starts to look like a good option.
But I don’t have an answer for John’s other question:
Why would any website turn their entire mobile audience — a majority share of their total audience, for many sites today — over to Google?
Wednesday, September 28th, 2016
Chrome is going to refuse to parse
document.write for users on a slow connection. On the one hand, I feel that Google intervening in this way is a bit icky, but I on the other hand, I totally support this move.
This keeps happening. Google announce a change (usually related to search) where I think “Ooh, that could be interpreted as an abuse of a monopoly position …but it’s for ver good reason so I’ll keep quiet.”
Anyway, this should serve as a good kick in the pants for bad actors (that’s you, advertisers) to update their scripts to be asynchronous.
Tuesday, September 27th, 2016
Chris runs through the process and pitfalls of POSSEing a site (like CSS Tricks) to Apple’s News app, Facebook’s Instant Articles, and Google’s AMP.
Hey, whatever you want. As long as…
- It’s not very much work
- The content’s canonical home is my website.
I just want people to read and like CSS-Tricks.
Monday, September 5th, 2016
The imitation game
Jason shared some thoughts on designing progressive web apps. One of the things he’s pondering is how much you should try make your web-based offering look and feel like a native app.
Start by forgetting everything you know about conventional web design, and instead imagine you’re actually designing a native app.
This makes me squirm. I mean, I’m all for borrowing good ideas from other media—native apps, TV, print—but I don’t think that inspiration should mean imitation. For me, that always results in an interface that sits in a kind of uncanny valley of being almost—but not quite—like the thing it’s imitating.
With that out of the way, most of the recommendations in Owen’s article are sensible ideas about animation, input, and feedback. But then there’s recommendation number eight: Provide an easy way to share content:
PWAs are often shown in a context where the current URL isn’t easily accessible, so it is important to ensure the user can easily share what they’re currently looking at. Implement a share button that allows users to copy the URL to the clipboard, or share it with popular social networks.
See, when a developer has to implement a feature that the browser should be providing, that seems like a bad code smell to me. This is a problem that Opera is solving (and Google says it is solving, while meanwhile penalising developers who expose the URL to end users).
Anyway, I think my squeamishness about all the advice to imitate native apps is because it feels like a cargo cult. There seems to be an inherent assumption that native is intrinsically “better” than the web, and that the only way that the web can “win” is to match native apps note for note. But that misses out on all the things that only the web can do—instant distribution, low-friction sharing, and the ability to link to any other resource on the web (and be linked to in turn). Turning our beautifully-networked nodes into standalone silos just because that’s the way that native apps have to work feels like the cure that kills the patient.
If anything, my advice for building a progressive web app would be the exact opposite of Owen’s: don’t forget everything you’ve learned about web design. In my opinion, the term “progressive web app” can be read in order of priority:
- Progressive—build in a layered way so that anyone can access your content, regardless of what device or browser they’re using, rewarding the more capable browsers with more features.
- Web—you’re building for the web. Don’t lose sight of that. URLs matter. Accessibility matters. Performance matters.
- App—sure, borrow what works from native apps if it makes sense for your situation.
Jason asks questions about how your progressive web app will behave when it’s added to the home screen. How much do you match the platform? How do you manage going chromeless? And the big one: what do users expect?
Will people expect an experience that maps to native conventions? Or will they be more accepting of deviation because they came to the app via the web and have already seen it before installing it?
These are good questions and I share Jason’s hunch:
My gut says that we can build great experiences without having to make it feel exactly like an iOS or Android app because people will have already experienced the Progressive Web App multiple times in the browser before they are asked to install it.
In all the messaging from Google about progressive web apps, there’s a real feeling that the ability to install to—and launch from—the home screen is a real game changer. I’m not so sure that we should be betting the farm on that feature (the offline possibilities opened up by service workers feel like more of a game-changer to me).
People have been gleefully passing around the statistic that the average number of native apps installed per month is zero. So how exactly will we measure the success of progressive web apps against native apps …when the average number of progressive web apps installed per month is zero?
I like Android’s add-to-home-screen algorithm (although it needs tweaking). It’s a really nice carrot to reward the best websites with. But let’s not carried away. I think that most people are not going to click that “add to home screen” prompt. Let’s face it, we’ve trained people to ignore prompts like that. When someone is trying to find some information or complete a task, a prompt that pops up saying “sign up to our newsletter” or “download our native app” or “add to home screen” is a distraction to be dismissed. The fact that only the third example is initiated by the operating system, rather than the website, is irrelevant to the person using the website.
My hunch is that the majority of people will still interact with your progressive web app via a regular web browser view. If, then, only a minority of people are going to experience your site launched from the home screen in a native-like way, I don’t think it makes sense to prioritise that use case.
The great thing about progressive web apps is that they are first and foremost websites. Literally everyone who interacts with your progressive web app is first going to do so the old-fashioned way, by following a link or typing in a URL. They may later add it to their home screen, but that’s just a bonus. I think it’s important to build progressive web apps accordingly—don’t pretend that it’s just like building a native app just because some people will be visiting via the home screen.
I’m worried that developers are going to think that progressive web apps are something that need to built from scratch; that you have to start with a blank slate and build something new in a completely new way. Now, there are some good examples of these kind of one-off progressive web apps—The Guardian’s RioRun is nicely done. But I don’t think that the majority of progressive web apps should fall into that category. There’s nothing to stop you taking an existing website and transforming it step-by-step into a progressive web app:
- Switch over to HTTPS if you aren’t already.
- Use a service worker, even if it’s just to provide a custom offline page and cache some static assets.
- Make a manifest file to point to an icon and specify some colours.
See? Not exactly a paradigm shift in how you approach building for the web …but those deceptively straightforward steps will really turbo-boost your site.
I’m really excited about progressive web apps …but mostly for the “progressive” and “web” parts. Maybe I’ll start calling them progressive web sites. Or progressive web thangs.
Wednesday, August 24th, 2016
Two pieces of good news from Google:
- 85% of websites qualify as mobile-friendly, so there’s no longer a need to explicitly label them as such in search results.
- Google will down-rank sites that have annoying pop-overs demanding you download an app or sign up to an email newsletter when you’re trying to read the damn page.