Tags: spas



Wednesday, October 28th, 2020

Portals and giant carousels

I posted something recently that I think might be categorised as a “shitpost”:

Most single page apps are just giant carousels.

Extreme, yes, but perhaps there’s a nugget of truth to it. And it seemed to resonate:

I’ve never actually seen anybody justify SPA transitions with actual business data. They generally don’t seem to increase sales, conversion, or retention.

For some reason, for SPAs, managers are all of a sudden allowed to make purely emotional arguments: “it feels snappier”

If businesses were run rationally, when somebody asks for an order of magnitude increase in project complexity, the onus would be on them to prove that it proportionally improves business results.

But I’ve never actually seen that happen in a software business.

A single page app architecture makes a lot of sense for interaction-heavy sites with lots of state to maintain, like twitter.com. But I’ve seen plenty of sites built as single page apps even though there’s little to no interactivity or state management. For some people, it’s the default way of building anything on the web, even a brochureware site.

It seems like there’s a consensus that single page apps may have long initial loading times, but then they have quick transitions between “pages” …just like a carousel really. But I don’t know if that consensus is based on reality. Whether you’re loading a page of HTML or loading a chunk of JSON, you’re still making a network request that will take time to resolve.

The argument for loading a chunk of JSON is that you don’t have to make any requests for the associated CSS and JavaScript—they’re already loaded. Whereas if you request a page of HTML, that HTML will also request CSS and JavaScript.

Leaving aside the fact that is literally what the browser cache takes of, I’ve seen some circular reasoning around this:

  1. We need to create a single page app because our assets, like our JavaScript dependencies, are so large.
  2. Why are the JavaScript dependencies so large?
  3. We need all that JavaScript to create the single page app functionlity.

To be fair, in the past, the experience of going from page to page used to feel a little herky-jerky, even if the response times were quick. You’d get a flash of a white blank page between navigations. But that’s no longer the case. Browsers now perform something called “paint holding” which elimates the herky-jerkiness.

So now if your pages are a reasonable size, there’s no practical difference in user experience between full page refreshes and single page app updates. Navigate around The Session if you want to see paint holding in action. Switching to a single page app architecture wouldn’t improve the user experience one jot.


If I were controlling everything with JavaScript, then I’d also have control over how to transition between the “pages” (or carousel items, if you prefer). There’s currently no way to do that with full page changes.

This is the problem that Jake set out to address in his proposal for navigation transitions a few years back:

Having to reimplement navigation for a simple transition is a bit much, often leading developers to use large frameworks where they could otherwise be avoided. This proposal provides a low-level way to create transitions while maintaining regular browser navigation.

I love this proposal. It focuses on user needs. It also asks why people reach for JavaScript frameworks instead of using what browsers provide. People reach for JavaScript frameworks because browsers don’t yet provide some functionality: components like tabs or accordions; DOM diffing; control over styling complex form elements; navigation transitions. The problems that JavaScript frameworks are solving today should be seen as the R&D departments for web standards of tomorrow. (And conversely, I strongly believe that the aim of any good JavaScript framework should be to make itself redundant.)

I linked to Jake’s excellent proposal in my shitpost saying:

bucketloads of JavaScript wouldn’t be needed if navigation transitions were available in browsers

But then I added—and I almost didn’t—this:

(not portals)

Now you might be asking yourself what Paul said out loud:

Excuse my ignorance but… WTF are portals!?

I replied with a link to the portals proposal and what I thought was an example use case:

Portals are a proposal from Google that would help their AMP use case (it would allow a web page to be pre-rendered, kind of like an iframe).

That was based on my reading of the proposal:

…show another page as an inset, and then activate it to perform a seamless transition to a new state, where the formerly-inset page becomes the top-level document.

It sounded like Google’s top stories carousel. And the proposal goes into a lot of detail around managing cross-origin requests. Again, that strikes me as something that would be more useful for a search engine than a single page app.

But Jake was not happy with my description. I didn’t intend to besmirch portals by mentioning Google AMP in the same sentence, but I can see how the transitive property of ickiness would apply. Because Google AMP is a nasty monopolistic project that harms the web and is an embarrassment to many open web advocates within Google, drawing any kind of comparison to AMP is kind of like Godwin’s Law for web stuff. I know that makes it sounds like I’m comparing Google AMP to Hitler, and just to be clear, I’m not (though I have myself been called a fascist by one of the lead engineers on AMP).

Clearly, emotions run high when Google AMP is involved. I regret summoning its demonic presence.

After chatting with Jake some more, I tried to find a better use case to describe portals. Reading the proposal, portals sound a lot like “spicy iframes”. So here’s a different use case that I ran past Jake: say you’re on a website that has an iframe embedded in it—like a YouTube video, for example. With portals, you’d have the ability to transition the iframe to a fully-fledged page smoothly.

But Jake told me that even though the proposal talks a lot about iframes and cross-origin security, portals are conceptually more like using rel="prerender" …but then having scripting control over how the pre-rendered page becomes the current page.

Put like that, portals sound more like Jake’s original navigation transitions proposal. But I have to say, I never would’ve understood that use case just from reading the portals proposal. I get that the proposal is aimed more at implementators than authors, but in its current form, it doesn’t seem to address the use case of single page apps.

Kenji said:

we haven’t seen interest from SPA folks in portals so far.

I’m not surprised! He goes on:

Maybe, they are happy / benefits aren’t clear yet.

From my own reading of the portals proposal, I think the benefits are definitely not clear. It’s almost like the opposite of Jake’s original proposal for navigation transitions. Whereas as that was grounded in user needs and real-world examples, the portals proposal seems to have jumped to the intricacies of implementation without covering the user needs.

Don’t get me wrong: if portals somehow end up leading to a solution more like Jake’s navigation transitions proposals, then I’m all for that. That’s the end result I care about. I’d love it if people had a lightweight option for getting the perceived benefits of single page apps without the costly overhead in performance that comes with JavaScripting all the things.

I guess the web I want includes giant carousels.

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

as days pass by — Hammer and nails

We don’t give people a website any more: something that already works, just HTML and CSS and JavaScript ready to show them what they want. Instead, we give them the bits from which a website is made and then have them compile it.

Spot-on description of “modern” web development. When did this become tolerable, much less normal?

Web developers: maybe stop insisting that your users compile your apps for you? Or admit that you’ll put them through an experience that you certainly don’t tolerate on your own desktops, where you expect to download an app, not to be forced to compile it every time you run it?

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

What I’ve learned about accessibility in SPAs

Nolan writes up what he learned making accessibiity improvements to a single page app. The two big takeways involve letting the browser do the work for you:

Here’s the best piece of accessibility advice for newbies: if something is a button, make it a <button>. If something is an input, make it an <input>. Don’t try to reinvent everything from scratch using <div>s and <span>s.

And then there are all the issues that crop up when you take over the task of handling navigations:

  • You need to manage focus yourself.
  • You need to manage scroll position yourself.

For classic server-rendered pages, most browser engines give you this functionality for free. You don’t have to code anything. But in an SPA, since you’re overriding the normal navigation behavior, you have to handle the focus yourself.

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

Designing for actual performance by Adam Silver

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The justification for single page apps feels like circular thinking to me. A JavaScript framework is needed to avoid full page refreshes because full page refreshes are expensive because that means assets will be reloaded …assets like the JavaScript framework that only exists to avoid the full page refresh.

This is how it goes. We put a load of shit into a single web page. This makes the page slow. Slow to load, slow to render. Slow.

Instead of getting rid of the shit, we blame the page refresh.

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

Welcome to Acccessible App | Accessible App

A very welcome project from Marcus Herrmann, documenting how to make common interaction patterns accessible in popular frameworks: Vue, React, and Angular.

Monday, March 25th, 2019

Stuffing the Front End

53% of mobile visits leave a page that takes longer than 3 seconds to load. That means that a large number of visitors probably abandoned these sites because they were staring at a blank screen for 3 seconds, said “fuck it,” and left approximately half way before the page showed up. The fact that the next page interaction would have been quicker—assuming all the JS files even downloaded correctly in the first attempt—doesn’t amount to much if they didn’t stick around for the first page to load. What was gained by putting the business logic in the front end in this scenario?

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

You probably don’t need a single-page application

If there are no specific reasons to build a single-page application, I will go with a traditional server-rendered architecture every day of the week.

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

Seva Zaikov - Single Page Application Is Not a Silver Bullet

Harsh (but fair) assessment of the performance costs of doing everything on the client side.

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

CloseBrace | A Brief, Incomplete History of JavaScript

Another deep dive into web history, this time on JavaScript. The timeline of JS on the web is retroactively broken down into four eras:

  • the early era: ~1996 – 2004,
  • the jQuery era: ~2004 – 2010,
  • the Single Page App era: ~2010 - 2014, and
  • the modern era: ~2014 - present.

Nice to see “vanilla” JavaScript making a resurgence in that last one.

It’s 2017, the JavaScript ecosystem is both thriving and confusing as all hell. No one seems to be quite sure where it’s headed, only that it’s going to continue to grow and change. The web’s not going anywhere, which means JS isn’t going anywhere, and I’m excited to see what future eras bring us.