Here’s the video of the talk I gave at the Web Stories conference back in February.
Monday, April 12th, 2021
Sunday, April 11th, 2021
I click the link. The page loads fast. I navigate the surprisingly sparse yet clear form inputs. And complete the whole thing in less than thirty seconds.
Oh, how I wish this experience weren’t remarkable!
Simple forms with clear labels. Little to no branding being shoved down my throat. No array of colors, big logos, or overly-customized UI components.
Tuesday, April 6th, 2021
Of the web
I’m subscribed to a lot of blogs in my RSS reader. I follow some people because what they write about is very different to what I know about. But I also follow lots of people who have similar interests and ideas to me. So I’m not exactly in an echo chamber, but I do have the reverb turned up pretty high.
Sometimes these people post thoughts that are eerily similar to what I’ve been thinking about. Ethan has been known to do this. Get out of my head, Marcotte!
But even if Ethan wasn’t some sort of telepath, he’d still be in my RSS reader. We’re friends. Lots of the people in my RSS reader are my friends. When I read their words, I can hear their voices.
Then there are the people I’ve never met. Like Desirée García, Piper Haywood, or Jim Nielsen. Never met them, don’t know them, but damn, do I enjoy reading their blogs. Last year alone, I ended up linking to Jim’s posts ten different times.
Or Baldur Bjarnason. I can’t remember when I first came across his writing, but it really, really resonates with me. I probably owe him royalties for the amount of times I’ve cited his post Over-engineering is under-engineering.
His latest post is postively Marcottian in how it exposes what’s been fermenting in my own mind. But because he writes clearly, it really helps clarify my own thinking. It’s often been said that you should write to figure out what you think, and I can absolutely relate to that. But here’s a case where somebody else’s writing really helps to solidify my own thoughts.
It starts with some existentialist stock-taking. I can relate, what with the whole five decades thing. But then it turns the existential questioning to the World Wide Web itself, or rather, the people building the web.
In a way, it’s like taking the question of the great divide (front of the front end and back of the front end), and then turning it 45 degrees to reveal an entirely hidden dimension.
In examining the nature of the web, he hits on the litmus of how you view encapsulation:
I mention this first as it’s the aspect of the web that modern web developers hate the most without even giving it a label. Single-Page-Apps and GraphQL are both efforts to eradicate the encapsulation that’s baked into the foundation of every layer of the web.
Most modern devs are trying to get rid of it but it’s one of the web’s most strategic advantages.
I hadn’t thought of this before.
By default, if you don’t go against the grain of the web, each HTTP endpoint is encapsulated from each other.
Moreover, all of this can happen really fast if you aren’t going overboard with your CSS and JS.
He finishes with a look at another of the web’s most powerful features: distribution. In between are the things that make the web webby: hypertext and flexibility (The Dao of the Web).
It’s the idea that the web isn’t a single fixed thing but a fluid multitude whose shape is dictated by its surroundings.
This resonates with me because it highlights two different ways of viewing the web.
On the one hand, you can see the web purely as a distribution channel. In the past you might have been distributing a Flash movie. These days you might be distributing a single page app. Either way, the web is there as a low-friction way of getting your creation in front of other people.
The other way of building for the web is to go with the web’s grain, embracing flexibility and playing to the strengths of the medium through progressive enhancement. This is the distinction I was getting at when I talked about something being not just on the web, but of the web.
With that mindset, Baldur then takes us through some of the technologies that he’s excited about, like SvelteKit and Hotwire. I think it’s the same mindset that got me excited about service workers. As Baldur says:
They are helping the web become better at being its own thing.
That’s my tagline right there.
It’s heavy on computer science, but this is a fascinating endeavour. It’s a work-in-progress book that not only describes how browsers work, but invites you to code along too. At the end, you get a minimum viable web browser (and more knowledge than you ever wanted about how browsers work).
As a black box, the browser is either magical or frustrating (depending on whether it is working correctly or not!). But that also make a browser a pretty unusual piece of software, with unique challenges, interesting algorithms, and clever optimizations. Browsers are worth studying for the pure pleasure of it.
See how the sausage is made and make your own sausage!
I remember discussing this with Tantek years ago:
There are a few elements who need to be placed inside of another specific element in order to function properly.
If I recall, he was considering writing “HTML: The Good Parts”.
Anyway, I can relate to what Eric is saying here about web components. My take is that web components give developers a power that previous only browser makers had. That’s very liberating, but it should come with a commensurate weight of responsibility. I fear that we will see this power wielded without sufficient responsibility.
Tuesday, March 30th, 2021
The principle of most availability
I’ve been thinking some more about the technical experience of booking a vaccination apointment and how much joy it brought me.
All of those technologies are platform-agnostic.
No matter what operating system I’m using, or what email software I’ve chosen, email works. It gets more complicated when you introduce HTML email. My response to that is the same as the old joke; you know the one: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” (“Well, don’t do that.”)
No matter what operating system my phone is using, SMS works. It gets more complicated when you introduce read receipts, memoji, or other additions. See my response to HTML email.
Then there’s the web. No matter what operating system I’m using on a device that could be a phone or a tablet or a laptop or desktop tower, and no matter what browser I’ve chosen to use, the World Wide Web works.
It feels like the principle of least power in action.
But another way of rephrasing “least power” is “most availability.” Technologies that are old, simple, and boring tend to be more widely available.
I remember when software used to come packaged in boxes and displayed on shelves. The packaging always had a list on the side. It looked like the nutritional information on a food product, but this was a list of “system requirements”: operating system, graphics card, sound card, CPU. I never liked the idea of system requirements. It felt so …exclusionary. And for me, the promise of technology was liberation and freedom to act on my own terms.
Alas, many developers don’t build with this mindset. I mean, I understand why: it means thinking about users with the most boring, least powerful technology. It’s simpler and more exciting to assume that everyone’s got a shared baseline of newer technology. But by doing that, you’re missing out on one of the web’s superpowers: that something served up at the same URL with the same underlying code can simultaneously serve people with older technology and also provide a whizz-bang experience to people with the latest and greatest technology.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the kind of communication technologies that are as universal as email, SMS, and the web.
QR codes are kind of heading in that direction, although I still have qualms because of their proprietary history. But there’s something nice and lo-fi about them. They’re like print stylesheets in reverse (and I love print stylesheets). A funky little bridge between the physical and the digital. I just wish they weren’t so opaque: you never know if scanning that QR code will actually take you to the promised resource, or if you’re about to rickroll yourself.
Telephone numbers kind of fall into the same category as SMS, but with the added option of voice. I’ve always found the prospect of doing something with, say, Twilio’s API more interesting than building something inside a walled garden like Facebook Messenger or Alexa.
I know very little about chat apps or voice apps, but I don’t think there’s a cross-platform format that works with different products, right? I imagine it’s like the situation with native apps which require a different codebase for each app store and operating system. And so there’s a constant stream of technologies that try to fulfil the dream of writing once and running everywhere: React Native, Flutter.
They’re trying to solve a very clear and obvious problem: writing the same app more than once is really wasteful. But that’s the nature of the game when it comes to runtime-specific apps. The only alternative is to either deliberately limit your audience …or apply the principle of least power/most availability.
The wastefulness of having to write the same app for multiple platforms isn’t the only thing that puts me off making native apps. The exclusivity works in two directions. There’s the exclusive nature of the runtime that requires a bespoke codebase. There’s also the exclusive nature of the app store. It feels like a return to shelves of packaged software with strict system requirements. You can’t just walk in and put your software on the shelf. That’s the shopkeeper’s job.
There is no shopkeeper for the World Wide Web.
Six years old. Still very astute. Still very true.
Monday, March 29th, 2021
Good to see Google, Mozilla, and Apple collaborating on fixing cross-browser CSS compatability issues:
- position: sticky
You can track progress here.
Thursday, March 25th, 2021
Richard MacManus has started a blog all about the history of web development—this is going straight to my RSS reader!
Most internet history books, websites, podcasts, etc, are from a business perspective. What’s missing, I believe, is an internet history with a technical point of view: which products were developed, the technologies used, how the web has changed over time, developmental trends, and so on.
Simply put, I want to describe how the web actually works and how that has evolved over the past 25-30 years.
Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021
I love, love, love this experiment from Matt—messin’ around in websites!
Thursday, March 11th, 2021
A wonderful look at the kind of links we didn’t get on the World Wide Web.
From the memex and Xanadu right up to web mentions, this ticks all my boxes!
Monday, March 8th, 2021
This could give a big boost to web performance!
You don’t have to use web fonts—there are some pretty nice options if you stick to system fonts (like Georgia, Charter, and Palatino).
Sunday, March 7th, 2021
I’m very taken with Github’s tab-container element—this is exactly how I think web components should be designed!
Saturday, March 6th, 2021
Having only the content I want to see only be shown when I want to see it with the freedom to jump between readers as I please, all with no ads? For me, no other service comes close to the flexibility, robustness, and overall ease-of-use that RSS offers.
Today’s young tech policy professionals are are, quite rightfully, responding to the only internet in the only world they have ever known. The awful one. The one where the internet was and is a handful of billion-pound companies. The one where the internet has only ever been petrol on a fire. The one where the internet has been essential infrastructure like water and heat, not a thing you had to request and master. The closed internet made for them. Not the open internet I got to make.
So if you think that the biggest threat to encryption is elderly politicians who still need their secretaries to print out emails for them, it’s time you found yourself in a meeting with someone under the age of 30 who is going to war against encryption because he has never needed encryption in his life.
Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021
There’s a voice inside your head that prevents you from sharing ideas—punch it in the face. - Airbag Industries
Violence is never the answer, unless you’re dealing with nazis or your inner critic.
The excuses—or, I’m sorry, reasons—I hear folks say they can’t write include: I’m not very good at writing (you can’t improve if you don’t write often), my website isn’t finished (classic, and also guilty so shut up), and I don’t know what to write about, there’s nothing new for me to add (oh boy).
Saturday, February 27th, 2021
The web is so much bigger than the little boxes we try to put it in. The web is good at many things and not great (yet) at others. The web is a snowball rolling down hill, absorbing other technologies along the way. The web is an interactive window across space and time, a near instant connection to anyone on the planet. The web is something different. I wish we’d see the web more for itself, not defined by its nearest neighbor or navel-gazing over some hypothetical pathway we could have gone down decades ago.
Friday, February 26th, 2021
One of the other arguments we hear in support of the SPA is the reduction in cost of cyber infrastructure. As if pushing that hosting burden onto the client (without their consent, for the most part, but that’s another topic) is somehow saving us on our cloud bills. But that’s ridiculous.