Christian Heilmann

It is Blue Beanie Day – let’s reflect #bbd14

Sunday, November 30th, 2014 at 4:22 am

Today we celebrate once again blue beanie day. People who build things that are online don their blue hat and show their support for standards based web development. All this goes back to Jeffrey Zeldman’s book that outlined that idea and caused a massive change in the field of web design.

me, wearing my HTML beanie

Let’s celebrate – once again

It feels good to be part of this, it is a tradition and it reminds us of how far we’ve come as a community and as a professional environment. To me, it starts to feel a bit stale though. I get the feeling we are losing our touch to what happens these days and celebrate the same old successes over and over again.

This could be normal disillusionment of having worked in the same field for a long time. It also could be having heard the same messages over and over. I start to wonder if the message of “use web standards” is still having an impact in today’s world.

The web is a commodity

I am not saying they are unnecessary – far from it. I am saying that we lose a lot of new developers to other causes and that web development as a craft is becoming less important than it used to be.

The web is a thing that people use. It is there, it does things. Much like opening a tap gives you water in most places we live in. We don’t think about how the tap works, we just expect it to do so. And we don’t want to listen to anyone who tells us that we need to use a tap in a certain way or we’re “doing it wrong”. We just call someone in when the water doesn’t run.

Standards mattered most when browsers worked against them

When web standards based development became a thing it was an absolute necessity. Browser support was all over the shop and we had to find something we can rely on. That is a standard. You can dismantle and assemble things because there is a standard for screws and screwdrivers. You can also use a knife or a key for that and thus damage the screw and the knife. But who cares as long as the job’s done, right? You do – as soon as you need to disassemble the same thing again.

Far beyond view source

Nowadays our world has changed a lot. Browser support is excellent. Browsers are pretty amazing at displaying complex HTML, CSS and JavaScript. On top of that, browsers are development tools giving us insights into what is happening. This goes beyond the view-source of old which made the web what it is. You can now inspect JavaScript generated code. You an see browser internal structures. You see what loaded when and how the browser performs. You can inspect canvas, WebGL and WebAudio. You can inspect browsers on connected devices and simulate devices and various connectivity scenarios.

All this and the fact that the HTML5 parser is forgiving and fixes minor markup glitches makes our chant for web standards support seem redundant. We’ve won. The enemies of old – Flash and other non-standard technologies seem to be forgotten. What’s there to celebrate?

Our standards, right or wrong?

Well, the struggle for a standards based web is far from over and at times we need to do things we don’t like doing. An open source browser like Firefox having to support DRM in video playback is not good. But it is better than punishing its users by preventing them from using massively successful services like Netflix. Or is it? Should our goal to only support open and standardised technology be the final decision? Or is it still up to us to show that open and standardised means the solutions are better in the long run and let that one slip for now? I’m not sure, but I know that it is easier to influence something when you don’t condemn it.

A new, self-made struggle

All in all there is a new target for those of us who count themselves in the blue beanie camp: complexity and “de-facto standards”.

The web grew to what it is now as it was simple to create for it. Take a text editor, write some code, open it in a browser and you’re done. These days professional web development looks much different. We rely on package managers. We rely on resource managers. We use task runners and pre-processing to create HTML, CSS and JavaScript solutions. All these tools are useful and can make a massive difference in a big and complex site. They should not be a necessity and are often overkill for the final product though. Web standards based development means one thing: you know what you’re doing and what your code should do in a supported browser. Adding these layers adds a layer of dark magic to that. Instead of teaching newcomers how to create, we teach them to rely on things they don’t understand. This is a perfectly OK way to deliver products, but it sets a strange tone for those learning our craft. We don’t empower builders, we empower users of solutions to build bigger solutions. And with that, we create a lot of extra code that goes on the web.

A “de-facto standard” is nonsense. The argument that something becomes good and sensible because a lot of people use it assumes a lot. Do these people use it because they need it? Or because they like it? Or because it is fashionable to use? Or because it yields quick results? Results that in a few months time are “considered dangerous” but stick around for eternity as the product has been shipped.

Framing the new world of web development

We who don the blue hats live in a huge echo chamber. It is time to stop repeating the same messages and concentrate on educating again. The web is obese, solutions become formulaic (parallax scrollers, huge hero headers…). There is a whole new range of frameworks to replace HTML, CSS and JavaScript out there that people use. Our job as the fans of standards is to influence those. We should make sure we don’t go towards a web that is dependent on the decisions of a few companies. Promises of evergreen support for those frameworks ring hollow. It happened with YUI - a very important player in making web standards based work scale to huge company size. And it can happen to anything we now promote as “the easier way to apply standards”.

Share on Mastodon (needs instance)

Share on Twitter

My other work: