Web Components and you – dangers to avoid

Friday, April 18th, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Lego
Legos by C Slack

Web Components are a hot topic now. Creating widgets on the web that are part of the browser’s rendering flow is amazing. So is inheriting from and enhancing existing ones. Don’t like how a SELECT looks or works? Get it and override what you don’t like. With the web consumed on mobile devices performance is the main goal. Anything we can do to save on battery consumption and to keep interfaces responsive without being sluggish is a good thing to do.

Web Components are a natural evolution of HTML. HTML is too basic to allow us to create App interfaces. When we defined HTML5 we missed the opportunity to create semantic widgets existing in other UI libraries. Instead of looking at the class names people used in HTML, it might have been more prudent to look at what other RIA environments did. We limited the scope of new elements to what people already hacked together using JS and the DOM. Instead we should have aimed for parity with richer environments or desktop apps. But hey, hindsight is easy.

What I am more worried about right now is that there is a high chance that we could mess up Web Components. It is important for every web developer to speak up now and talk to the people who build browsers. We need to make this happen in a way our end users benefit from Web Components the best. We need to ensure that we focus our excitement on the long-term goal of Web Components. Not on how to use them right now when the platforms they run on aren’t quite ready yet.

What are the chances to mess up? There are a few. From what I gathered at several events and from various talks I see the following dangers:

  • One browser solutions
  • Dependency on filler libraries
  • Creating inaccessible solutions
  • Hiding complex and inadequate solutions behind an element
  • Repeating the “just another plugin doing $x” mistakes

One browser solutions

This should be pretty obvious: things that only work in one browser are only good for that browser. They can only be used when this browser is the only one available in that environment. There is nothing wrong with pursuing this as a tech company. Apple shows that when you control the software and the environment you can create superb products people love. It is, however, a loss for the web as a whole as we just can not force people to have a certain browser or environment. This is against the whole concept of the web. Luckily enough, different browsers support Web Components (granted at various levels of support). We should be diligent about asking for this to go on and go further. We need this, and a great concept like Web Components shouldn’t be reliant on one company supporting them. A lot of other web innovation that heralded as a great solution for everything went away quickly when only one browser supported it. Shared technology is safer technology. Whilst it is true that more people having a stake in something makes it harder to deliver, it also means more eyeballs to predict issues. Overall, sharing efforts prevents an open technology to be a vehicle for a certain product.

Dependency on filler libraries

A few years ago we had a great and – at the same time – terrible idea: let’s fix the problems in browsers with JavaScript. Let’s fix the weirdness of the DOM by creating libraries like jQuery, prototype, mootools and others. Let’s fix layout quirks with CSS libraries. Let’s extend the functionality of CSS with preprocessors. Let’s simulate functionality of modern browsers in older browsers with polyfills.

All these aim at a simple goal: gloss over the differences in browsers and allow people to use future technologies right now. This is on the one hand a great concept: it empowers new developers to do things without having to worry about browser issues. It also allows any developer to play with up and coming technology before its release date. This means we can learn from developers what they want and need by monitoring how they implement interfaces.

But we seem to forget that these solutions were build to be stop-gaps and we become reliant on them. Developers don’t want to go back to a standard interface of DOM interaction once they got used to $(). What people don’t use, browser makers can cross off their already full schedules. That’s why a lot of standard proposals and even basic HTML5 features are missing in them. Why put effort into something developers don’t use? We fall into the trap of “this works now, we have this”, which fails to help us once performance becomes an issue. Many jQuery solutions on the desktop fail to perform well on mobile devices. Not because of jQuery itself, but because of how we used it.

Which leads me to Web Components solutions like X-Tags, Polymer and Brick. These are great as they make Web Components available right now and across various browsers. Using them gives us a glimpse of how amazing the future for us is. We need to ensure that we don’t become dependent on them. Instead we need to keep our eye on moving on with implementing the core functionality in browsers. Libraries are tools to get things done now. We should allow them to become redundant.

For now, these frameworks are small, nimble and perform well. That can change as all software tends to grow over time. In an environment strapped for resources like a $25 smartphone or embedded systems in a TV set every byte is a prisoner. Any code that is there to support IE8 is nothing but dead weight.

Creating inaccessible solutions

Let’s face facts: the average web developer is more confused about accessibility than excited by it. There are many reasons for this, none of which worth bringing up here. The fact remains that an inaccessible interface doesn’t help anyone. We tout Flash as being evil as it blocks out people. Yet we build widgets that are not keyboard accessible. We fail to provide proper labeling. We make things too hard to use and expect the steady hand of a brain surgeon as we create tight interaction boundaries. Luckily enough, there is a new excitement about accessibility and Web Components. We have the chance to do something new and do it right this time. This means we should communicate with people of different ability and experts in the field. Let’s not just convert our jQuery plugins to Web Components in verbatim. Let’s start fresh.

Hiding complex and inadequate solutions behind an element

In essence, Web Components allow you to write custom elements that do a lot more than HTML allows you to do now. This is great, as it makes HTML extensible (and not in the weird XHTML2 way). It can also be dangerous, as it is simple to hide a lot of inefficient code in a component, much like any abstraction does. Just because we can make everything into an element now, doesn’t mean we should. What goes into a component should be exceptional code. It should perform exceptionally well and have the least dependencies. Let’s not create lots of great looking components full of great features that under the hood are slow and hard to maintain. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply.

Repeating the “just another plugin doing $x” mistake

You can create your own carousel using Web Components. That doesn’t mean though that you have to. Chances are that someone already built one and the inheritance model of Web Components allows you to re-use this work. Just take it and tweak it to your personal needs. If you look for jQuery plugins that are image carousels right now you better bring some time. There are a lot out there – in various states of support and maintenance. It is simple to write one, but hard to maintain.

Writing a good widget is much harder than it looks. Let’s not create a lot of components because we can. Instead let’s pool our research and findings and build a few that do the job and override features as needed. Core components will have to change over time to cater for different environmental needs. That can only happen when we have a set of them, tested, proven and well architected.

Summary

I am super excited about this and I can see a bright future for the web ahead. This involves all of us and I would love Flex developers to take a look at what we do here and bring their experience in. We need a rich web, and I don’t see creating DOM based widgets to be the solution for that for much longer with the diversity of devices ahead.

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