The Web vs native apps

May 21st, 2015

Back in 2010 Sir Tim Berners Lee warned about the threat posed to the web by Facebook et al.

Yesterday Jeremy Keith made this timely post (thanks to @fjordaan for tweeting it) about how poorly-performing websites are fuelling the shift towards native apps. In case you missed it, Facebook – which has already created a closed content silo – recently launched Instant Articles, which is basically their proprietary presentation mechanism for external content that is (presumably) be pre-cached to enhance the speed of the experience.

Rather than taking you to the external site they’re keeping you on Facebook, which is obviously good for Facebook, but you can’t argue with the fact that sometimes the user experience of external news sites is pretty terrible, so users will understandably like Instant Articles.

I’ll not repeat Jeremy’s points so read his post.

As an aside (from me), Jeremy makes a valid point about the rise of JavaScript frameworks being a contributing factor to the problem. I’ve long argued about the appropriateness or otherwise of single-page-application sites. The truth is that there is a time and a place for them, but they are not necessary for delivering content quickly on the web. People often lose sight of this.

In a previous guise I remember arguing against going full-single-page-app in favour of ‘proper’ indexable content URLs on a project. And for keeping the number of requests on those pages down to a minimum (and, yes, making those requests super speedy via, minification, caching et cetera).

This is all well understood good practice, and yet a BuzzFeed article I just tested triggered 335 individual server requests. And one of the reasons I don’t like WordPress particularly is that out of the box (and with most of the popular themes) it leads to bloated request-heavy pages. There’s no culture of optimisation around it, yet WordPress seems more popular than ever (Yes, this site is WordPress; it’s good at doing blogs).

This all said, I have spent most of the last 18 months years building complicated AngularJS-based single page application Milk. However, the reasons why a JavaScript framework is appropriate for Milk are:

  1. It is only for use by logged-in users.
  2. It serves individual user-specific content such as their personal messages. It’s much faster to load the raw JSON data of a message than to reload an entirely new document with all its assets.
  3. It provides live status updates on some items.
  4. Our caching and local storage strategy ensures that users only load the application framework once, even though they may visit hundreds of pages within the app over the course of a week.
  5. And even then, our uncached page load is only 242KB (on a mobile device) and 18 requests, many of which are asynchronous.

It’s an application not a website, it just happens to use web technology. This is a very different use-case to a public page of content such as a news article.

The web is natively great at delivering pages of text very quickly. I consider documents and applications quite separately. And I don’t think it’s contradictory to be a cheerleader for both. The trick is, I believe, not to try to make documents more application-like.

Mind you, that ALL said… Although JavaScript frameworks are a problem in some instances, I think the real culprit in the case of the Buzzfeeds of this world, is the amount of advertising and sponsored content adding bloat to their pages. If publishers had spent more time testing their sites on edge and 3G mobile connections maybe we’d not be in this situation where Facebook Instant Articles look set to be a hit.

[Edit]
This article on A List Apart also makes some good points

13 May

May 13th, 2015

  
The weeks seem to be flying by faster than ever. I keep realising that things that I thought happened about a week ago were actually the best part a month ago. It’s May. Where has the year gone?

This I ascribe to the constant background stress caused by the building work on the house. “8-10 weeks”, they said, but this Sunday will mark the end of week 14. Progress has tailed off due to various delays and interdependencies, plus the builders have started on another project. Niggling problems still need fixing.
We’re all pretty much fed up now of living on a building site: Huddled together in a couple of rooms upstairs, crammed with furniture and belongings we want to protect from the worst of the dust; Having the odd tired and pointless argument about something we don’t actually disagree on; Working till midnight to make up for hours lost coordinating things with tradesmen; Eating out, unhealthily, because we don’t have a kitchen to speak of.

Very much looking forward to looking back on these few months. It is going to be a great house. I’m sure it’ll feel worth it once we forget how grinding the process was.

Solar Eclipse

March 20th, 2015

On the one hand it’s just a shadow, the shadow of the moon, so there’s nothing magical about it at all (although some would beg to differ). But on the other hand it is, weather permitting, a momentary breakdown of the illusion that we live on a flat Earth with the heavens simply ‘above’ it. You can get a sense of being in space and of the vastness of things.

It’s a shame astronomy doesn’t get directly in our faces more often, but then I suppose if solar eclipses were common most people would ignore them the same way they ignore the Milky Way at night.

I’m hoping (obviously) for a break in the clouds. Sadly the world sold out of eclipse glasses before I even thought about it, and I’m not resourceful enough to source some dense lighting gels at short notice. Might have to try the pinhole method (meh) or, yeah, the Intertubes.

Took the train anyway

February 6th, 2015

…despite the previous post.

(null)

Trains and Cars

February 5th, 2015

Whenever possible I prefer to take the train. When it’s not overcrowded it feels quite civilised. But from where I live (Stamford) it’s almost always considerably cheaper to drive. If I need to get to London in the week for an early meeting it’s the best part of £110 return (or 2 singles) on East Coast unless I choose a specific and inconveniently early or late train, which usually means hanging around for a few hours. And this is with East Coast being state owned. Now that Virgin and Stagecoach are taking it over prices can only go one way.

This weekend I want to visit my brother in Brighton for his birthday, and this is going to cost me £75.80* (advance, off-peak only) and it will take around 3 hours 50 minutes on 3 different trains plus the Victoria Line between King’s Cross to Victoria.

By car – based on my car’s average MPG – the petrol will cost me about £40 for the round trip. And if I avoid the Friday M25 peak traffic it’ll take around 2 hours and 45 minutes.

So not only is it quicker in this case, it’s also cheaper to drive (OK, you have to allow for the fact I bought the car in the first place) even with only me in the car. If I had one or more passengers it would be a no-brainer.

It’s obvious that the government has little interest in infrastructure outside of London getting people our of their cars and onto public transport.

If you live in London it’s a different story of course. I had no need for a car when I lived in the capital. It’s a transport utopia.

Grumble grumble. I might fork out for the train anyway. Quite an expensive way to read a book.

[EDIT]
It has been brought to my attention that I omitted one of the key benefits of travel by rail: Train Beers. The freedom to just sit back and tuck into a 4-pack of over-priced Stella trumps all other factors obviously. It should be noted that, by definition, train beers are not Train Beers if bought cheaply from the off license.

(*Yes there are some cheaper tickets on non-express trains, but for me the whole point of traveling by train is speed.)

On encryption

February 3rd, 2015

I should apologise that this blog is not (currently) served over https. It’s on my to-do list, but that list is pretty stupidly long. (As an aside I don’t look forward to the day when I have nothing to do. The idea of just putting my feet up is horrible. It feels like I’ve had at least 50% more things to do than I have time to do since about 2007; but the upshot is that I genuinely don’t think I’ve been bored once in the last 7 years.)

Anyway, recent comments by Phil Zimmermann – the creator of email encryption software PGP – struck me as particularly (if unsurprisingly) smart. The upshot is yet another timely argument against David Cameron’s frankly embarrassing stance on end-to-end encryption: Hackers are always going to be able to get around whatever security you put up, but if your data is properly encrypted it doesn’t matter if they get access to your servers. So those Sony emails and movie scripts, for example, would never have been leaked if they’d been stored encrypted.

This article is worth a read, as is Phil’s original blog post.

In related news, BWM recently patched their ConnectedDrive software after a flaw was identified by a third party. The shocking part of the story is that prior to this patch the software was using unencrypted plain text HTTP to send and receive data! Given that the software operates door locks (among other functions) it is mind-boggling to me that its developers didn’t choose HTTPS in the first place.

A culture of ‘encrypt by default’ needs to be instilled.

First world problems

February 2nd, 2015

It’s cold, unremarkably. Not Sweden cold, just UK cold. Not that the predictability of it being cold in January stops certain newspapers from screaming about ‘Arctic Blasts’ and such on their front pages. If something isn’t soaring it’s plummeting I suppose.

We’re about to have the back of our house lopped off to make way for an extension, so it’s going to get very chilly and probably dusty in here. Where to put stuff is becoming a big problem. To complicate matters the current kitchen is being ripped out, and the garage has to be cleared – after three years of filling it with stuff – so that the builders can drive a digger through it to get to the back garden.

Next time we move house (if ever, please no) I think we should get one that’s big enough to begin with. In our defence, the location was very good.