Smashing Conference – 17th–18th of March 2015

Smashing Conference was a two-day event (excluding the workshops) held at Oxford Town Hall, featuring a fantastic line-up; speakers presented a well-rounded range of expertise in the field of web development and design.

Along with other members of the Web Solutions and Web Development teams at the University of Kent, I had the opportunity to attend the conference and absorb some of the latest developments in the field. Three core themes ran through such developments; technical, business and best practice. What follows is my take on the technical aspect.

Is Blink the new IE6? An interesting question that surfaced at the Conference and has sparked much debate. Blink is the rendering engine powering Chromium browsers like Chrome and Opera. Bruce Lawson argued that we are in familiar waters; many years ago (in web years), Netscape was the dominant browser until IE6 came along and knocked it off its throne and it saved a generation of miserable developers by doing so.

What ensued was a collective effort by all developers to get clients onto IE6 and so a monopoly was born. This monopoly led Microsoft down a non-standards-compliant route and has been the source of headache for years now. Lawson expressed fear that the same could happen with Blink as more and more developers encourage clients (sometimes rather forcefully) onto Chrome and even ignore the other browsers. The end result would be another monopoly and end users are the ones that have to pay for it. Let’s for a moment keep this argument in mind as we breeze through some of the other topics discussed at the conference.

Service Workers were the true star of the conference. They represent a whole new frontier for the web as it continues to fight against the threat of native apps. They are meant to be used as a progressive enhancement that bring rich offline experiences, background syncs and push notifications to the web. They are currently fully supported in Chrome followed by partial support in Firefox and Opera. IE has no support as usual.

Paul Lewis gave one of the more informative talks at the conference in regards to improving your site’s performance by utilizing the full power of Chrome Developer Tools. As a developer, I consider myself well-acquainted with the dev tools and so it was rather humbling to see the true power of the dev tools unleashed at the hands of an expert.

Tom Giannattasio demonstrated one of the most exciting technologies in the landscape of web, known as nw.js (formerly known as node-webkit.js). nw.js bridges the gap between web applications and native ones and produces a whole new category of applications known as hybrid apps. These apps utilize web technologies by combining Chromium (the open-source browser behind Chrome) and io.js (the successor to node.js) into one unified framework. Hybrid apps mix the flexibility and versatility of the web with the power and level of control provided only by native apps. Giannattasio used this opportunity to plug in one such creation by his own company, a web design tool, Macaw.

Responsive images and Flexbox also made appearances at the conference. The former is only available in Chrome and Firefox (behind a flag) while the latter is fortunately, supported by recent versions of all browsers and is ready for production use as a progressive enhancement.

It’s time to visit our earlier dilemma regarding Blink. First off, I believe it’s not so much that Blink is in “danger” of becoming IE6 as is Chrome. After all, Chrome is way ahead of Opera despite both sharing the same rendering engine and developers are more in love with Chrome than Opera. Moreover, as the aforementioned talks implicitly highlighted, Chrome offers a wide range of capabilities, tools and new opportunities to explore. In many ways, it is years ahead of other browsers and it is still racing ahead. Surely, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that developers love Chrome and prefer if everyone was using it. Some may call this laziness on our part and others might label it as progressive thinking.

Lawson made valid points about dangers of a monopoly; it’s a slippery slope and ultimately, it can indeed harm the end users. At the same time, one might argue that as developers and designers, we have a responsibility to move the platform forward and sometimes that means dropping support for older browsers (at least in some circumstances) to encourage people to upgrade. Google has already begun doing it. Have you tried visiting Google Drive in IE9? It simply doesn’t work. While a monopoly is certainly not a good thing, I believe the burden doesn’t fall on the shoulders of the developers unlike what Lawson suggested at the end of his talk; instead, it’s the browser vendors that have to get their act together and start working in consort for a more open, standardized web that also doesn’t hinder progress.

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