Straightforward web applications are now very likely to be stable in browsers

July 7, 2019

In response to my entry on how our goals for our web application are to not have to touch it, Ross Hartshorn left a comment noting:

Hi! Nice post, and I sympathize. However, I can't help thinking that, for web apps in particular, it is risky to have the idea of software you don't have to touch anymore (except for security updates). The browsers which are used to access it also change. [...]

I don't think these are one-off changes, I think it's part of a general trend. If it's software that runs on your computer, you can just leave it be. If it's a web app, a big part of it is running on someone else's computer, using their web browser (a piece of software you don't control). You will need to update it from time to time. [...]

This is definitely true in a general, abstract sense, and in the past it has been true in a concrete sense, in that some old web applications could break over time due to the evolution of browsers. However, this hasn't really been an issue for simple web applications (ones just based around straight HTML forms), and these days I think that even straightforward web applications are going to be stable over browser evolution.

The reality of the web is that there is a huge overhang of old straightforward HTML, and there has been for some time; in fact, for a long time now, at any given point in time most of the HTML in existence is 'old' to some degree. Browsers go to great effort to not break this HTML, for the obvious reason, and so any web application built around basic HTML, basic forms, and the like has been stable (in browsers) for a long time now. The same is true for basic CSS, which has long since stopped being in flux and full of quirks. If you stick to HTML and CSS that is at least, say, five years old, everything just works. And you can do a great deal with that level of HTML and CSS.

(One exhibit for this browser stability is DWiki, the very software behind this blog, which has HTML and CSS that mostly fossilized more than a decade ago. This includes the HTML form for leaving comments.)

Augmenting your HTML and CSS with Javascript has historically been a bit more uncertain and unstable, but my belief is that even that has now stopped. Just as with HTML and CSS, there is a vast amount of old(er) Javascript on the web and no one wants to break it by introducing incompatible language changes in browsers. Complex Javascript that lives on the bleeding edge of browsers is still something that needs active maintenance, but if you just use some simple Javascript to do straightforward progressive augmentation, I think that you've been perfectly safe for some time and are going to be safe well into the future.

(This is certainly our experience with our web application.)

Another way to put this is that the web has always had some stable core, and this stable core has steadily expanded over time. For some time now, that stable core has been big enough to build straightforward web applications. It's extremely unlikely that future browsers will roll back very much of this stable core, if anything; it would be very disruptive and unpopular.

(You don't have to build straightforward web applications using the stable core; you can make your life as complicated as you want to. But you're probably not going to do that if you want an app that you can stop paying much attention to.)

Written on 07 July 2019.
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Last modified: Sun Jul 7 23:23:22 2019
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