Tags: serviceworkers



Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

Making Resilient Web Design work offline

I’ve written before about taking an online book offline, documenting the process behind the web version of HTML5 For Web Designers. A book is quite a static thing so it’s safe to take a fairly aggressive offline-first approach. In fact, a static unchanging book is one of the few situations that AppCache works for. Of course a service worker is better, but until AppCache is removed from browsers (and until service worker is supported across the board), I’m using both. I wouldn’t recommend that for most sites though—for most sites, use a service worker to enhance it, and avoid AppCache like the plague.

For Resilient Web Design, I took a similar approach to HTML5 For Web Designers but I knew that there was a good chance that some of the content would be getting tweaked at least for a while. So while the approach is still cache-first, I decided to keep the cache fairly fresh.

Here’s my service worker. It starts with the usual stuff: when the service worker is installed, there’s a list of static assets to cache. In this case, that list is literally everything; all the HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and images for the whole site. Again, this is a pattern that works well for a book, but wouldn’t be right for other kinds of websites.

The real heavy lifting happens with the fetch event. This is where the logic sits for what the service worker should do everytime there’s a request for a resource. I’ve documented the logic with comments:

// Look in the cache first, fall back to the network
  // CACHE
  // Did we find the file in the cache?
      // If so, fetch a fresh copy from the network in the background
      // NETWORK
          // Stash the fresh copy in the cache
  // If the file wasn't in the cache, make a network request
      // Stash a fresh copy in the cache in the background
  // If the request is for an image, show an offline placeholder
  // If the request is for a page, show an offline message

So my order of preference is:

  1. Try the cache first,
  2. Try the network second,
  3. Fallback to a placeholder as a last resort.

Leaving aside that third part, regardless of whether the response is served straight from the cache or from the network, the cache gets a top-up. If the response is being served from the cache, there’s an additional network request made to get a fresh copy of the resource that was just served. This means that the user might be seeing a slightly stale version of a file, but they’ll get the fresher version next time round.

Again, I think this acceptable for a book where the tweaks and changes should be fairly minor, but I definitely wouldn’t want to do it on a more dynamic site where the freshness matters more.

Here’s what it usually likes like when a file is served up from the cache:

  .then( responseFromCache => {
  // Did we find the file in the cache?
  if (responseFromCache) {
      return responseFromCache;

I’ve introduced an extra step where the fresher version is fetched from the network. This is where the code can look a bit confusing: the network request is happening in the background after the cached file has already been returned, but the code appears before the return statement:

  .then( responseFromCache => {
  // Did we find the file in the cache?
  if (responseFromCache) {
      // If so, fetch a fresh copy from the network in the background
          // NETWORK
          .then( responseFromFetch => {
              // Stash the fresh copy in the cache
              .then( cache => {
                  cache.put(request, responseFromFetch);
      return responseFromCache;

It’s asynchronous, see? So even though all that network code appears before the return statement, it’s pretty much guaranteed to complete after the cache response has been returned. You can verify this by putting in some console.log statements:

.then( responseFromCache => {
  if (responseFromCache) {
          .then( responseFromFetch => {
              console.log('Got a response from the network.');
              .then( cache => {
                  cache.put(request, responseFromFetch);
      console.log('Got a response from the cache.');
      return responseFromCache;

Those log statements will appear in this order:

Got a response from the cache.
Got a response from the network.

That’s the opposite order in which they appear in the code. Everything inside the event.waitUntil part is asynchronous.

Here’s the catch: this kind of asynchronous waitUntil hasn’t landed in all the browsers yet. The code I’ve written will fail.

But never fear! Jake has written a polyfill. All I need to do is include that at the start of my serviceworker.js file and I’m good to go:

// Import Jake's polyfill for async waitUntil

I’m also using it when a file isn’t found in the cache, and is returned from the network instead. Here’s what the usual network code looks like:

  .then( responseFromFetch => {
    return responseFromFetch;

I want to also store that response in the cache, but I want to do it asynchronously—I don’t care how long it takes to put the file in the cache as long as the user gets the response straight away.

Technically, I’m not putting the response in the cache; I’m putting a copy of the response in the cache (it’s a stream, so I need to clone it if I want to do more than one thing with it).

  .then( responseFromFetch => {
    // Stash a fresh copy in the cache in the background
    let responseCopy = responseFromFetch.clone();
      .then( cache => {
          cache.put(request, responseCopy);
    return responseFromFetch;

That all seems to be working well in browsers that support service workers. For legacy browsers, like Mobile Safari, there’s the much blunter caveman logic of an AppCache manifest.

Here’s the JavaScript that decides whether a browser gets the service worker or the AppCache:

if ('serviceWorker' in navigator) {
  // If service workers are supported
} else if ('applicationCache' in window) {
  // Otherwise inject an iframe to use appcache
  var iframe = document.createElement('iframe');
  iframe.setAttribute('src', '/appcache.html');
  iframe.setAttribute('style', 'width: 0; height: 0; border: 0');

Either way, people are making full use of the offline nature of the book and that makes me very happy indeed.

Monday, January 9th, 2017

The Futures of Typography

A wonderfully thoughtful piece from Robin, ranging from the printing technologies of the 15th century right up to the latest web technologies. It’s got all my favourite things in there: typography, digital preservation, and service workers. Marvellous!

Saturday, December 24th, 2016

10 things I learned making the fastest site in the world

Behind the amusing banter there’s some really solid performance advice in here. Good stuff.

Client Side Rendering (CSR), or as I call it “setting money on fire and throwing it in a river” has its uses, but for this site would have been madness.

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

Hey, Hey, Cloud Four is a PWA! - Cloud Four

Jason talks through the service worker strategy for his company website.

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

Service Worker, what are you? - Mariko Kosaka

This is a fun—and accurate—explanation of service workers.

There’s definitely something “alien” about a service worker—it’s kind of like a virus that gets installed on the user’s device. I’ve taken to describing it as “a man-in-the-middle attack on your own website” which makes sound a bit scarier than is necessary.

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

Less JavaScript

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.

The day was unsurprisingly excellent. All the speakers brought their A-game on a wide range of topics. Of course JavaScript was covered, but there was also plenty of mindfood on CSS, accessibility, progressive enhancement, dev tools, creative coding, and even emoji.

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.

In his talk on service workers (what else?), Jake makes the point that not everything needs to be a single page app, echoing Ada’s talk at FFConf.

He makes the point that if you really want fast rendering, nothing on the client side quite beats a server render.

They’ve written a lot of JavaScript to make this quite slow.

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.

Alex followed up his barnstorming talk from the Polymer Summit with some more uncomfortable truths about how mobile phones work.

Cell networks are basically kryptonite to the protocols and assumptions that the web was built on.

And JavaScript frameworks aren’t helping. Quite the opposite.

But make no mistake: if you’re using one of today’s more popular JavaScript frameworks in the most naive way, you are failing by default. There is no sugarcoating this.

Today’s frameworks are mostly a sign of ignorance, or privilege, or both. The good news is that we can fix the ignorance.

Sunday, October 16th, 2016

The Service Worker Lifecycle  |  Web  |  Google Developers

Jake goes into the details of what exactly is happening when a service worker is installed or replaced.

This is easily the most complex part of working with service workers, and I think I’m beginning to wrap my head around it, but the good news is that, for the most part, you don’t really need to know the ins and outs of this to get started (and dev tools are now making it easier to nuke from orbit if this begins to bite).

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016

Offline content with service workers · MadebyMike

This is a really great step-by-step walkthrough of adding a service worker to a website. Mike mentions the gotchas he encountered along the way, and describes how he incrementally levelled up the functionality.

If you’ve been going through a similar process, please write it down and share it like this!

Monday, September 19th, 2016

An intro to progressive web apps | 8th Light

A nice introduction to progressive web apps. There’s a little bit of confusion about permissions—whether a site has been added to the home screen or not has no effect on the permissions granted to it (for things like push notifications)—but the wrap-up nails the advantages of using the web:

No more waiting to download an app, no more prompts for updating an app. From a developer perspective, it means we will be able to iterate a lot quicker. We don’t need to wait for app store approvals anymore, and we can deploy at our own leisure.

Another advantage that a progressive web app has over a native mobile app is that it is linkable, hence it is easier to share and, probably even more importantly, can be indexed by search engines. This makes discoverability of the app a lot better.

Cross-origin Service Workers: Experimenting with Foreign Fetch | Web Updates - Google Developers

This one is definitely for service worker nerds only. I’ve been trying to get my head around this idea of “foreign fetch” which allows third parties to install service workers—could be handy for sites with APIs like Huffduffer and The Session. This article does a good job of explaining the somewhat tangled process.

What, Exactly, Makes Something A Progressive Web App? | Infrequently Noted

Alex runs through the features that a progressive web app must have, should have, and would be nice to have.

In general, installability criteria are tightening. Today’s Good-To-Haves may become part of tomorrow’s baseline. The opposite is unlikely because at least one major browser has made a strong commitment to tightening up the rules for installability.

Right now, this is in the nice-to-have category:

Mobile-friendly, not mobile-only.

Personally, I’d put that in the must-have category, and not just for progressive web apps.

Anyway, read on for some advice on testing and tooling when it comes to evaluating progressive web apps.

lyzadanger/pragmatist-service-worker: Pragmatist’s Guide to Service Worker

Lyza put together some example code for her Smashing Conference talk on service workers. If you haven’t written a service worker before, these are really nice examples of how to grok it bit by bit.

Monday, September 5th, 2016

The Building Blocks Of Progressive Web Apps – Smashing Magazine

This is a really good overview of progressive web apps:

An ideal web app is a web page that has the best aspects of both the web and native apps. It should be fast and quick to interact with, fit the device’s viewport, remain usable offline and be able to have an icon on the home screen.

At the same time, it must not sacrifice the things that make the web great, such as the ability to link deep into the app and to use URLs to enable sharing of content. Like the web, it should work well across platforms and not focus solely on mobile. It should behave just as well on a desktop computer as in other form factors, lest we risk having another era of unresponsive m.example.com websites.

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.

This was prompted by an article by Owen Campbell-Moore over on Ev’s blog called Designing Great UIs for Progressive Web Apps. He begins with this advice:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Web—you’re building for the web. Don’t lose sight of that. URLs matter. Accessibility matters. Performance matters.
  3. 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.

Getting the “add to home screen” prompt for https://huffduffer.com/ on Android Chrome.

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:

  1. Switch over to HTTPS if you aren’t already.
  2. Use a service worker, even if it’s just to provide a custom offline page and cache some static assets.
  3. 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.

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

Indicating offline | justmarkup

Some interesting interface ideas here for informing users when a service worker is doing its magic.

In the future users may expect a site to work offline after visiting again, but until this happens, I think it is a good idea to let the users know about this feature.

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

gmetais/sw-delta: An incremental cache for the web

Here’s an interesting use of service workers: figure out the difference (the delta) between the currently-cached version of a file, and the version on the network, and then grab only the bits that have changed. It requires some configuration on the server side (to send back the diff) but it’s an interesting approach that could be worth keeping an eye on.

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Stuff I wish I’d known sooner about service workers

Some helpful “gotchas” that could save you some frustration if you’re starting out with service workers.

Sunday, August 7th, 2016


If you’re going to dip your toes into the world of service workers, this handy library from the Chrome team is a good place to start.

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

Service worker meeting notes - JakeArchibald.com

Jake has written up the notes from the most recent gathering to discuss service workers. If you have any feedback on any of the proposed changes or additions to the spec, please add them. This proposal is the biggie:

We’re considering allowing the browser to run multiple concurrent instances of a service worker.

Friday, August 5th, 2016

ServiceWorker: A Basic Guide to BackgroundSync

A nice introduction to using Service Workers to enable syncing in the background: when the user is offline, tasks get queued up and then when the user is back online, those tasks execute.