A lot of the chatter that’s happening right now seems to be circular:
- Somebody makes a blanket statement about the state of the web and technologies to rely on
- This ruffles the feathers of a few others. They point out the danger of these technologies and that it violates best practices
- The original writer accuses the people reacting of having limited and anachronistic views
- Stakeholders of frameworks that promise to make the life of developers a breeze chime in and point out that their way is the only true solution
- 62 blog posts and 5212 tweets later we find consensus and all is good again
Except, it isn’t. The web is in a terrible state and the average web site is slow, punishes our computers with slow running code and has no grace in trying to keep users interacting with it. Ads spy on us, scripts inject malware and it is taxing to find content in a mess of modals and overly complex interfaces.
It is high time we, the community that survived the first browser wars and made standards-driven development our goal, start facing facts. We failed to update our message of a usable and maintainable web to be relevant to the current market and a new generation of developers.
We once fixed the web and paved the way forward
Our “best development practices” stem from a time when we had bad browsers on desktop computers. We had OK connectivity – it wasn’t fast, but it was at least reliable. We also created documents and enhanced them to become applications or get some interactivity later.
The holy trinity was and is:
- Semantic HTML for structure
- CSS for styling
There is no “the good old standards based web”. It was always a professional, craftsmanship view and ideal we tried to create. Fact is, we always hacked around issues with short-term solutions.
We had a clear goal and enemy – one we lost now
Browsers back then were not standards-aware and the browser wars raged. Having a different functionality than other browsers was a market advantage. This was bad for developers as we had to repeat all of our work for different browsers. The big skill was to know which browser messed up in which way. This was our clear target: to replace terrible web sites that only worked in IE6. The ones that were not maintainable unless you also had access to the CMS code or whatever language the framework was written in. We wanted to undo this mess by explaining what web standards are good for.
HTML describes a small use case
We got used to a higher level of interactivity as browser makers spend a lot of time ensuring compatibilty with another. We also have a few very obviously winning browsers and developers favouring them. Browsers are all great and open to feedback and there is no war among browser makers any longer. It is important to not block out users of older browsers, but there is no point in catering to them with extra work. Yes, you can go on the freeway with a car with broken indicators and no lights, but you are a danger to yourself and others. This is what surfing with old internet explorer is now.
The upgrade of HTML wasn’t as smooth as we make it out to be
HTML and CSS are gorgeous, beautiful in their simplicity and ensure that nobody on the web gets left out. Both technologies are very forgiving, allowing publishers of web content to make mistakes without making their readers suffer. This truth doesn’t change and – together with the beautiful simplicity that is a link – makes the web what it is. It is, however not good enough for today’s expectations of end users. It doesn’t matter if it is sturdy and can’t break it if is is boring or awkward to use.
Fact is that a lot of the amazing things of HTML aren’t as rosy when you look closer. One thing that opened my eyes was Monica Dinculescu’s talk “I love you input, but you’re letting me down”.
In it, Monica criticises the architecture and the implementation of the HTML input element. I was annoyed by that when I heard her hint at that earlier at Google IO. Surely this is wrong: INPUT is a beautiful thing. If you use input type range, end users of modern browsers get a slider, and older browsers a text box. Nobody is left out, it just gets better with better browsers. This is progressive enhancement at it’s best: built into the platform.
The web as a platform isn’t fascinating to new developers – it’s a given
For better or worse, the success of the web became its curse. We were the cool “new media”. However, these days, we’re not cool. We’re like plumbing. When you’re in a fairly well-off country, you turn on the tap and water comes out. You don’t care about the plumbing or where it comes from. It is just there. Much like the web.
This is what we wanted, now we need to understand that our fascination with everything web is not shared by people who never knew a world without it.
It is time to move on and let the new generation of developers deal with the problems of now instead of us waving a finger and demanding a work ethic that always was a perfect scenario and a small part of how the market worked.
The market is a rat race
Technology is the only properly growing market out there and we are part of that. This means a lot of pressure is on this market to continuously grow. It means that we need to be seen as constantly innovating. If that makes sense or if it is necessary is irrelevant. We just need to be bigger, faster and more – all the time. Yes, this isn’t sustainable, but it makes money and that is – sadly enough – still the main goal of our world.
This means that when we talk about development, people are much more likely to listen to the framework that offers “quick apps without much code”. Developers are also more likely to get excited about anything that offers to build “small, independent solutions that can be mixed and matched to build huge applications that scale”.
Building wheels from small reusable parts
Developers of the web these days aren’t asked to architect a clean, accessible and very well structured web document. If we are fair to ourselves, we were never asked to do this. We did it because we cared, and to make our lives easier. Standard driven development was there to protect us from reinventing the wheel. However, these days, this is exactly what is expected of a cool new company and developers. We live in a world of components. We are continuously asked to build something fast that others can reuse in any product. That way you can have 10 developers work on a product in parallel and you can remove and add functionality as it is needed.
This is how we got solutions like “Object Oriented CSS“. The Cascade is a beautiful part of CSS that allows you to write a few lines that get applied to thousands of documents without you needing to repeat your definitions. This is working against the concept of reusable, small components that don’t inherit any look and feel from their parent container. Our use case changed, and the standards didn’t deliver the functionality we needed.
We’re mobile, and our best practices aren’t
Our world has changed drastically. We now live in a world where Desktop is not as important. Everything points to the next users of the web being on mobiles. This doesn’t mean Desktops are irrelevant and our solutions for that form factor bad.
It means that our “best practices” don’t solve the current issues. Best practices aren’t defined. They are found by trial and error. This is how we got where we are now with crazy CSS hacks like resets, browser filters (midpass using voice CSS anyone?) and many other – now considered terrible – ideas.
We need to find solutions for bad or no connectivity on fairly capable browsers on interfaces that aren’t keyboard driven. We need solutions for small screens and interactivity ready for big fingers or voice control.
Yes, the most hard core scenarios of this world mean you can’t rely on client side scripting or a lot of storage space. Proxy browsers and battery or data saving settings of some browsers interfere with what we can do on the client. On the whole though what we deal with is a pretty capable computer (surely much better than the ones we had when we defined our best web practices) on a small screen device with dubious, non-reliable or even non-existing connectivity.
Photo credit: John Loo via Visual hunt / CC BY