So many folks spend time on their CSS and their UX/UI but still come up with URLs that are at best, comically long, and at worst, user hostile.
Thursday, July 13th, 2017
Sunday, April 16th, 2017
Domains registered with punycode names (and then given TLS certificates) are worryingly indistinguishable from their ASCII counterparts.
Can you spot the difference between the URLs https://adactio.com and https://аdаctіо.com?
Sunday, April 2nd, 2017
This year’s Render conference just wrapped up in Oxford. It was a well-run, well-curated event, right up my alley: two days of a single track of design and development talks (see also: An Event Apart and Smashing Conference for other events in this mold that get it right).
One of my favourite talks was from Frances Ng. She gave a thoroughly entertaining account of her journey from aerospace engineer to front-end engineer, filled with ideas about how to get started, and keep from getting overwhelmed in the world of the web.
She recommended taking the time to occasionally dive deep into a foundational topic, pointing to another talk as a perfect example; Ana Balica gave a great presentation all about HTTP. The second half of the talk was about HTTP 2 and was filled with practical advice, but the first part was a thoroughly geeky history of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, which I really loved.
While I’m mentoring Amber, we’ve been trying to find a good balance between those deep dives into the foundational topics and the hands-on day-to-day skills needed for web development. So far, I think we’ve found a good balance.
But between those visits—which happen every one or two weeks—I’ve been giving Amber homework of sorts. That’s where the foundational building blocks come in. Here are the questions I’ve asked so far:
- What is the difference between the internet and the web?
- What is the difference between GET and POST?
- What are cookies?
The first question is a way of understanding the primacy of URLs on the web. Amber wrote about her research. The second question was getting at an understanding of HTTP. Amber wrote about that too. The third and current question is about state on the web. I’m looking forward to reading a write-up of that soon.
We’re still figuring out this whole mentorship thing but I think this balance of research and exercises is working out well.
Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017
It has been exactly six years to the day since I instantiated this prediction:
The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.
It is exactly five years to the day until the prediction condition resolves to a Boolean
If it resolves to
true, The Bletchly Park Trust will receive $1000.
If it resolves to
false, The Internet Archive will receive $1000.
Much as I would like Bletchley Park to get the cash, I’m hoping to lose this bet. I don’t want my pessimism about URL longevity to be rewarded.
So, to recap, the bet was placed on
It is currently
And the bet times out on
Friday, February 17th, 2017
Teaching in Porto, day four
Day four was a deliberate step away from all that. No more laptops, just paper. Whereas the previous days had focused on collaboratively working on a single document, today I wanted everyone to work on a separate site.
The sites were generated randomly. I made five cards with types of sites on them: news, social network, shopping, travel, and learning. Another five cards had subjects: books, music, food, pets, and cars. And another five cards had audiences: students, parents, the elderly, commuters, and teachers. Everyone was dealt a random card from each deck, resulting in briefs like “a travel site about food for the elderly” or “a social network about music for commuters.”
For a bit of fun, the first brainstorming exercise (run as a 6-up) was to come with potential names for this service—4 minutes for 6 ideas. Then we went around the table, shared the ideas, got feedback, and settled on the names.
Now I asked everyone to come up with a one-sentence mission statement for their newly-named service. This was a good way of teasing out the most important verbs and nouns, which led nicely into the next task: answering the question “what is the core functionality?”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the first part of the three-step process I outlined in Resilient Web Design:
- Identify core functionality.
- Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
We did some URL design, figuring out what structures would make sense for straightforward
GET requests, like:
Then, once it was clear what the primary “thing” was (a car, a book, etc.), I asked them to write down all the pieces that might appear on such a page; one post-it note per item e.g. “title”, “description”, “img”, “rating”, etc.
The next step involved prioritisation. They took those post-it notes and put them on the wall, but they had to put them in a vertical line from top to bottom in decreasing order of importance. This can be a challenge, but it’s better to solve these problems now rather than later.
Okay. I know asked them to “mark up” those vertical lists of post-it notes: writing HTML tag names by each one. By doing this before doing any visual design, it meant they were thinking about the meaning of the content first.
After that, we did a good ol’ fashioned classic 6-up sketching exercise, followed by critique (including a “designated dissenter” for each round). At this point, I was encouraging them to go crazy with ideas—they already had the core functionality figured out (with plain ol’ client/server requests and responses) so they could all the bells and whistles they wanted on top of that.
We finished up with a discussion of some of those bells and whistles, and how they could be used to improve the user experience: Ajax, geolocation, service workers, notifications, background sync …the sky’s the limit.
It was a whirlwind tour for just one day but I think it helped emphasise the importance of thinking about the fundamentals before adding enhancements.
This marked the end of the structured masterclass lessons. Tomorrow I’m around to answer any miscellaneous questions (if I can) and chat to the students individually while they work on their term projects.
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.
Tuesday, November 8th, 2016
A really clear introduction to the pieces of a URL by Vera, who is setting out on her career as a front-end developer.
Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016
Some more food for thought, following on from Shaun’s post about HTML as the foundation of web development:
Monday, September 19th, 2016
Jonathan takes a look at the physical web. Like me, he’s excited by the possibilities. Although he says:
Sadly, my mind quickly devolved into the annoyance of numerous notifications, like popup windows and other distracting adverts, vying for my attention.
This is a common worry with the physical web, but it’s unfounded. All a beacon does is broadcast a URL. You have to actively look for the URLs being broadcast—they can’t send notifications.
It all just feels like QR codes. They’ll be all over the place and most of them won’t be very useful.
I understand this concern, but whereas QR codes are completely opaque to humans, at least URLs can—and should—be human-readable …so, unlike QR codes, a URL can give you some idea of what awaits.
Tuesday, August 9th, 2016
Another dive into the archives of the www-talk mailing list. This time there are some gems about the origins of the
input element, triggered by the old
Friday, July 15th, 2016
From the ARPANET to the internet, this is a great history of the Domain Name System:
Root DNS servers operate in safes, inside locked cages. A clock sits on the safe to ensure the camera feed hasn’t been looped. Particularly given how slow DNSSEC implementation has been, an attack on one of those servers could allow an attacker to redirect all of the Internet traffic for a portion of Internet users. This, of course, makes for the most fantastic heist movie to have never been made.
Wednesday, July 6th, 2016
Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016
Tuesday, May 31st, 2016
Monday, May 30th, 2016
Regression toward being mean
I highly recommend Remy’s State Of The Gap post—it’s ace. He summarises it like this:
I strongly believe in the concepts behind progressive web apps and even though native hacks (Flash, PhoneGap, etc) will always be ahead, the web, always gets there. Now, today, is an incredibly exciting time to be build on the web.
I agree completely. That might sound odd after I wrote about Regressive Web Apps, but it’s precisely because I’m so excited by the technologies behind progressive web apps that I think it’s vital that we do them justice. As Remy says:
Without HTTPS and without service workers, you can’t add to homescreen. This is an intentionally high bar of entry with damn good reasons.
When the user installs a PWA, it has to work. It’s our job as web developers to provide the most excellent experience for our users.
It has to work.
That’s why I don’t agree with Dion’s metrics for what makes a progressive web app:
If you deliver an experience that only works on mobile is that a PWA? Yes.
I think it’s important to keep quality control high. Being responsive is literally the first item in the list of qualities that help define what a progressive web app is. That’s why I wrote about “regressive” web apps: sites that are supposed to showcase what we can do but instead take a step backwards into the bad old days of separate sites for separate device classes: washingtonpost.com/pwa, m.flipkart.com, lite.5milesapp.com, app.babe.co.id, m.aliexpress.com.
A lot of people on Twitter misinterpreted my post as saying “the current crop of progressive web apps are missing the mark, therefore progressive web apps suck”. What I was hoping to get across was “the current crop of progressive web apps are missing the mark, so let’s make better ones!”
Now, I totally understand that many of these examples are a first stab, a way of testing the waters. I absolutely want to encourage these first attempts and push them further. But I don’t think that waiving the qualifications for progressive web apps helps achieves that. As much as I want to acknowledge the hard work that people have done to create those device-specific examples, I don’t think we should settle for anything less than high-quality progressive web apps that are as much about the web as they are about apps.
Simply put, in this instance, I don’t think good intentions are enough.
Which brings me to the second part of Regressive Web Apps, the bit about Chrome refusing to show the “add to home screen” prompt for sites that want to have their URL still visible when launched from the home screen.
if you think the URL is going to get killed on my watch then you aren’t paying any attention whatsoever.
so, your choices are to think that I have a secret plan to kill URLs, or conclude I’m still Team Web.
I’m galled that anyone, particularly you @adactio, would think the former…but contrarianism uber alles?
I am very, very sorry that I upset Alex like this.
But I stand by my criticism of the actions of the Chrome team. Because good intentions are not enough.
I know that Alex is huge fan of URLs, and of the web. Heck, just about everybody I know that works on Chrome in some capacity are working for the web first and foremost: Alex, Jake, various and sundry Pauls. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stay quiet when I see the Chrome team do something I think is bad for the web. If anything, it’s precisely because I hold them to a high standard that I’m going to sound the alarm when I see what I consider to be missteps.
I think that good people can make bad decisions with the best of intentions. Usually it involves long-term thinking—something I think is very important. “The ends justify the means” is a way of thinking that can create a lot of immediate pain, even if it means a better future overall. Balancing those concerns is front and centre of the Chromium project:
As browser implementers, we find that there’s often tension between (a) moving the web forward and (b) preserving compatibility. On one hand, the web platform API surface must evolve to stay relevant. On the other hand, the web’s primary strength is its reach, which is largely a function of interoperability.
For example, when Alex talks of the Web Component era as though it were an inevitability, I get nervous. Not for myself, but for the millions of Opera Mini users out there. How do we get to a better future without leaving anyone behind? Or do we sacrifice those people for the greater good? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Do the ends justify the means?
I hope not. I hope we can find ways to have our accessible cake and eat it too. But it will be really, really hard.
Returning to progressive web apps, I was genuinely shocked and appalled at the way that the Chrome team altered the criteria for the “add to home screen” prompt to discourage exposing URLs. I was also surprised at how badly the change was communicated—it was buried in a bug report that five people contributed to before pushing the change. I only found out about it through a conversation with Paul Kinlan. Paul encouraged me to give feedback, and that’s what I did on my website, just like Stuart did on his.
Of course the Chrome team are working on ways of exposing URLs within progressive web apps that are launched in from the home screen. Opera are working on it too. But it’s a really tricky problem to solve. It’s not enough to say “we’ll figure it out”. It’s not enough to say “trust us.”
I do trust the people I know working on Chrome. I also trust the people I know at Mozilla, Opera and Microsoft. That doesn’t mean I’m going to let their actions go unquestioned. Good intentions are not enough.
As Alex readily acknowledges, the harder problem (figuring out how to expose URLs) should have been solved first—then the change to the “add to home screen” metrics would be uncontentious. Putting the cart before the horse, discouraging
display:browser now, while saying “trust us, we’ll figure it out”, is another example of saying the ends justify the means.
But the stakes are too high here to let this pass. Good intentions are not enough. Knowing that the people working on Chrome (or Firefox, or Opera, or Edge) are good people is not reason enough to passively accept every decision they make.
Alex called me out for not getting in touch with him directly about the Chrome team’s future plans with URLs, but again, that kind of rough consensus to do something is trumped by running code. Also, I did talk to Chrome people—this all came out of a discussion with Paul Kinlan. I don’t know who’s who in the company’s political hierarchy and I don’t think I should need an org chart to give feedback to Google (or Mozilla, or Opera, or Microsoft).
You’ll notice that I didn’t include Apple there. I don’t hold them to the same high standard. As it turns out, I know some very good people at Apple working on WebKit and Safari. As individuals, they care about the web. But as a company, Apple has shown indifference towards web developers. As Remy put it:
Even getting the hint of interest from Apple is a process of dumpster-diving the mailing lists scanning for the smallest hint of interest.
With that in mind, I completely understand Alex’s frustration with my post on “regressive” web apps. Although I intended it as a push towards making better progressive web apps, I can see how it could be taken as confirmation by those who think that progressive web apps aren’t worth investing in. Apple, for example. As it is, they’ll have to be carried kicking and screaming into adding support for Service Workers, manifest files, and other building blocks. From the reaction to my post from at least one WebKit developer on Twitter, not only did I fail to get across just how important the technologies behind progressive web apps are, I may have done more harm than good, giving ammunition to sceptics.
Still, I hope that most people took my words in the right spirit, like Addy:
We should push them to do much better. I’ll file bugs. Per @adactio post, can’t forget the ‘Progressive’ part of PWAs
Seeing that reaction makes me feel good …but seeing Alex’s reaction makes me feel bad. Very bad. I’m genuinely sorry that I made Alex feel that way. It wasn’t my intention but, well …good intentions are not enough.
I’ve been looking back at what I wrote, trying to see it through Alex’s eyes, looking for the parts that could be taken as a personal attack:
Chrome developers have decided that displaying URLs is not “best practice” … To declare that all users of all websites will be confused by seeing a URL is so presumptuous and arrogant that it beggars belief. … Withholding the “add to home screen” prompt like that has a whiff of blackmail about it. … This isn’t the first time that Chrome developers have made a move against the address bar. It’s starting to grind me down.
Some pretty strong words there. I stand by them, but the tone is definitely strident.
When we criticise something—a piece of software, a book, a website, a film, a piece of music—it’s all too easy to forget that there are real people behind it. But that isn’t the case here. I know that there are real people working on Chrome, because I know quite a few of those people. I also know that their intentions are good. That’s not a reason for me to remain silent—that’s a reason for me to speak up.
If I had known that my post was going to upset Alex, would I have still written it? That’s a tough one. On the one hand, this is a topic I care passionately about. I think it’s vital that we don’t compromise on the very things that make the web great. On the other hand, who knows if what I wrote will make the slightest bit of difference? In which case, I got the catharsis of getting it off my chest but at the price of upsetting somebody I respect. That price feels too high.
I love the fact that I can publish whatever I want on my own website. It can be a place for me to be enthusiastic about things that excite me, and a place for me to rant about things that upset me. I estimate that the enthusiastic stuff outnumbers the ranty stuff by about ten to one, but negativity casts a disproportionately large shadow.
I need to get better at tempering my words. Not that I’m going to stop criticising bad decisions when I see them, but I need to make my intentions clearer …because just having good intentions is not enough. Throughout this post, I’ve mentioned repeatedly how much I respect the people I know working on the Chrome team. I should have said that in my original post.
Tuesday, May 24th, 2016
Regressive Web Apps
There were plenty of talks about building for the web at this year’s Google I/O event. That makes a nice change from previous years when the web barely got a look in and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Google I/O was an event for Android app developers.
This year’s event showed just how big Google is, and how it doesn’t have one party line when it comes to the web and native. At the same time as there were talks on Service Workers and performance for the web, there was also an unveiling of Android Instant Apps—a full-frontal assault on the web. If you thought it was annoying when websites door-slammed you with intrusive prompts to install their app, just wait until they don’t need to ask you anymore.
I've been "Maybe I'll go Android" for awhile but today's announcement of http:// links getting hijacked into apps got me all like Nope.— Dave Rupert (@davatron5000) May 18, 2016
Peter has looked a bit closer at Android Instant Apps and I think he’s as puzzled as I am. Either they are sandboxed to have similar permission models to the web (in which case, why not just use the web?) or they allow more access to native APIs in which case they’re a security nightmare waiting to happen. I’m guessing it’s probably the former.
- Connectivity independent
A lot of those points are shared by good native apps, but the first and last points in that list are key features of the web: being responsive and linkable.
Alas many of the current examples of so-called Progressive Web Apps are anything but. Flipkart and The Washington Post have made Progressive Web Apps that are getting lots of good press from Google, but are mobile-only.
I’m getting very concerned that the success criterion for Progressive Web Apps is changing from “best practices on the web” to “feels like native.” That certainly seems to be how many of the current crop of Progressive Web Apps are approaching the architecture of their sites. I think that’s why the app-shell model is the one that so many people are settling on.
Personally, I’m not a fan of the app-shell model. I feel that it prioritises exactly the wrong stuff—the interface is rendered quickly while the content has to wait. It feels weirdly like a hangover from Appcache. I also notice it being used as a get-out-of-jail-free card, much like the ol’ “Single Page App” descriptor; “Ah, I can’t do progressive enhancement because I’m building an app shell/SPA, you see.”
But whatever. That’s just, like, my opinion, man. Other people can build their app-shelled SPAs and meanwhile I’m free to build websites that work everywhere, and still get to use all the great technologies that power Progressive Web Apps. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been quite excited about them—all the technologies and methodologies they promote match perfectly with my progressive enhancement approach: responsive design, Service Workers, good performance, and all that good stuff.
For example, I’ve seen people use a meta viewport declaration to disable pinch-zooming on their sites. As justification they point to the fact that you can’t pinch-zoom in most native apps, therefore this web-based app should also prohibit that action. The inability to pinch-zoom in native apps is a bug. By also removing that functionality from web products, people are reproducing unnecessary bugs. It feels like a cargo-cult approach to building for the web: slavishly copy whatever native is doing …because everyone knows that native apps are superior to websites, right?
Here’s another example of the cargo-cult imitation of native. In your manifest JSON file, you can declare a
display property. You can set it to
fullscreen. If you set it to
fullscreen then, when the site is launched from the home screen, it won’t display the address bar. If you set the
display property to
browser, the address bar will be visible on launch. Now, personally I like to expose those kind of seams:
The idea of “seamlessness” as a desirable trait in what we design is one that bothers me. Technology has seams. By hiding those seams, we may think we are helping the end user, but we are also making a conscience choice to deceive them (or at least restrict what they can do).
Other people disagree. They think it makes more sense to hide the URL. They have a genuine concern that users will be confused by launching a website from the home screen in a browser (presumably because the user’s particular form of amnesia caused them to forget how that icon ended up on their home screen in the first place).
Fair enough. We’ll agree to differ. They can set their
display property how they want, and I can set my
display property how I want. It’s a big web after all. There’s no one right or wrong way to do this. That’s why there are multiple options for the values.
Or, at least, that was the situation until recently…
Remember when I wrote about how Chrome on Android will show an “add to home screen” prompt if your Progressive Web App fulfils a few criteria?
- It is served over HTTPS,
- it has a manifest JSON file,
- it has a Service Worker, and
- the user visits it a few times.
Well, those goalposts have moved. There is now a new criterion:
- Your manifest file must not contain a
Chrome developers have decided that displaying URLs is not “best practice”. It was filed as a bug.
I’m somewhat flabbergasted by this. The killer feature of the web—URLs—are being treated as something undesirable because they aren’t part of native apps. That’s not a failure of the web; that’s a failure of native apps.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everyone should be setting their
display property to
browser. That would be far too prescriptive. I’m saying that it should be a choice. It should depend on the website. It should depend on the expectations of the users of that particular website. To declare that all users of all websites will be confused by seeing a URL is so presumptuous and arrogant that it beggars belief.
I wouldn’t even have noticed this change of policy if it weren’t for the newly-released Lighthouse tool for testing Progressive Web Apps. The Session gets a good score but under “Best Practices” there was a red mark against the site for having
display: browser. Turns out that’s the official party line from Chrome.
Just to clarify: you can have a site that has literally no HTML or turns away entire classes of devices, yet officially follows “best practices” and gets rewarded with an “add to home screen” prompt. But if you have a blazingly fast responsive site that works offline, you get nothing simply because you don’t want to hide URLs from your users:
I want people to be able to copy URLs. I want people to be able to hack URLs. I’m not ashamed of my URLs …I’m downright proud.
The app manifest declares properties of the app, but the
displayproperty isn’t about the app; it’s about how the app’s developer wants it to be shown. Do they want to proudly declare that this app is on the web and of the web? Then they’ll add the URL bar. Do they want to conceal that this is actually a web app in order to look more like “native” apps? Then they’ll hide the URL bar.
I think there’s something to that, but digging deeper, developers and designers don’t make decisions like that in isolation. They’re generally thinking about what’s best for users. So, yes, absolutely, different apps will have different
display properties, but that shouldn’t be down to the belief system of the developer; it should be down to the needs of the users …the specific needs of the specific users of that specific app. For the Chrome team to come down on one side or the other and arbitrarily declare that one decision is “correct” for every single Progressive Web App that is ever going to be built …that’s a political decision. It kinda feels like an abuse of power to me. Withholding the “add to home screen” prompt like that has a whiff of blackmail about it.
The other factors that contribute to the “add to home screen” prompt are pretty uncontroversial:
- Sites should be served over a secure connection: that’s pretty hard to argue with.
- Sites should be resilient to network outages: I don’t think anyone is going to say that’s a bad idea.
- Sites should provide some metadata in manifest file: okay, sure, it’s certainly not harmful.
- Sites should obscure their URL …whoa! That feels like a very, very different requirement, one that imposes one particular opinion onto everyone who wants to participate.
This isn’t the first time that Chrome developers have made a move against the address bar. It’s starting to grind me down.
Up until now I’ve been a big fan of Progressive Web Apps. I understood them to be combining the best of the web (responsiveness, linkability) with the best of native (installable, connectivity independent). Now I see that balance shifting towards the native end of the scale at the expense of the web’s best features. I’d love to see that balance restored with a little less emphasis on the “Apps” and a little more emphasis on the “Web.” Now that would be progressive.
Monday, May 23rd, 2016
Issue 596729 - chromium - Do not show the app banner unless the Manifest has a display set to standalone or fullscreen - Monorail
I am shocked and disgusted by this arbitrary decision by the Chrome team. If your Progressive Web App doesn’t set its manifest to obscure its URL, you get punished by missing out on the add to home screen prompt.
Friday, May 20th, 2016
I’ve been poking around at Google’s information on “instant apps” since they announced it at Google I/O. My initial impressions mirror Peter’s.
Either they allow access to more device APIs (which could be a massive security hole) or else they’re more or less websites.