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Monday, April 15th, 2019

James Bridle / New Ways of Seeing

James has a new four part series on Radio 4. Episodes will be available for huffduffing shortly after broadcast.

New Ways of Seeing considers the impact of digital technologies on the way we see, understand, and interact with the world. Building on John Berger’s seminal Ways of Seeing from 1972, the show explores network infrastructures, digital images, systemic bias, education and the environment, in conversation with a number of contemporary art practitioners.

Saturday, April 13th, 2019

Offline fallback page with service worker - Modern Web Development: Tales of a Developer Advocate by Paul Kinlan

Paul describes a fairly straightforward service worker recipe: a custom offline page for failed requests.

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

Building accessible websites and apps is a moral obligation | Go Make Things

  • Morality is not always relative.
  • You’re a web professional.
  • The web is accessible out-of-the-box. We break it.
  • It’s not on people with disabilities to tell you how you screwed up.
  • It should be easier. This is our job.

Friday, April 5th, 2019

Why Computer Programmers Should Stop Calling Themselves Engineers - The Atlantic

This article by Ian Bogost from a few years back touches on one of the themes in the talk I gave at New Adventures:

“Engineer” conjures the image of the hard-hat-topped designer-builder, carefully crafting tomorrow. But such an aspiration is rarely realized by computing. The respectability of engineering, a feature built over many decades of closely controlled, education- and apprenticeship-oriented certification, becomes reinterpreted as a fast-and-loose commitment to craftwork as business.

Friday, March 29th, 2019

Benjamin Parry Home-brew

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

Benjamin Parry Offline Homebrewing

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.

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

Going Offline—the talk of the book

I gave a new talk at An Event Apart in Seattle yesterday morning. The talk was called Going Offline, which the eagle-eyed amongst you will recognise as the title of my most recent book, all about service workers.

I was quite nervous about this talk. It’s very different from my usual fare. Usually I have some big sweeping arc of history, and lots of pretentious ideas joined together into some kind of narrative arc. But this talk needed to be more straightforward and practical. I wasn’t sure how well I would manage that brief.

I knew from pretty early on that I was going to show—and explain—some code examples. Those were the parts I sweated over the most. I knew I’d be presenting to a mixed audience of designers, developers, and other web professionals. I couldn’t assume too much existing knowledge. At the same time, I didn’t want to teach anyone to such eggs.

In the end, there was an overarching meta-theme to talk, which was this: logic is more important than code. In other words, figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish (and describing it clearly) is more important than typing curly braces and semi-colons. Programming is an act of translation. Before you can translate something, you need to be able to articulate it clearly in your own language first. By emphasising that point, I hoped to make the code less overwhelming to people unfamilar with it.

I had tested the talk with some of my Clearleft colleagues, and they gave me great feedback. But I never know until I’ve actually given a talk in front of a real conference audience whether the talk is any good or not. Now that I’ve given the talk, and received more feedback, I think I can confidentally say that it’s pretty damn good.

My goal was to explain some fairly gnarly concepts—let’s face it: service workers are downright weird, and not the easiest thing to get your head around—and to leave the audience with two feelings:

  1. This is exciting, and
  2. This is something I can do today.

I deliberately left time for questions, bribing people with free copies of my book. I got some great questions, and I may incorporate some of them into future versions of this talk (conference organisers, if this sounds like the kind of talk you’d like at your event, please get in touch). Some of the points brought up in the questions were:

  • Is there some kind of wizard for creating a typical service worker script for any site? I didn’t have a direct answer to this, but I have attempted to make a minimal viable service worker that could be used for just about any site. Mostly I encouraged the questioner to roll their sleeves up and try writing a bespoke script. I also mentioned the Workbox library, but I gave my opinion that if you’re going to spend the time to learn the library, you may as well spend the time to learn the underlying language.
  • What are some state-of-the-art progressive web apps for offline user experiences? Ooh, this one kind of stumped me. I mean, the obvious poster children for progressive webs apps are things like Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. They’re all great but the offline experience is somewhat limited. To be honest, I think there’s more potential for great offline experiences by publishers. I especially love the pattern on personal sites like Una’s and Sara’s where people can choose to save articles offline to read later—like a bespoke Instapaper or Pocket. I’d love so see that pattern adopted by some big publications. I particularly like that gives so much more control directly to the end user. Instead of trying to guess what kind of offline experience they want, we give them the tools to craft their own.
  • Do caches get cleaned up automatically? Great question! And the answer is mostly no—although browsers do have their own heuristics about how much space you get to play with. There’s a whole chapter in my book about being a good citizen and cleaning up your caches, but I didn’t include that in the talk because it isn’t exactly exciting: “Hey everyone! Now we’re going to do some housekeeping—yay!”
  • Isn’t there potential for abuse here? This is related to the previous question, and it’s another great question to ask of any technology. In short, yes. Bad actors could use service workers to fill up caches uneccesarily. I’ve written about back door service workers too, although the real problem there is with iframes rather than service workers—iframes and cookies are technologies that are already being abused by bad actors, and we’re going to see more and more interventions by ethical browser makers (like Mozilla) to clamp down on those technologies …just as browsers had to clamp down on the abuse of pop-up windows in the early days of JavaScript. The cache API could become a tragedy of the commons. I liken the situation to regulation: we should self-regulate, but if we prove ourselves incapable of that, then outside regulation (by browsers) will be imposed upon us.
  • What kind of things are in the future for service workers? Excellent question! If you think about it, a service worker is kind of a conduit that gives you access to different APIs: the Cache API and the Fetch API being the main ones now. A service worker is like an airport and the APIs are like the airlines. There are other APIs that you can access through service workers. Notifications are available now on desktop and on Android, and they’ll be coming to iOS soon. Background Sync is another powerful API accessed through service workers that will get more and more browser support over time. The great thing is that you can start using these APIs today even if they aren’t universally supported. Then, over time, more and more of your users will benefit from those enhancements.

If you attended the talk and want to learn more about about service workers, there’s my book (obvs), but I’ve also written lots of blog posts about service workers and I’ve linked to lots of resources too.

Finally, here’s a list of links to all the books, sites, and articles I referenced in my talk…

Books

Sites

Progressive Web Apps

Monday, February 25th, 2019

Good doggo on Brighton seafront.

Good doggo on Brighton seafront.

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

WWW: Where’s the Writable Web?

Prompted by our time at CERN, Remy ponders why web browsers (quite quickly) diverged from the original vision of being read/write software.

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

JournalBook

A small but perfectly formed progressive web app. It’s a private, offline-first personal journal with no log-in and no server-stored data. You can read about the tech stack behind it:

Your notes are only stored on your device — they’re never sent to a server. You don’t even need to sign-in to use it! It works offline, so you can reflect upon your day on the slow train journey home.

Friday, December 28th, 2018

Malicious AI Report

Well, this an interesting format experiment—the latest Black Mirror just dropped, and it’s a PDF.

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

The 15 Web Design Books of 2018 You Can’t Afford to Miss

How lovely! Going Offline is in very good company in this list, and Oliver has some nice words to say about it:

Starting with no assumption of JavaScript knowledge, Jeremy explains the latest strategies, the ins and outs of fetching and caching, how to enhance your website’s performance, and more.

Extremely beginner-friendly and approachable, it can be read in half a day and will help you get Service Workers up and running in no time.

But all I want for Christmas is for Shopify to stop enabling Breitbart.

Sunday, December 16th, 2018

Browsers

Microsoft’s Edge browser is going to switch its rendering engine over to Chromium.

I am deflated and disappointed.

There’s just no sugar-coating this. I’m sure the decision makes sound business sense for Microsoft, but it’s not good for the health of the web.

Very soon, the vast majority of browsers will have an engine that’s either Blink or its cousin, WebKit. That may seem like good news for developers when it comes to testing, but trust me, it’s a sucky situation of innovation and agreement. Instead of a diverse browser ecosystem, we’re going to end up with incest and inbreeding.

There’s one shining exception though. Firefox. That browser was originally created to combat the seemingly unstoppable monopolistic power of Internet Explorer. Now that Microsoft are no longer in the rendering engine game, Firefox is once again the only thing standing in the way of a complete monopoly.

I’ve been using Firefox as my main browser for a while now, and I can heartily recommend it. You should try it (and maybe talk to your relatives about it at Christmas). At this point, which browser you use no longer feels like it’s just about personal choice—it feels part of something bigger; it’s about the shape of the web we want.

Jeffrey wrote that browser diversity starts with us:

The health of Firefox is critical now that Chromium will be the web’s de facto rendering engine.

Even if you love Chrome, adore Gmail, and live in Google Docs or Analytics, no single company, let alone a user-tracking advertising giant, should control the internet.

Andy Bell also writes about browser diversity:

I’ll say it bluntly: we must support Firefox. We can’t, as a community allow this browser engine monopoly. We must use Firefox as our main dev browsers; we must encourage our friends and families to use it, too.

Yes, it’s not perfect, nor are Mozilla, but we can help them to develop and grow by using Firefox and reporting issues that we find. If we just use and build for Chromium, which is looking likely (cough Internet Explorer monopoly cough), then Firefox will fall away and we will then have just one major engine left. I don’t ever want to see that.

Uncle Dave says:

If the idea of a Google-driven Web is of concern to you, then I’d encourage you to use Firefox. And don’t be a passive consumer; blog, tweet, and speak about its killer features. I’ll start: Firefox’s CSS Grid, Flexbox, and Variable Font tools are the best in the business.

Mozilla themselves came out all guns blazing when they said Goodbye, EdgeHTML:

Microsoft is officially giving up on an independent shared platform for the internet. By adopting Chromium, Microsoft hands over control of even more of online life to Google.

Tim describes the situation as risking a homogeneous web:

I don’t think Microsoft using Chromium is the end of the world, but it is another step down a slippery slope. It’s one more way of bolstering the influence Google currently has on the web.

We need Google to keep pushing the web forward. But it’s critical that we have other voices, with different viewpoints, to maintain some sense of balance. Monocultures don’t benefit anyone.

Andre Alves Garzia writes that while we Blink, we lose the web:

Losing engines is like losing languages. People may wish that everyone spoke the same language, they may claim it leads to easier understanding, but what people fail to consider is that this leads to losing all the culture and way of thought that that language produced. If you are a Web developer smiling and happy that Microsoft might be adopting Chrome, and this will make your work easier because it will be one less browser to test, don’t be! You’re trading convenience for diversity.

I like that analogy with language death. If you prefer biological analogies, it’s worth revisiting this fantastic post by Rachel back in August—before any of us knew about Microsoft’s decision—all about the ecological impact of browser diversity:

Let me be clear: an Internet that runs only on Chrome’s engine, Blink, and its offspring, is not the paradise we like to imagine it to be.

That post is a great history lesson, documenting how things can change, and how decisions can have far-reaching unintended consequences.

So these are the three browser engines we have: WebKit/Blink, Gecko, and EdgeHTML. We are unlikely to get any brand new bloodlines in the foreseeable future. This is it.

If we lose one of those browser engines, we lose its lineage, every permutation of that engine that would follow, and the unique takes on the Web it could allow for.

And it’s not likely to be replaced.

Thursday, December 13th, 2018

Learning to unlearn – The Sea of Ideas

This is the real challenge for service workers:

For 30 years, we taught billions of humans that you need to be connected to the internet to consume the web via a browser! This means web users need to unlearn that web sites can’t be used offline.

Friday, December 7th, 2018

Goodbye, EdgeHTML - The Mozilla Blog

Mozilla comes out with all guns blazing:

Microsoft is officially giving up on an independent shared platform for the internet. By adopting Chromium, Microsoft hands over control of even more of online life to Google.

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Microsoft Edge: Making the web better through more open source collaboration - Windows Experience BlogWindows Experience Blog

The marketing people at Microsoft are doing their best to sell us on the taste and nutritional value of their latest shit sandwich piece of news.

We will move to a Chromium-compatible web platform for Microsoft Edge on the desktop.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Introducing Background Fetch  |  Web  |  Google Developers

I’m going to have to read through this article by Jake a few times before I begin to wrap my head around this background fetch thing, but it looks like it would be perfect for something like the dConstruct Audio Archive, where fairly large files can be saved for offline listening.

Mistletoe Offline

This article first appeared in 24 Ways, the online advent calendar for geeks.

It’s that time of year, when we gather together as families to celebrate the life of the greatest person in history. This man walked the Earth long before us, but he left behind words of wisdom. Those words can guide us every single day, but they are at the forefront of our minds during this special season.

I am, of course, talking about Murphy, and the golden rule he gave unto us:

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

So true! I mean, that’s why we make sure we’ve got nice 404 pages. It’s not that we want people to ever get served a File Not Found message, but we acknowledge that, despite our best efforts, it’s bound to happen sometime. Murphy’s Law, innit?

But there are some Murphyesque situations where even your lovingly crafted 404 page won’t help. What if your web server is down? What if someone is trying to reach your site but they lose their internet connection? These are all things than can—and will—go wrong.

I guess there’s nothing we can do about those particular situations, right?

Wrong!

A service worker is a Murphy-battling technology that you can inject into a visitor’s device from your website. Once it’s installed, it can intercept any requests made to your domain. If anything goes wrong with a request—as is inevitable—you can provide instructions for the browser. That’s your opportunity to turn those server outage frowns upside down. Take those network connection lemons and make network connection lemonade.

If you’ve got a custom 404 page, why not make a custom offline page too?

Get your server in order

Step one is to make …actually, wait. There’s a step before that. Step zero. Get your site running on HTTPS, if it isn’t already. You won’t be able to use a service worker unless everything’s being served over HTTPS, which makes sense when you consider the awesome power that a service worker wields.

If you’re developing locally, service workers will work fine for localhost, even without HTTPS. But for a live site, HTTPS is a must.

Make an offline page

Alright, assuming your site is being served over HTTPS, then step one is to create an offline page. Make it as serious or as quirky as is appropriate for your particular brand. If the website is for a restaurant, maybe you could put the telephone number and address of the restaurant on the custom offline page (unsolicited advice: you could also put this on the home page, you know). Here’s an example of the custom offline page for this year’s Ampersand conference.

When you’re done, publish the offline page at suitably imaginative URL, like, say /offline.html.

Pre-cache your offline page

Now create a JavaScript file called serviceworker.js. This is the script that the browser will look to when certain events are triggered. The first event to handle is what to do when the service worker is installed on the user’s device. When that happens, an event called install is fired. You can listen out for this event using addEventListener:

addEventListener('install', installEvent => {
// put your instructions here.
}); // end addEventListener

In this case, you want to make sure that your lovingly crafted custom offline page is put into a nice safe cache. You can use the Cache API to do this. You get to create as many caches as you like, and you can call them whatever you want. Here, I’m going to call the cache Johnny just so I can refer to it as JohnnyCache in the code:

addEventListener('install', installEvent => {
  installEvent.waitUntil(
    caches.open('Johnny')
    .then( JohnnyCache => {
      JohnnyCache.addAll([
       '/offline.html'
      ]); // end addAll
     }) // end open.then
  ); // end waitUntil
}); // end addEventListener

I’m betting that your lovely offline page is linking to a CSS file, maybe an image or two, and perhaps some JavaScript. You can cache all of those at this point:

addEventListener('install', installEvent => {
  installEvent.waitUntil(
    caches.open('Johnny')
    .then( JohnnyCache => {
      JohnnyCache.addAll([
       '/offline.html',
       '/path/to/stylesheet.css',
       '/path/to/javascript.js',
         '/path/to/image.jpg'
      ]); // end addAll
     }) // end open.then
  ); // end waitUntil
}); // end addEventListener

Make sure that the URLs are correct. If just one of the URLs in the list fails to resolve, none of the items in the list will be cached.

Intercept requests

The next event you want to listen for is the fetch event. This is probably the most powerful—and, let’s be honest, the creepiest—feature of a service worker. Once it has been installed, the service worker lurks on the user’s device, waiting for any requests made to your site. Every time the user requests a web page from your site, a fetch event will fire. Every time that page requests a style sheet or an image, a fetch event will fire. You can provide instructions for what should happen each time:

addEventListener('fetch', fetchEvent => {
// What happens next is up to you!
}); // end addEventListener

Let’s write a fairly conservative script with the following logic:

  • Whenever a file is requested,
  • First, try to fetch it from the network,
  • But if that doesn’t work, try to find it in the cache,
  • But if that doesn’t work, and it’s a request for a web page, show the custom offline page instead.

Here’s how that translates into JavaScript:

// Whenever a file is requested
addEventListener('fetch', fetchEvent => {
  const request = fetchEvent.request;
  fetchEvent.respondWith(
    // First, try to fetch it from the network
    fetch(request)
    .then( responseFromFetch => {
      return responseFromFetch;
    }) // end fetch.then
    // But if that doesn't work
    .catch( fetchError => {
      // try to find it in the cache
      caches.match(request)
      .then( responseFromCache => {
        if (responseFromCache) {
         return responseFromCache;
       // But if that doesn't work
       } else {
         // and it's a request for a web page
         if (request.headers.get('Accept').includes('text/html')) {
           // show the custom offline page instead
           return caches.match('/offline.html');
         } // end if
       } // end if/else
     }) // end match.then
   }) // end fetch.catch
  ); // end respondWith
}); // end addEventListener

I am fully aware that I may have done some owl-drawing there. If you need a more detailed breakdown of what’s happening at each point in the code, I’ve written a whole book for you. It’s the perfect present for Murphymas.

Hook up your service worker script

You can publish your service worker script at /serviceworker.js but you still need to tell the browser where to look for it. You can do that using JavaScript. Put this in an existing JavaScript file that you’re calling in to every page on your site, or add this in a script element at the end of every page’s HTML:

if (navigator.serviceWorker) {
  navigator.serviceWorker.register('/serviceworker.js');
}

That tells the browser to start installing the service worker, but not without first checking that the browser understands what a service worker is. When it comes to JavaScript, feature detection is your friend.

You might already have some JavaScript files in a folder like /assets/js/ and you might be tempted to put your service worker script in there too. Don’t do that. If you do, the service worker will only be able to handle requests made to for files within /assets/js/. By putting the service worker script in the root directory, you’re making sure that every request can be intercepted.

Go further!

Nicely done! You’ve made sure that if—no, when—a visitor can’t reach your website, they’ll get your hand-tailored offline page. You have temporarily defeated the forces of chaos! You have briefly fought the tide of entropy! You have made a small but ultimately futile gesture against the inevitable heat-death of the universe!

This is just the beginning. You can do more with service workers.

What if, every time you fetched a page from the network, you stored a copy of that page in a cache? Then if that person tries to reach that page later, but they’re offline, you could show them the cached version.

Or, what if instead of reaching out the network first, you checked to see if a file is in the cache first? You could serve up that cached version—which would be blazingly fast—and still fetch a fresh version from the network in the background to pop in the cache for next time. That might be a good strategy for images.

So many options! The hard part isn’t writing the code, it’s figuring out the steps you want to take. Once you’ve got those steps written out, then it’s a matter of translating them into JavaScript.

Inevitably there will be some obstacles along the way—usually it’s a misplaced curly brace or a missing parenthesis. Don’t be too hard on yourself if your code doesn’t work at first. That’s just Murphy’s Law in action.

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

While we Blink, we lose the Web

Losing [browser] engines is like losing languages. People may wish that everyone spoke the same language, they may claim it leads to easier understanding, but what people fail to consider is that this leads to losing all the culture and way of thought that that language produced. If you are a Web developer smiling and happy that Microsoft might be adopting Chrome, and this will make your work easier because it will be one less browser to test, don’t be! You’re trading convenience for diversity.

Risking a Homogeneous Web - TimKadlec.com

When’s the last time you can remember that a framework was given preferential treatment like AMP has been given? You could argue that it’s a format, like RSS, but no one has ever tried to convince developers to build their entire site in RSS.

I’m with Tim on his nervousness about Google’s ever-increasing power in the world of web standards.

Monocultures don’t benefit anyone.