Compilers are the New Frameworks

“Matrix Code” by trinity-of-one — — CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My current “investment thesis” is that what we call web frameworks are transforming from runtime libraries into optimizing compilers. When it comes to eking performance out of hand-authored JavaScript and accompanying runtime libraries, we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.

Increasingly, the bytes that get shipped to browsers will bear less and less resemblance to the source code that web developers write.

In the same way that a compiled Android binary bears little resemblance to the original Java source code, the assets we serve to users will be the aggressively-optimized output of sophisticated build tools. The trend started by minifiers like UglifyJS and continued by transpilers like Babel will only accelerate.

This is a loss in some ways (who else got their web development start with View Source?) but is a huge win for users, particularly in emerging markets.

Ember has always been driven by the idea that web apps are becoming more and more like native apps over time. Initially, I thought that just meant architecturally. Early on, the idea of a stateful UI app written entirely in JavaScript was very controversial. But as these kinds of apps become more widely accepted, it’s increasingly clear to me that the next step is becoming more like native apps in implementation details, too.

Between WebAssembly, SharedArrayBuffer and Atomics, and maybe even threads in JavaScript, the building blocks for the next generation of web applications are falling into place. If you’re interested in predicting the future of the web, just look at what high-performance native systems look like, then figure out how we can apply those ideas in the browser.

But that’s not to suggest that the task is as simple as just porting good ideas to web APIs. The constraints are very different.

Native code tends to have the luxury of not really caring about file size — a small 40MB iOS app would get you laughed out of the room on the web. And AAA game titles accept minutes-long load times in exchange for consistent 60fps performance, but I shudder to think what a 30 second load time would do to the conversion rate of your e-commerce site, 60fps or not.

Our job now is figuring out how to adapt the ideas of high-performance native code while preserving what makes the web great: URLs, instant loading, and a security model that allows us to forget that we run thousands and thousands of untrusted scripts every day.

So here’s my advice for anyone who wants to make a dent in the future of web development: time to learn how compilers work.

— TD

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