The Web I Want
20 August 2018
I originally posted this at Dev.to, where you can see some comments
This post will very much sound like I want you all to get off my lawn - because I do.
How has the web become like this?
This all sounds a bit first world problems, but it's far, far worse for those in developing nations. Do you know how bad satellite Internet is compared to what most of us have here in the west? It is awful.
Graph of mobile connection speeds
The World Wide Web is supposed to be a leveler, something that brings knowledge everywhere and yet developers every day are making it harder for those who need the Internet to work well the most.
Let's take a look at how things have "progressed" with the Internet.
20ish years ago
I made my first website about 20 years ago and it delivered as much content as most websites today. It was more accessible, ran faster and easier to develop then 90% of the stuff you'll read on here.
20 years later I browse the Internet with a few tabs open and I have somehow downloaded many megabytes of data, my laptop is on fire and yet in terms of actual content delivery nothing has really changed.
10-15 years ago
People were fed up of nested tables and spacer images. The web was losing its roots of being a content delivery platform.
I was working on websites like the above in my placement year on my degree. I started reading articles on A list Apart about how we should be pushing for semantic markup, where HTML simply describes a document of content and then it is styled using this thing called CSS.
Eventually I ran into CSS Zen Garden which is a website that showcases what you could do with CSS.
The idea is the markup is the same and the website has submissions from developers showing different designs purely using CSS.
The HTML remains the same, the only thing that has changed is the external CSS file. Yes, really.
Just pure HTML decorated with CSS.
It felt exciting to be part of a community that took real pride in delivering beautiful looking content in the leanest, simplest and most accessible way possible.
Not only did this make websites more accessible and fast to run but in some ways made them easier to develop. Suddenly generating the markup from the server wasn't horrible!
Still things were quite difficult. CSS support wasn't amazing and we still didn't have a lot of semantic elements with HTML4 so there were a lot of
divs. Firebug had just come out which was a huge boost but it was still hard to make a consistent experience.
5 years-ish till present
Here is a not exaggerated summary of today's attitudes
Scores of people who just want to deliver their content and have it look vaguely nice are convinced you need every web technology under the sun to deliver text.
The page refreshing is seen as a massive problem for users, and it must be avoided at all costs.
You see these laughable posts where developers jump through dozens of hoops to make their website "fast and performant". They struggle because of the underlying technical choices and then I'm still downloading half a megabyte of data to read 500 words. It's embarrassing.
There are a few things I want you to take away from this post
- In practice your website would do everything it needed to with some HTML files linking to some CSS.
So what is the The Web I want
- Semantic, accessible, HTML. This means it works for everyone, is fast to download and is less effort than writing React components.
- Small images, when needed. Enough of these hilarious 4mb GIFs.
- Most websites should be ready to read after a 10kb download.
Regarding single page apps (SPAs), I genuinely believe too many people are making them. GMail is a web application and as such deserves a framework. Your blog platform? Not so much. Remember these frameworks not only put a lot of strain on user's experience but it's also just a lot to learn. Maybe your time could be served better.
But my product owner says we need all these bells and whistles!
As a professional, it is up to you to take a stand. You are the expert, not the customer.
- You should be informing them how Amazon learned that every 100ms in page load cost them a 1% of sales.
- You should be informing them that making a carousel of their product catalogue is slow and annoying and expensive to make compared to just listing them in a
- You should let them know that if they really want their groundbreaking poetry to reach around the world that they better make sure their website works on old hardware with slow Internet connections.
If I told the builder of my home to make it out of straw, I would hope she would convince me otherwise.
Of course, circumstances are tricky and sometimes people will ignore you but when you look at the state of some of the popular websites today you can only conclude that people either don't know what they're doing or are just not pushing back on bad requirements enough.
Take a look at the performance tab in developer tools for your website. Does it make you proud? If not, take some pride and start cutting away the cruft you thought you needed.
Let's take pride in making lean, accessible, simpler to execute websites by using simple technologies that work everywhere. There are moral and technical arguments for taking this approach.
Remember that the goal of most websites is delivering useful textual content, and all you really need for that is HTML.
Then we might not have to buy new laptops every 2 years and people less fortunate than you have a chance of actually using the web; the way it was intended.