ENTRIES TAGGED "html"

Can We Extend the Web Cleanly?

The DOM and human nature create some challenges

“Design by Committee” is rarely a compliment. Can the Web shift away from that model, retaining some order without falling into troublesome chaos?

The Manifesto

Part of the excitement around the Extensible Web Manifesto was that it wanted to move the Web to more of an evolutionary model:

We aim to tighten the feedback loop between the editors of web standards and web developers.

Today, most new features require months or years of standardization, followed by careful implementation by browser vendors, only then followed by developer feedback and iteration. We prefer to enable feature development and iteration in JavaScript, followed by implementation in browsers and standardization.

This sounds great. Web standards have always been difficult, their universal goals making it difficult to bring together different vendors and even different standards organizations. Developers are impatient, and most of us have little connection to the kinds of reasoning that drive vendors, consortia, and yes, committees. Open source and similar models have taught us that many eyes are valuable, and small experiments seem less likely to break the Web than specifications that lurch the wrong direction.

Unfortunately, extensibility is not, as we learned from XML, a magical way to speed things up and make committees disappear. The rest of the Extensible Web Manifesto explains how it hopes to make this work, but the key piece is the very first item:

Focus on adding new low-level capabilities to the web platform that are secure and efficient.

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The Power of HTML

Acknowledging the source of the Web's strength

For a growing number of developers, “web” means “JavaScript”. Programmers like to focus on programming languages, but the Web’s basic power comes from its support for communications, not programming.

I asked Jen Simmons, host of the Web Ahead podcast, to keynote Fluent after seeing her give a talk on responsive layouts at the ARTIFACT conference last year. It wasn’t just a great talk on responsive layout, but an exploration of the Web foundations that make responsive layout possible. Responsive layout’s foundations are deep in HTML, which contained those multi-device values from the beginning.

At Fluent, Simmons delivered A Love Letter to HTML, exploring HTML’s origins. The goals driving a memo written 25 years ago gave the Web strengths that developers need to study today.

Highlights of her keynote include:

  • “The Web has changed us so much already.” [0:34]

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Transforming the Web (through transformation)

Decorating content may no longer be enough

Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metamorphosis_frog_Meyers.pngThousands of people invented it independently. Millions use it without thinking about a broader context. It’s time to name it so we can talk about it.

Transformation is changing the way we look at the balance between clients and servers, our approach to formatting and layout, and our expectations of what’s possible on the Web. As applications shift from transformation on the server toward transformation on arrival on the client, transformation’s central role becomes more visible.

“Templating” doesn’t quite capture what’s happening here. While templates are often a key tool, describing that tool doesn’t explain the shift from server to client. Templating also misses the many cases where developers are using plain JavaScript to insert, delete, and modify the document tree in response to incoming data.

These practices have been emerging for a long time, in many different guises:

  • In the Dynamic HTML days, scripts might tinker with the DOM tree as well as modify CSS presentation.
  • Transformation was supposed to be a regular and constant thing in the early XSLT plans. Stylesheets on the client would generate presentation from clean blocks of XML content.
  • Ajax opened the door to shell pages, apps that set up a UI, but get most of their content elsewhere, using JavaScript to put it in place.
  • New data format options evolved at about the same time that Ajax emerged. JSON offered a more concise set of programmer-friendly content tools. Many apps include a ‘bind JSON to HTML before showing it to the user’ step.
  • Template systems now run on the client as well as the server. In many systems, templates on the server feed data to the client, which applies other templates to that data before presenting it to users.
  • The HTTP powering Ajax still created a long slow cycle of interaction. WebSockets and WebRTC now offer additional approaches for collecting content with less overhead, making it easier to create many more small transformations.
  • Some developers and designers have long thought of the document tree as a malleable collection of layout boxes rather than a deliberately coherent base layer. Separation of concerns? A dead horse, apparently. Recent debates over CSS Regions highlighted these issues again.

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Parsing HTML with Perl

Efficiently manipulate documents on the Web

The need to extract interesting bits of an HTML document comes up often enough that by now we have all seen many ways of doing it wrong and some ways of doing it right for some values of “right”.

One might think that one of the most fascinating answers on Stackoverflow has put an end to the desire to parse HTML using regular expressions, but time and again such a desire proves too tempting.

Let’s say you want to check all the links on a page to identify stale ones, using regular expressions:

In this self-contained example, I put a small document in the __DATA__ section. This example corresponds to a situation where the maintainer of the page commented out a previously broken link, and replaced it with the correct link.

When run, this script produces the output:

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Building rich web UIs with knockout.js

Live coding a shopping cart and other rich web UI goodness

At Fluent 2013, O’Reilly’s Web Platform, JavaScript and HTML5 conference, Microsoft’s Steve Sanderson gave a tight 20 minute introductory tour of Knockout.js, a popular JavaScript UI library built around declarative bindings and the Model-View ViewModel (MVVM) pattern.

In his talk, Rich Web UIs with Knockout.js, Steve quickly summarized the problems Knockout solves and why Knockout is a particularly strong candidate to solve those problems, before working on a shopping cart example to show off how bindings, including custom bindings, work within Knockout.

Some key parts of Todd’s talk include:

  • A description of the problem Knockout solves [at 00:41]
  • What is Knockout and MVVM? [at 01:38]
  • 4 unique things about Knockout [at 03:12]
  • Live coding a shopping cart [at 06:02]
  • Summary [at 20:15]

Anyone with a further interest in Knockout should check out the project’s homepage and particularly the live Hello World example and interactive online tutorial which guides you through building a Web UI using the MVVM pattern with Knockout.js in an interactive sandbox-style environment.

If the Web Platform, JavaScript, and HTML5 interest you, consider checking out our growing collection of top-rated talks from Fluent 2013.

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Web application development is different (and better)

On both front and back end, the Web challenges conventional wisdom

The Web became the most ubiquitous distributed application system because it didn’t have to think of itself as a programming environment. Almost every day I see comments or complaints from programmers (even brilliant programmers) muttering about how many strange and inferior parts they have to deal with, how they’d like to fix a historical accident by ripping out HTML completely and replacing it with Canvas, and how separation of concerns is an inconvenience. Everything should be JavaScript.

(Apologies to Tom Dale, who tweeted a perfect series of counterpoints just as I was writing. He has visions of rebuilding the rendering stack in JavaScript, but those tweets are not unusual opinions.)

The Web is different, and I can see why programmers might have little tolerance for the paths it chose, but this time the programmers are wrong. It’s not that the Web is perfect – it certainly has glitches. It’s not that success means something is better. Many terrible things have found broad audiences, and there are infinite levels to the Worse is Better conversations. And of course, the Web doesn’t solve every programming need. Many problems just don’t fit, and that’s fine.

So why is the Web better?

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HTML and CSS performance

Efficient, reusable markup reduces development work while boosting page load time

[Ed note: This is the third in a series of posts on web design and performance. You can see the first two posts here and here.]

Optimizing your markup can have a substantial impact on your site’s page load time. Bloated HTML leads to bloated CSS, and vice-versa. For example, during a semantics and reusability template cleanup, I was able to significantly reduce the file size of site-wide HTML, CSS, and stylesheet images.

site-cleanup

I achieved this by simply renaming existing elements to have more semantic meaning and then removed unnecessary elements in the HTML (also known as divitis) to focus on reusability. Later in the same cleanup effort, I was able to cut CSS by 39% by removing unused selectors, combining and condensing styles, and normalizing the colors used across the site.

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Please nominate for the web platform awards

Recognizing the people who've built the Web

This March, we’ll be announcing the Web Platform Awards at the O’Reilly Fluent Conference. Fluent is all about JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, and the best practices that make up the Web Platform, and we’d like to recognize the people who’ve made it the powerful ecosystem it is today.

The description is pretty simple, but I think includes a huge number of potentially great awardees:

The awards recognize individual contributors who have demonstrated exceptional leadership, creativity, and collaboration in the development of JavaScript, HTML, CSS, and the supporting Web ecosystem.

We hope to hear about many ways people have “demonstrated exceptional leadership”. It may be standards, it may be coding, it may be explaining, it may be community, or it may well be something I haven’t thought of yet. What matters is that you can tell us why you think they should get an award.

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Seduced by Markup

The power of a technology now taken for granted

A friend wanted to show me a great new thing in 1993, this crazy HTML browser called Cello. He knew I was working on hypertext and this seemed like just the thing for it! Sadly, my time in HyperCard and an unfortunate encounter with the HyTime specifications meant that I bounced off of it, because markup couldn’t possibly work.

I was, of course, very very wrong.

Markup with some brilliantly minimal hypertext options was about to launch the World Wide Web. The toolset was approachable, easy to apply to many kinds of information, and laid the foundation for greater things to come.

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Sketching in Code

Flexible dreams for a responsive world

Last week’s Artifact Conference focused on the challenges of designing for multiple devices simultaneously. One frequent suggestions on stage and off was rough sketching, on screen or on paper, but it’s tricky to get there. The problem is easiest to see for designers on the Web, but it applies to a wide range of digital projects.

The challenge isn’t just devices – designing for a particular device with its given constraints isn’t (usually) that hard. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript have long had tools for abstracting just far enough away from the device that sites can work even in unexpected places. The challenges come from the multiplicity. I used to spend a lot of time helping designers and clients move from “it looks like this in print” to “it probably looks like this on the Web”. That was largely about surrendering control, which was difficult enough, but this is frequently about controlling just enough to create multiple variations with a single code base.

What does a sketch of a page look like when that page morphs itself to fit differently in different containers? What does a sketch of a site look like when that site may present different content (and different types of content) to different users based on their past encounters with the site? What does a sketch of a program look like when it handles many different kinds of input in many different kinds of circumstances?

One answer – the classic answer for those of us walking around with notebooks full of dot grid paper – is multiple sketches. Breakpoints become critical as “it looks like this when…” becomes a mantra.

At the same time, though, I rarely feel comfortable creating site (or code) details on paper when I know the result will be electronic. I spent way too much time explaining how paper and screens are different to saddened designers to want to inflict that pain on my own projects. My notebooks are largely filled with words, with occasional pictures.

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