Web is Flux

Meta Refresh 2014

Bangalore, Feb 2014

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

— Donald Rumsfeld

Earlier this year, in the month of February, I attended Meta Refresh in Bangalore where I emphasised the importance of progressive enhancement through a workshop and a talk at the conference. It is quite unfortunate that many web designers and developers continue to carry forth the old approach of designing websites for a known system configuration. Only later do they test their websites on alternate browsers / devices and patch issues that are detected. This practise is known as graceful degradation.

This site is best viewed in IE6, 800x600.

About a decade back there was very little variation in hardware and software and one could have got away with making assumptions about client systems – though that doesn’t really justify this practice even at that time. Over the years, the devices (and software) connected to the web have come a long way. New waves have swept across the ecosystem – frequently and unpredictably – bringing in newer hardware, device capabilities, screens, browsers and other software. Today it is hard to keep up with the speed at which things are changing. We don’t know what will storm the ecosystem next but something surely will. Assumptions about a system configuration, today, are far from safe.

At a time when technology is changing faster than what we can keep up with, it’s worth noting that the fundamental principles of the web have remained unchanged since its inception about 25 years ago. These principles have stood the test of time and can perhaps be described as strictly liberal. In many ways they have been responsible for letting the web evolve and improve over time without any major impediments. Even today the very first website on the internet works flawlessly across all standards compliant web browsers on every device.

The onus of embracing these principles lies on us. If we look closely, there are only a handful of knowns in a traditional web communication — the presence of a client and a server that talk over HTTP, and the fact that client is running a web browser that will understand a hypertext document. Everything else is either a known unknown or an unknown unknown.

Progressive enhancement is a fundamentally opposite approach to the widely adopted method of graceful degradation. It was introduced in the year 2003, by Steve Champeon and Nick Finck in a talk titled Inclusive Web Design for the Future. In short, start with healthy markup, add the styles around it, and finally layer the interactivity around it. How does that help? The outer layers do not interfere with the inner ones, and therefore basic systems can access the content in the markup layer and deliver a base experience to the user. More powerful systems can further take advantage of the outer layers to enhance the user experience. No one’s excluded.

The idea of starting with the most basic system was expectedly rebutted by many in the audience. After all, hardly anyone uses a vanilla HTML browser today. Pretty much everyone has the bells and whistles of CSS and JavaScript. But as the Principle of Least Power suggests, the less powerful a language the more widely it can be adopted. And further, if I may add, less powerful languages have low chances of failure. The fact that a system can continue working even if one of the technology fails is a huge benefit derived from adopting progressive enhancement. Christian Heilmann’s elevator vs escalator analogy perhaps best exposes the elephant in the room.

Last year, all of a sudden, there was a revival of the progressive enhancement debate on the internet. Since then, it’s been regularly discussed at many reputed conferences around the world. Having to defend the values of the web (such as inclusiveness) 25 years after we began this journey by letting go of control, and becoming flexible is a tad disheartening. I wish the community rests this debate and upholds the spirit of the web. This talk is an effort to urge everyone to do just that.