Quick summaries: the talks at State of the Browser 5

This was the first conference I had attended in a long time. It was well worth the time (1 day, Saturday) and the low ticket cost (£30!). Now it’s a few days after. Here, I’ll jot down my impressions of the talks.

Seb Lee-Delisle demonstrated his various digital art projects — including lots of lasers

  • massive scale visual displays, combining projectors and lasers
  • role of audience participation, including live music generation, and target shooting with Nerf guns — when in doubt, make it a game
  • playfulness matters. Laser safety matters too

Edd Sowden dives deep into web (and OS) accessibility via the table element

  • under certain conditions, a table isn’t recognised as a table — e.g. it has only one cell, or its CSS is set to display: block
  • browsers use heuristics to guess whether a <table> is truly a data table — because it might be a layout table instead — and these vary between browser engines
  • Useful tools exist. Chrome has an accessibility tab in the dev tools, that just needs to be switched on via flags. Mac OSX has a a built-in screen reader and OS-level accessibility inspector tools
  • Ultimately, listening to your sites is the way to evaluate them for accessibility

Melinda Seckington on a company culture that supports learning

  • imposter syndrome is common — but treatable with the right support
  • teaching others is a good way to learn stuff for oneself — doing talks, sharing knowledge with other companies
  • share knowledge with a company library — collecting books + blog posts, conducting Hackdays which focus on creative collaboration rather than finishing a product

Martin Jakl spoke on the Web’s role to play in connected devices

  • we want to avoid something like WAP, don’t repeat mistakes of sinking money into protocols that nobody bothers to use
  • web technology is suitable for lots of Internet of Things devices, and the Webkit engine in particular — Martin develops Webkit
  • Webkit has some challenges — tightly constrained memory on smaller devices

Chris Heilmann — ‘Mind the gap’

  • all sorts of gaps in technology and culture give rise to new challenges for Web folk
  • capability gaps between browsers — use progressive enhancement, naturally
  • Chris works at Microsoft on the Edge team now. There was once a considerable gap between IE and competitor browsers
  • Edge has a ton of code removed to get rid of IE idiosyncrasies like alternative browser modes to simulate older versions. So IE11 is secretly included in Windows 10, just for when it’s absolutely required

Bruce Lawson of Opera discussed the Web’s growth from emerging markets

  • rising populations and growing economies are where our next billion users are coming from: India, China, Africa
  • feature phones with proxy browsers, like Opera Mini, are crucial for getting access and overcoming poor network infrastructure
  • developers don’t love proxy browsers — they mean less control for us. They don’t run all our JavaScript, or load fonts, and low-power ones don’t include all our CSS flourishes like rounded corners. Therefore: progressively enhance
  • universal access can provide you access to unexpected audiences. E.g. Ignighter, rebranded as Stepout, became popular in India unintentionally, as the model for group dating just happened to fit with local cultural values

Laura Elizabeth on how Pattern Libraries and the changing design process

  • Pattern Libraries can improve designer-developer communication
  • There’s an opportunity to involve clients more deeply — e.g. let them name components, build a shared vocabulary
  • There’s a cost — designing and implementing this takes time. We need to sell the advantages to our colleagues and clients. (Just unilaterally deciding to make one, as I’ve tried, isn’t the right approach…)
  • The benefits are long term — more consistency in design, quicker site changes later, better communication with the client

Adam Onishi — ‘Best viewed with…’

  • client-side JS frameworks — are we breaking compatibility and reviving the browser wars?
  • progressive enhancement is, as always, the right approach
  • introduction to the Service Worker, for performance and progressive enhancement

Ada Rose Edwards discussed web animation performance.

  • the mechanics of how browsers draw stuff onto the screen — there’s layout and paint (slow) and compositing (fast, thanks to the GPU. )
  • rendering text is, surprisingly, a complex, slow operation. So avoid forcing text to re-layout often
  • ‘measure first then animate back’
  • towards improved performance: use service worker threads, calculate on the GPU

The last session was a live coding demo by Phil Nash.

  • implemented a Twitter notification-pusher app
  • using Service Worker, so the demo had code continuing to live even after closing the browser window
  • code included ES6 features like promises and fat arrows… I need to learn this stuff already
  • went so smoothly that the demo was finished with time to spare

General observations

  • Very generous food provision. Hooray for sponsors.
  • There was hint of criticism directed at Edge and Safari for being slower to implement features, e.g. Service Worker, compared to other browsers.

Don Melton, who formerly developed on Webkit and Safari for Apple, has defended Apple’s conservatism in the browser space, on the Debug podcast, episode 69. I highly recommend listening to it.

Service Worker is a complex beast to be approached with caution. Apple is really concerned with battery life, and security. Background JS processes are potentially highly energy-consuming, and we don’t want to enable browser-based botnets.

The same arguments apply to Microsoft as well. It’s not reasonable to expect them to operate like developers of the ‘evergreen’ browsers (Chrome, Firefox). They’re dealing with OS-level features when they update the browsers.

But it’s great to have ‘vanguard’ browsers that are quick to implement and iterate on the bleeding edge of web standards too. We can progressively-enhance our way over the gaps.

In summary: fantastic event. They filmed and live-streamed the event, so you can watch the talks on your own time. I’ll definitely attend more from the organisers.