michael's blog

web apps

Posted on 2018-05-28

The other day, I just turned off JavaScript from my browser. "fucking neckbeard", "you'll turn it back in 2 weeks", "living without JavaScript is like living without electricity" were some of the responses I got. And they might be right. But let's see why things are the way they are and what we can do about it.

what is the purpose of the web?

Well, the answer's pretty obvious, right? So you can surf it. But what does that even mean anymore? In the past, surfing the web meant viewing websites. You'd open something like your favorite news website, and it'd show you some of the latest updates. Or maybe you'd open the website for some company to find out their telephone so you can contact them. In other words, it was a channel from which you could receive information.

If you wanted to do anything more complicated or that required more interaction, like sending an email, you'd probably pop open a dedicated client to do it. Things like Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird serve as great email clients. For chat, you could use an IRC client. Hell, even the browser was a client, just for viewing webpages. If you didn't have a client for a service that you wanted to use, you'd download a client, enter in the details of the server you want to connect to, and then you would be off.

Things aren't that way anymore. For some reason, the web browser has become the all-in-one client for every service. Instead of simply acting as a HTTP client, your browser is now also capable of running full-blown 3D games, chat rooms, real-time word processors, and full x86 emulators, apparently. What the hell happened?

spoiler alert: javascript happened

JavaScript happened. That little scripting language invented to, you know, make some hover animation on your page or have dropdowns on your menu bar. Thanks to the introduction of JavaScript (and jQuery especially), developers stopped viewing webpages as Word documents that you can share, and more like canvases. Hover animations are cute and dropdowns are useful. Sure. But when this scripting language starts turning into a systems language (for lack of a better term), you have a problem. When's the last time you used Perl to write an operating system?

Look at the things we do today with JavaScript. We have full blown frameworks that we compile into bundles of executable code in people's browsers. We're basically talking about the equivalent of downloading a binary and executing it on your computer every time you open a webpage. Except for a few minor differences. Firstly, it's not really a binary, it's a huge blob of script, which means it must be executed inside some virtual interpreter. For each tab that you're running. Secondly, now you're downloading random scripts from any website that you open, and then trusting it and running it. You wouldn't hesitate to click a link, but you'd definitely think twice before installing something from an unknown source into your computer, right?

On top of that, look at these huge frameworks that almost every company is hiring developers for: React, Angular, Vue. These frameworks help JavaScript developers develop "web apps", meaning your JavaScript is now responsible for things the browser should actually be doing for you: two-way data binding, template rendering, and more. Except now, you're downloading a script and running it inside of a virtual interpreter. And because of technologies like Webpack that bundles all your separate code files together (read: static linking), our browsers can't even use the same framework code from site to site.

Look at Facebook's home page. Just from regular use, that webpage itself can use over 4 gigabytes of RAM. It makes large amounts of network calls for data that's all just being stored in memory. And everyone who opens the Facebook website (for the first time) must download all of that JavaScript. The website has its own tabs (within the page, yes) for chat windows, games, advertisements, embedded video players, and much more I probably didn't even know about. Why are we running full-blown apps in our browser?

ok but what can i do

There's a number of things that can be done to turn this state of the web down a different path. Here's some ideas for users:

For developers:

ok but what can you do

I'm helping with a project called flubber, which originated as an IRC bouncer, but is slowly turning into a general messaging protocol. All-in-one messengers exist (and a particular one exists by that name exactly), but they all work by opening a browser view and just loading the page within it, so it's no different from just opening tabs in a browser. Flubber will communicate with these services through APIs, and then expose a uniform interface to clients which makes it easy to bring all into a single view. Check out my progress here. Other than that, I'm also working on making my websites as light as possible in general, including this one (which, by the way, has 0 JavaScript content).

And of course, I've disabled JavaScript in my browser.

</rant> thanks for reading!

written by Michael Zhang. source