Here’s a BBC adaption of that J.G. Ballard short story I recorded. It certainly feels like a story for our time.
Wednesday, April 1st, 2020
Thursday, March 26th, 2020
Apple’s attack on service workers
Apple aren’t the best at developer relations. But, bad as their communications can be, I’m willing to cut them some slack. After all, they’re not used to talking with the developer community.
John Wilander wrote a blog post that starts with some excellent news: Full Third-Party Cookie Blocking and More. Safari is catching up to Firefox and disabling third-party cookies by default. Wonderful! I’ve had third-party cookies disabled for a few years now, and while something occassionally breaks, it’s honestly a pretty great experience all around. Denying companies the ability to track users across sites is A Good Thing.
In the same blog post, John said that client-side cookies will be capped to a seven-day lifespan, as previously announced. Just to be clear, this only applies to client-side cookies. If you’re setting a cookie on the server, using PHP or some other server-side language, it won’t be affected. So persistent logins are still doable.
Then, in an audacious example of burying the lede, towards the end of the blog post, John announces that a whole bunch of other client-side storage technologies will also be capped to seven days. Most of the technologies are APIs that, like cookies, can be used to store data: Indexed DB, Local Storage, and Session Storage (though there’s no mention of the Cache API). At the bottom of the list is this:
Service Worker registrations
Okay, let’s clear up a few things here (because they have been so poorly communicated in the blog post)…
The seven day timer refers to seven days of Safari usage, not seven calendar days (although, given how often most people use their phones, the two are probably interchangable). So if someone returns to your site within a seven day period of using Safari, the timer resets to zero, and your service worker gets a stay of execution. Lucky you.
This only applies to Safari. So if your site has been added to the home screen and your web app manifest has a value for the “display” property like “standalone” or “full screen”, the seven day timer doesn’t apply.
That piece of information was missing from the initial blog post. Since the blog post was updated to include this clarification, some people have taken this to mean that progressive web apps aren’t affected by the upcoming change. Not true. Only progressive web apps that have been added to the home screen (and that have an appropriate “display” value) will be spared. That’s a vanishingly small percentage of progressive web apps, especially on iOS. To add a site to the home screen on iOS, you need to dig and scroll through the share menu to find the right option. And you need to do this unprompted. There is no ambient badging in Safari to indicate that a site is installable. Chrome’s install banner isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing.
Just a reminder: a progressive web app is a website that
- runs on HTTPS,
- has a service worker,
- and a web manifest.
Adding to the home screen is something you can do with a progressive web app (or any other website). It is not what defines progressive web apps.
In any case, this move to delete service workers after seven days of using Safari is very odd, and I’m struggling to find the connection to the rest of the blog post, which is about technologies that can store data.
As I understand it, with the crackdown on setting third-party cookies, trackers are moving to first-party technologies. So whereas in the past, a tracking company could tell its customers “Add this
script element to your pages”, now they have to say “Add this
The best explanation I can come up with for this move by Apple is that it feels like the neatest solution. That’s neat as in tidy, not as in nifty. It is definitely not a nifty solution.
If some technologies set by a specific domain are being purged after seven days, then the tidy thing to do is purge all technologies from that domain. Service workers are getting included in that dragnet.
Now, to be fair, browsers and operating systems are free to clean up storage space as they see fit. Caches, Local Storage, Indexed DB—all of those are subject to eventually getting cleaned up.
So I was curious. Wanting to give Apple the benefit of the doubt, I set about trying to find out how long service worker registrations currently last before getting deleted. Maybe this announcement of a seven day time limit would turn out to be not such a big change from current behaviour. Maybe currently service workers last for 90 days, or 60, or just 30.
There was no time limit previously.
This is not a minor change. This is a crippling attack on service workers, a technology specifically designed to improve the user experience for return visits, whether it’s through improved performance or offline access.
I wouldn’t be so stunned had this announcement come with an accompanying feature that would allow Safari users to know when a website is a progressive web app that can be added to the home screen. But Safari continues to ignore the existence of progressive web apps. And now it will actively discourage people from using service workers.
If you’d like to give feedback on this ludicrous development, you can file a bug (down in the cellar in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”).
No doubt there will still be plenty of Apple apologists telling us why it’s good that Safari has wished service workers into the cornfield. But make no mistake. This is a terrible move by Apple.
I will say this though: given The Situation we’re all living in right now, some good ol’ fashioned Hot Drama by a browser vendor behaving badly feels almost comforting.
Tuesday, March 17th, 2020
Clearleft is a remote-working company right now. I mean, that’s hardly surprising—just about everyone I know is working from home.
We made this decision on Friday. It was clear that the spread of COVID-19 was going exponential (even with the very incomplete data available in the UK). Despite the wishy-washy advice from the government—which has since pivoted drastically—we made the decision to literally get ahead of the curve. We had one final get-together in the studio yesterday to plan logistics and pick up equipment. Then it was time to start this chapter.
- one Aeron chair,
- one big monitor,
- a wired keyboard,
- a wireless mouse, and
- noise-cancelling headphones.
Cassie kindly provided the use of her van to get that stuff home. The Aeron chair proved to be extremely tricky to get through my narrow front door. For a while there, it looked like I’d need to take the door off the hinges but with a whole lotta pushin’ and a-pullin’ Jessica and I managed to somehow get it in.
Now I’ve got a reasonable home studio set up, I can get back to working on that conference talk I’m prepar… Oh.
Yeah, I guess I’ve got a stay of execution on that. For the past few months I’ve had my head down preparing a new hour-long talk for An Event Apart. Yes, it takes me that long to put a talk together—it feels kinda like writing a book. I’d like to think it’s because I’m so meticulous, but the truth is that I’m just very slow at most things. Also, I’m a bad one for procrastinating.
For the past week or so, while I’ve been making pretty darn good progress on the talk, a voice in the back of my head has been whispering “Hey, maybe the conference won’t even happen!” In answer to which, the voice in the front of my head has been saying “Would you shut the fuck up? I’m trying to work here!”
I was due to debut the talk at An Event Apart Seattle in May. Sure enough, that event has quite rightly been cancelled. So have a lot of other excellent events. It’s a real shame, and my heart goes out to event organisers who pour so much of themselves into their events; their love, their care, and not least, their financial risk.
I speak at quite a few events every year. I really, really enjoy it. For one, public speaking is one of the few things I think I’m actually any good at. Also, I just love the chance to meet my peers and collectively nerd out together for a short while.
Then there’s the travel. This year I was planning on drastically reducing my plane travel. I had bagged myself speaking slots in European cities that I could reach by train: Cologne, Strasbourg, even Lisbon, along with domestic destinations like Nottingham, Manchester, and Plymouth. I was quite looking forward to some train adventures. But those will have to wait.
Right now I’m going to settle into this new home routine. It’s not entirely new to me. Back in the early 2000s, I worked from home as a freelancer. Back then, Jessica and I worked not just in the same room, but on opposite ends of the same table!
We’ve got more room now. Jessica has her own office space. I’m getting used to mine. But as Jessica pointed out:
I’ve worked from home for 20(!) years, I love it, I’m made for it, I can’t imagine not doing it—and I’ve gotten absolutely nothing done for the past week.
Newly WFH folks, the situation now is totally unconducive to concentration and productivity. Be gentle with yourselves.
Wednesday, February 26th, 2020
Lessons for web development from a home renovation project:
- Greenfield Projects Are Everyone’s Favorite
- The Last Person’s Work Is Always Bewildering
- It’s All About the Trade-Offs
- It ALWAYS Takes Longer Than You Think
- Communication, Communication, Communication!
And there’s this:
You know those old homes people love because they’re unique, have lasted for decades, and have all that character? In contrast, you have these modern subdivision homes that, while shiny and new, are often bland and identical (and sometimes shoddily built).
node_modulesis like the suburbia/subdivision of modern web development: it seems nice and fancy today, and most everyone is doing it, but in 30 years everyone will hate the idea. They’ll all need to be renovated or torn down. Meanwhile, the classical stuff that’s still standing from 100 years ago lives on but nobody seems to be building houses that way anymore for some reason. Similarly, the first website ever is still viewable in all modern web browsers. But many websites built last year on last year’s bleeding edge tech already won’t work in a browser.
Friday, January 10th, 2020
There’s an interesting thread on Github about the tongue-twistingly named
Let me back up…
Progressive web apps. You know what they are, right? They’re websites that have taken their vitamins. Specifically, they’re responsive websites that:
- are served over HTTPS,
- have a web app manifest, and
- have a service worker handling the offline scenario.
The web app manifest—a JSON file of metadata—is particularly useful for describing how your site should behave if someone adds it to their home screen. You can specify what icon should be used. You can specify whether the site should launch in a browser or as a standalone app (practically indistinguishable from a native app). You can specify which URL on the site should be used as the starting point when the site is launched from the home screen.
So progressive web apps work just fine when you visit them in a browser, but they really shine when you add them to your home screen. It seems like pretty much everyone is in agreement that adding a progressive web app to your home screen shouldn’t be an onerous task. But how does the browser let the user know that it might be a good idea to “install” the web site they’re looking at?
The Samsung Internet browser does ambient badging—a
+ symbol shows up to indicate that a website can be installed. This is a great approach!
I hope that Chrome on Android will also use ambient badging at some point. To start with though, Chrome notified users that a site was installable by popping up a notification at the bottom of the screen. I think these might be called “toasts”.
Needless to say, the toast notification wasn’t very effective. That’s because we web designers and developers have spent years teaching people to immediately dismiss those notifications without even reading them. Accept our cookies! Sign up to our newsletter! Install our native app! Just about anything that’s user-hostile gets put in a notification (either a toast or an overlay) and shoved straight in the user’s face before they’ve even had time to start reading the content they came for in the first place. Users will then either:
- turn around and leave, or
- use muscle memory reach for that
Xin the corner of the notification.
A tiny fraction of users might actually click on the call to action, possibly by mistake.
beforeinstallprompt can be used.
It’s a bit weird though. You have to “capture” the event that fires when the prompt would have normally been shown, subdue it, hold on to that event, and then re-release it when you think it should be shown (like when the user has completed a transaction, for example, and having your site on the home screen would genuinely be useful). That’s a lot of hoops. Here’s the code I use on The Session to only show the installation prompt to users who are logged in.
The end result is that the user is still shown a toast notification, but at least this time it’s the site owner who has decided when it will be shown. The Chrome team call this notification “the mini-info bar”, and Pete acknowledges that it’s not ideal:
The mini-infobar is an interim experience for Chrome on Android as we work towards creating a consistent experience across all platforms that includes an install button into the omnibox.
I think “an install button in the omnibox” means ambient badging in the browser interface, which would be great!
Anyway, back to that thread on Github. Basically, neither Apple nor Mozilla are going to implement the
beforeinstallprompt event (well, technically Mozilla have implemented it but they’re not going to ship it). That’s fair enough. It’s an interim solution that’s not ideal for all reasons I’ve already covered.
But there’s a lot of pushback. Even if the details of
beforeinstallprompt are troublesome, surely there should be some way for site owners to let users know that can—or should—install a progressive web app? As a site owner, I have a lot of sympathy for that viewpoint. But I also understand the security and usability issues that can arise from bad actors abusing this mechanism.
Still, I have to hand it to Chrome: even if we put the
beforeinstallprompt event to one side, the browser still has a mechanism for letting users know that a progressive web app can be installed—the mini info bar. It’s not a great mechanism, but it’s better than nothing. Nothing is precisely what Firefox and Safari currently offer (though Firefox is experimenting with something).
In the case of Safari, not only do they not provide a mechanism for letting the user know that a site can be installed, but since the last iOS update, they’ve buried the “add to home screen” option even deeper in the “sharing sheet” (the list of options that comes up when you press the incomprehensible rectangle-with-arrow-emerging-from-it icon). You now have to scroll below the fold just to find the “add to home screen” option.
So while I totally get the misgivings about
beforeinstallprompt, I feel that a constructive alternative wouldn’t go amiss.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
Except… there’s another interesting angle to that Github thread. There’s talk of allowing sites that are launched from the home screen to have access to more features than a site inside a web browser. Usually permissions on the web are explicitly granted or denied on a case-by-case basis: geolocation; notifications; camera access, etc. I think this is the first time I’ve heard of one action—adding to the home screen—being used as a proxy for implicitly granting more access. Very interesting. Although that idea seems to be roundly rejected here:
A key argument for using installation in this manner is that some APIs are simply so powerful that the drive-by web should not be able to ask for them. However, this document takes the position that installation alone as a restriction is undesirable.
I understand that Chromium or Google may hold such a position but Apple’s WebKit team may not necessarily agree with such a position.
Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
We choose whether our work stays alive on the internet. As long as we keep our hosting active, our site remains online. Compare that to social media platforms that go public one day and bankrupt the next, shutting down their app and your content along with it.
But the real truth is that as long as we’re putting our work in someone else’s hands, we forfeit our ownership over it. When we create our own website, we own it – at least to the extent that the internet, beautiful in its amorphous existence, can be owned.
Thursday, September 5th, 2019
I know a number of people who blog as a way to express themselves, for expression’s sake, rather than for anyone else wanting to read it. It’s a great way to have a place to “scream into the void” and share your thoughts.
Thursday, August 22nd, 2019
The best time to make a personal website is 20 years ago. The second best time to make a personal website is now.
Chris offers some illustrated advice:
- Define the purpose of your site
- Organize your content
- Look for inspiration
- Own your own domain name
- Build your website
Thursday, August 8th, 2019
Earlier this year, at Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf, I got replies working on my own site. That is to say, I can host a reply on my site to something on another site.
The classic example is Twitter. In fact, if you look at all my replies, most of them are responding to tweets (I also syndicate these replies to Twitter so they show up there just like regular tweet replies).
I’m really, really glad I got replies working. I’ve been using this functionality quite a bit, and it feels really good to own my content this way.
At the time, I wrote:
So I’m owning my replies now. At the moment, they show up in my home page feed just like any other notes I post. I’m not sure if I’ll keep it that way. They don’t make much sense out of context.
I decided not to include them on my home page feed after all. You’ll still see them if you go to the notes section of my site, but I decided that they were overwhelming my home page a bit. They also don’t show up in my RSS feed.
I’m really happy that I’m hosting my replies, and that I’ve got URLs for all of them, but I don’t think I want to give them the same priority as blog posts, links, and regular notes.
Friday, July 19th, 2019
I’ve shaped this timeline over five months. It might look simple, but it most definitely was not. I liken it to chipping away at a block of marble, or the slow process of evolving a painting, or constructing a poem; endless edits, questions, doubling back, doubts. It was so good to have something meaty to get stuck into, but sometimes it was awful, and many times I considered throwing it away. Overall it was challenging, fun, and worth the effort.
Simon describes the process of curating the lovely timeline on his personal homepage.
My timeline is just like me, and just like my life: unfinished, and far from perfect.
Thursday, June 6th, 2019
Some ideas for interface elements that prompt progressive web app users to add the website to their home screen.
Thursday, May 30th, 2019
Indie web events in Brighton
Homebrew Website Club is a regular gathering of people getting together to tinker on their own websites. It’s a play on the original Homebrew Computer Club from the ’70s. It shares a similar spirit of sharing and collaboration.
Homebrew Website Clubs happen at various locations: London, San Francisco, Portland, Nuremberg, and more. Usually there on every second Wednesday.
I started running Homebrew Website Club Brighton a while back. I tried the “every second Wednesday” thing, but it was tricky to make that work. People found it hard to keep track of which Wednesdays were Homebrew days and which weren’t. And if you missed one, then it would potentially be weeks between attending.
So I’ve made it a weekly gathering. On Thursdays. That’s mostly because Thursdays work for me: that’s one of the evenings when Jessica has her ballet class, so it’s the perfect time for me to spend a while in the company of fellow website owners.
If you’re in Brighton and you have your own website (or you want to have your own website), you should come along. It’s every Thursday from 6pm to 7:30pm ‘round at the Clearleft studio on 68 Middle Street. Add it to your calendar.
(I’m at Homebrew Website Club Brighton right now, writing this. Remy is here too, working on some very cool webmention stuff.)
There’s something else you should add to your calendar. We’re going to have an Indie Web Camp in Brighton on October 19th and 20th. I realise that’s quite a way off, but I’m giving you plenty of advance warning so you can block out that weekend (and plan travel if you’re coming from outside Brighton).
If you’ve never been to an Indie Web Camp before, you should definitely come! It’s indescribably fun and inspiring. The first day—Saturday—is a BarCamp-style day of discussions to really get the ideas flowing. Then the second day—Sunday—is all about designing, building, and making. The whole thing wraps up with demos.
It’s been a while since we’ve had an Indie Web Camp in Brighton. You can catch up on the Brighton Indie Web Camps we had in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Since then I’ve been to Indie Web Camps in Berlin, Nuremberg, and Düsseldorf, but it’s going to be really nice to bring it back home.
The event will be free to attend, but I’ll set up an official ticket page on Ti.to to keep track of who’s coming. I’ll let you know when that’s up and ready. In the meantime, you can register your interest in attending on the 2019 Indie Webcamp Brighton page on the Indie Web wiki.
Wednesday, April 24th, 2019
There’s a new reissue of the twenty year old documentary on Justin Hall’s links.net and the early days of the web.
Friday, March 29th, 2019
I love the way that Benjamin is documenting his activities at Homebrew Website Club Brighton each week:
Another highly productive 90 mins.
Homebrew website club is on every Thursday evening 6.00-7.30pm at Clearleft. You should come along!
Friday, March 22nd, 2019
Two of my favourite things: indie web and service workers.
This makes me so happy. I remember saying when my book came out, that the best feedback I could possibly get would be readers making their websites work offline. The same can be said for the talk of the book.
Friday, February 1st, 2019
It’s interesting to compare the release notes for each browser and see the different priorities reflected in them (this is another reason why browser diversity is A Good Thing).
A lot of the Firefox changes are updates to dev tools; they just keep getting better and better. In fact, I’m not sure “dev tools” is the right word for them. With their focus on layout, typography, and accessibility, “design tools” might be a better term.
Oh, and Firefox is shipping support for some CSS properties that really help with print style sheets, so I’m disproportionately pleased about that.
In Safari’s changes, I’m pleased to see that the
datalist element is finally getting implemented. I’ve been a fan of that element for many years now. (Am I a dork for having favourite HTML elements? Or am I a dork for even having to ask that question?)
And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Safari release without a new made up
meta tag. From the people who brought you such hits as
apple-mobile-web-app-capable, comes …
supported-color-schemes (Apple likes to make up
meta tags almost as much as Google likes to make up
There’ll be a whole bunch of improvements in how progressive web apps will behave once they’ve been added to the home screen. We’ll finally get some state persistence if you navigate away from the window!
Updated the behavior of websites saved to the home screen on iOS to pause in the background instead of relaunching each time.
Maximiliano Firtman has a detailed list of the good, the bad, and the “not sure yet if good” for progressive web apps on iOS 12.2 beta. Thomas Steiner has also written up the progress of progressive web apps in iOS 12.2 beta. Both are published on Ev’s blog.
Chrome 72 for Android shipped the long-awaited Trusted Web Activity feature, which means we can now distribute PWAs in the Google Play Store!
Very interesting indeed! I’m not sure if I’m ready to face the Kafkaesque process of trying to add something to the Google Play Store just yet, but it’s great to know that I can. Combined with the improvements coming in iOS 12.2, these are exciting times for progressive web apps!
Monday, November 19th, 2018
Friday, August 3rd, 2018
I got an intriguing email recently from someone who’s a member of The Session, the community website about Irish traditional music that I run. They said:
When I recently joined, I used my tablet to join. Somewhere I was able to download The Session app onto my tablet.
But there is no native app for The Session. Although, as it’s a site that I built, it is, a of course, progressive web app.
They went on to say:
I wanted to put the app on my phone but I can’t find the app to download it. Can I have the app on more than one device? If so, where is it available?
I replied saying that yes, you can absolutely have it on more than one device:
But you don’t find The Session app in the app store. Instead you go to the website https://thesession.org and then add it to your home screen from your browser.
My guess is that this person had added The Session to the home screen of their Android tablet, probably following the “add to home screen” prompt. I recently added some code to use the
window.beforeinstallprompt event so that the “add to home screen” prompt would only be shown to visitors who sign up or log in to The Session—a good indicator of engagement, I reckon, and it should reduce the chance of the prompt being dismissed out of hand.
So this person added The Session to their home screen—probably as a result of being prompted—and then used it just like any other app. At some point, they didn’t even remember how the app got installed:
Success! I did it. Thanks. My problem was I was looking for an app to download.
On the one hand, this is kind of great: here’s an example where, in the user’s mind, there’s literally no difference between the experience of using a progressive web app and using a native app. Win!
But on the other hand, the expectation is still that apps are to be found in an app store, not on the web. This expectation is something I wrote about recently (and Justin wrote a response to that post). I finished by saying:
Perhaps the inertia we think we’re battling against isn’t such a problem as long as we give people a fast, reliable, engaging experience.
When this member of The Session said “My problem was I was looking for an app to download”, I responded by saying:
Well, I take that as a compliment—the fact that once the site is added to your home screen, it feels just like a native app. :-)
And they said:
Yes, it does!
Tuesday, July 10th, 2018
Twitter and Instagram progressive web apps
The two major candidates are Twitter and Instagram. I added them to my home screen, and banished the native apps off to a separate screen. I’ve been using both progressive web apps for a few months now, and I have to say, they’re pretty darn great.
There are a few limitations compared to the native apps. On Twitter, if you follow a link from a tweet, it pops open in Safari, which is fine, but when you return to Twitter, it loads anew. This isn’t any fault of Twitter—this is the way that web apps have worked on iOS ever since they introduced their weird
web-app-capable meta element. I hope this behaviour will be fixed in a future update.
Also, until we get web notifications on iOS, I need to keep the Twitter native app around if I want to be notified of a direct message (the only notification I allow).
Apart from those two little issues though, Twitter Lite is on par with the native app.
Instagram is also pretty great. It too suffers from some navigation issues. If I click through to someone’s profile, and then return to the main feed, it also loads it anew, losing my place. It would be great if this could be fixed.
For some reason, the Instagram web app doesn’t allow uploading multiple photos …which is weird, because I can upload multiple photos on my own site by adding the
multiple attribute to the
input type="file" in my posting interface.
Apart from that, though, it works great. And as I never wanted notifications from Instagram anyway, the lack of web notifications doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, because the progressive web app doesn’t keep nagging me about enabling notifications, it’s a more pleasant experience overall.
Something else that was really annoying with the native app was the preponderance of advertisements. It was really getting out of hand.
Well …(looks around to make sure no one is listening)… don’t tell anyone, but the Instagram progressive web app—i.e. the website—doesn’t have any ads at all!
Here’s hoping it stays that way.
Thursday, July 5th, 2018
Hui Jing describes her motivation for creating the lovely Penang Hokkien site:
People who grew up their whole lives in a community that spoke the same mother tongue as themselves would probably find this hard to relate to, but it really was something else to hear my mother tongue streaming out of the speakers of my computer.
She ends with an impassioned call for more local language websites:
If the Internet is meant to enhance the free flow of information and ideas across the world, then creation of content on the web should not largely be limited to English-speaking communities.