Christian Heilmann

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Archive for November, 2017

Web Truths: Publishing on the web using web standards is easy and amazing

Monday, November 27th, 2017

This is part of the web truths series of posts. A series where we look at true sounding statements that we keep using to have endless discussions instead of moving on. Today I want to talk about the notion of the web as an open publication platform and HTML as the way to publish.

Publishing on the web using web standards is easy and amazing

Those of us who were lucky enough to be around when the web started growing cherish this concept. It was exciting to be able to open a text editor – any text editor – write some tags and see our text come to life in a browser. Adding a H1 here gave us a headline, adding a P described paragraphs and gave free margins. Adding an A allowed us to point to other resources or a target in the same page. Adding an HR gave us a horizontal ruler. The latter later on turned out to be a pain in the backside to style and was generally a bad idea. We learned by doing and we learned by trying things out.

We also smirked at the people who looked down on us as not being “real developers”. These people considered us crazy for relying on a browser we don’t control to render our output. Could be that we were, but at least we didn’t have to use a convoluted IDE and follow a slow build process to get a result. Our work was immediate and satisfaction was only a ctrl+s, shift-tab and ctrl-r (or F5) away.

We also loved the fact that all we need is some hosting space and an FTP client to publish our work to the world.

If we disliked what our server companies did, we moved to the next one. After all, your domain is the thing you send to people, not your IP address. To get people to read what we wrote we published on mailing lists, in forums and on IRC. We linked to each other in webrings and banner exchanges. When Google came around we were the old guard that Google loved. Easy to index, with sensible TITLE and proper text content. Not like Flash pages that tried to trick Google with META keyword spamming or hidden text.

All the good things about HTML and publishing on your own server are still valid. It is a beautiful, free and open way to publish with nobody to answer to. You are your own marketing department and your server is your playground. If you are vigilant and you make sure that you have a lot of time to delete spam and defend yourself against attacks.

But here is the problem with telling this story over and over again. It doesn’t quite work any longer. And it is not as fascinating for people these days as it was for us. I remember the exhiliration of hearing a successful modem handshake and my HTML rendering in Netscape 3. I remember explaining to people that “when it sounds everything is broken, then you are online”. People these days don’t expect to be offline. Often they only experience being offline when they are on the go and the mobile connection dies. Those lucky enough to have a home with a fat wireless connection never put effort in to reach the content. They consume, much like we did when we watched TV.

The same happens to publication. It isn’t about writing the perfect article or blog post. It is about creating something fast that gets a lot of eyeballs. And if you want eyeballs, you keep publishing. Faster and faster, more and more. And as it is hard to create your own, you re-hash what other people have done instead and ride any success train of the day. There is no place for HTML or proper standards publication in this world.

I’m not saying at all that this is a good thing. But it is where we are. The web hasn’t won over Facebook, WhatsApp and other closed environments because it needs more effort to use. You still need to show interest and skill to build a web site. Writing three words and picking a GIF from a collection is easier.

The web we love and explain as the amazing publishing platform will survive. It will be a playground of enthusiasts and specialists. And old people. The disruptive platform of the past hasn’t become the mainstream. Everyone has the potential to be a creator and maker. But the marketing machine of the world wants us to be consumers instead. And the best way to keep people consuming is to lock them into a place that is ridiculously easy to publish in. More importantly you need to give them the feeling of being part of a community of cool people. And the explosive growth of the web and tweaking of search algorithms to show the “new” instead of the “correct” isn’t a group of cool people. It is hard work. There are no likes, kudos, claps or whatever on the web. Adding an immediate feedback channel for people is 90% removing horrible content and spam. The web isn’t a small group of cool people, but mainstream media makes pretty sure to tell us it is full of dangers and wrong information. Better stay where it is safe. In a controlled environment that has very enticing immediate feedback.

If you think this is dark, check out André Staltz’ The Web began dying in 2014, here’s how where he paints a pretty bleak future for the mainstream web. And darn him, there is some pretty good evidence in there that finding web content in the future not published inside Google, Amazon or Facebook products will be close to impossible.

So, yes, publishing on the web is amazing. Nobody denies that. But we’re dealing with a new generation of people who grew up with the web and don’t care about it. It is there, like water is when you open the tap. You don’t think about how it gets there or what is involved until it stops coming out. And that might be the same for the web.

Instead of painting a romantic view of how the open web keeps prevailing, it may be time to tell people more about what their use of closed platforms does. How much they give away for the convenience of publishing something and harvesting some fake internet points. We’re past the format of the publication. We need to get people excited again about owning their data. For our sake and theirs.

Web Truths: the web is broken and backwards compatibility is holding us back

Tuesday, November 21st, 2017

This is part of the web truths series of posts. A series where we look at true sounding statements that we keep using to have endless discussions instead of moving on. Today I want to tackle the issue of the web not moving fast enough for people and clinging on to seemingly terrible ideas from the past.

The web is broken and backwards compatibility is holding us back

This is the counter-argument to the one I discussed in the last post. Much like the exaggurated praise for the web and its distributed nature it has been around for as long as I can remember online discussions.

There is no doubt that many things about the web are sub-optimal. It is also true that carrying the burden of never blocking out old content can slow us down. Yes there are many features of CSS and JavaScript that in hindsight are terrible ideas. And it is true that by sticking to the bleeding edge, you have a lot more fun as a developer. First, there are more things to play with. And, more modern environments also come with better tooling and deeper insights.

There is a problem with this though: as Calvin said it, the problem with the future is that it always turns into the present.

calvin and hobbes strip

So, whenever we embrace new and bleeding edge technology and damn the consequences we create debt. Often arguments against backwards compatibility stem from actions like these. Some standards we have to keep adding to browsers have been rash decisions or based on a need of one player in the W3C at the time.

Breaking changes in any new version of software aren’t ever fun for users and maintainers. This gets worse with how popular your software becomes and how many people use it. And I’d argue that the web is the most used piece of software out there.

Back in the day the argument against the web stack was always Flash. It seemed to be the right thing to use. There was 99% coverage in browsers. It had far advanced tooling in comparison to Firebug (RIP). And there was a sort of built-in code protection. People couldn’t look at and steal your code without jumping any barriers.

Turns out, Flash wasn’t the amazing platform these arguments made it out to be. In the Flash Games Post Mortem keynote at GDC. John Cooney of Kongegrate talks about the story of Indie gaming and Flash.

I love this talk. It shows that Flash and Web developers weren’t that different. Except Flash developers were more pragmatic about wanting to make money. And they had less delusions about their code lasting forever but knew that they had a short window of opportunity.

And this is what this argument boils down to. When it comes to betting on the web, there’s a lot of good faith and wanting to create something lasting involved. If that is your thing it will make you more understanding for the failures of the web as a software platform. And it makes backwards compatibility a no-brainer as this is what ensures the longevity of the web. When Flash changed and the support from the one company that owned it faded, a lot of developers felt forgotten. We now have the problem that a lot of creativity and a lot of work will go away as the platform to execute it is gone. Backwards compatibility ensures that isn’t the case.

If your thing is to release something quick, make some money and know it will go away, the web isn’t as interesting. Even worse, those defending it can come across as evangelical or condescending. But there is nothing wrong with what you want to do. A lot of innovation stems from this approach, and the web can learn from its successes and failures. Much like HTML5 learned a lot from Flash. But that doesn’t mean your approach is better or that the web is broken – it just doesn’t fit your goals. Without the web, Flash wouldn’t have happened the way it has either. Air proved that. The distribution model of the web works. And you can benefit from that without having to replace it.

There are of course some valid arguments for the abandonment of older ideas and non-support of broken platforms. Seeing how fast JavaScript moves, it seems detrimental to the cause to support older browsers. And some of the new ideas we have now solve important performance and security issues.

But all in all, the backwards compatibility of the web is what made it survive all the other platforms set out to replace it. And there will not be a time where we need to run the web in emulators because of it. That is what makes the argument of the web as broken and backwards compatibility holding us back invalid. Of course we can do better, but are we also 100% sure that what we think is amazing now really stands the test of time?

There are more pressing matters to consider:

  • How can we ensure that despite backwards compatibility we get people to upgrade their environments? Seeing that a malware targeted at Windows XP is a huge success in 2017 is more than worrying.
  • How can we enhance older solutions to become better without breaking them? Chrome’s passive Event Listener extension to addEventListener seems to break backwards compatibility . Arrow functions are arguably only syntactic sugar (despite fixing “this”) but will always be just a syntax error for older browsers.
  • How can we make developers embrace newer solutions to old problems that have less side effects? It seems there is a certain point where we stop caring to keep up-to-date and use whatever worked in the past instead.
  • How can we make newer developers embrace the idea of the web as a platform without overloading them with borderline evangelical and philosophical messages? How can we make the web speak for itself?

Web Truths: The web is better than any other platform as it is backwards compatible and fault tolerant

Saturday, November 18th, 2017

This is part of the web truths series of posts. A series where we look at true sounding statements that we keep using to have endless discussions instead of moving on. Today I want to tackle the issue of the web as a publication platform and how we keep repeating its virtues that may not apply to a publisher audience.

The web is better than any other platform as it is backwards compatible and fault tolerant

This has been the mantra of any web standards fan for a very long time. The web gets a lot of praise as it is to a degree the only platform that has future-proofing built in. This isn’t a grandiose statement. We have proof. Web sites older than many of today’s engineers still work in the newest browsers and devices. Many are still available, whilst those gone are often still available in cached form. Both search engines and the fabulous wayback machine take care of that – whether you want it or not. Betting on the web and standards means you have a product consumable now and in the future.

This longevity of the web stems from a few basic principles. Openness, standardisation, fault tolerance and backwards compatibility.


Openness is the thing that makes the web great. You publish in the open. How your product is consumed depends on what the user can afford – both on a technical and a physical level. You don’t expect your users to have a certain device or browser. You can’t force your users to be able to see or overcome other physical barriers. But as you published in an open format, they can, for example, translate your web site with an online system to read it. They can also zoom into it or even use a screenreader to hear it when they can’t see.

One person’s benefit can be another’s annoyance, though. Not everybody wants to allow others to access and change their content to their needs. Even worse – be able to see and use their code. Clients have always asked us to “protect their content”. But they also wanted to reap the rewards of an open platform. It is our job to make both possible and often this means we need to find a consensus. If you want to dive into a messy debate about this, follow what’s happening around DRM and online video.


Standardisation gave us predictability. Before browsers agreed on standards, web development was a mess. Standards allowed us to predict how something should display. Thus we knew when it was the browser’s fault or ours when things went wrong. Strictly speaking standards weren’t necessary for the web to work. Font tags, center tags, table layouts and all kind of other horrible ideas did an OK job. What standards allow us to do is to write quality code and make our lives easier. We don’t paint with HTML. Instead, we structure documents. We embed extra information and thus enable conversion into other formats. We use CSS to define the look and feel in one central location for thousands of documents.

The biggest benefactors of standards driven development are developers. It is a matter of code quality. Standards-compliant code is easier to read, makes more sense and has predictable outcome.

It also comes with lots of user benefits. A button element is keyboard, touch and mouse accessible and is available even to blind users. A DIV needs a lot of developer love to become an interactive element.

But that doesn’t mean we need to have everything follow standards. If we had enforced that, the web wouldn’t be where it is now. Again, for better or worse. XHTML died because it was too restrictive. HTML5 and lenient parsers were necessary to compete with Flash and to move the web forward.

Backwards compatibility

Backwards compatibilty is another big part of the web platform. We subscribed to the idea of older products being available in the future. That means we need to cater for old technology in newer browsers. Table layouts from long ago need to render as intended. There are even sites these days publishing in that format, like Hacker News. For browser makers, this is a real problem as it means we need to maintain a lot of old code. Code that not only has a diminishing use on the web, but often even is a security or performance issue. Still, we can’t break the web. Anything that goes into a “de facto standard” of web usage becomes a maintenance item. For a horror story on that, just look at all the things that can go in the head of a document. Most of these are non-standard, but people do rely on them.

Fault tolerance

Fault tolerance is a big one, too. From the very beginning web standards like HTML and CSS allow for developer errors. In the design principles of the language the “Priority of Constituencies” states it as such:

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity

This idea is there to protect the user. A mistake made by a developer or a third party piece of code like and ad causing a problem should not block out users. The worrying part is that in a world where we’re asked to deliver more in a shorter amount of time it makes developers sloppy.

The web is great, but not simple to measure or monetise

What we have with the web is an open, distributed platform that grants the users all the rights to convert content to their needs. It makes it easy to publish content as it is forgiving to developer and publisher errors. This is the reason why it grew so fast.

Does this make it better than any other platform or does it make it different? Is longevity always the goal? Do we have to publish everything in the open?

There is no doubt that the web is great and was good for us. But I am getting less and less excited about what’s happening to it right now. Banging on and on about how great the web as a platform is doesn’t help with its problems.

It is hard to monetise something on the web when people either don’t want to pay or block your ads. And the fact that highly intrusive ads and trackers exist is not an excuse for that but a result of it. The more we block, the more aggressive advertising gets. I don’t know anyone who enjoys interstitials and popups. But they must work – or people wouldn’t use them.

The web is not in a good way. Sure, there is an artisinal, indie movement that creates great new and open ways to use it. But the mainstream web is terrible. It is bloated, boringly predictable and seems to try very hard to stay relevant whilst publishers get excited about snapchat and other, more ephemeral platforms.

Even the father of the WWW is worried: Tim Berners-Lee on the future of the web: The system is failing .

If we love the web the way we are happy to say all the time we need to find a solution for that. We can’t pretend everything is great because the platform is sturdy and people could publish in an accessible way. We need to ensure that the output of any way to publish on the web results in a great user experience.

The web isn’t the main target for publishers any longer and not the cool kid on the block. Social media lives on the web, but locks people in a very cleverly woven web of addiction and deceit. We need to concentrate more on what people publish on the web and how publishers manipulate content and users.

Parimal Satyal’s excellent Against a User Hostile Web is a great example how you can convey this message and think further.

In a world of big numbers and fast turnaround longevity isn’t a goal, it is a nice to have. We need to bring the web back to being the first publishing target, not a place to advertise your app or redirect to a social platform.