State of the Browser 2021

This is the first in-person conference I’ve been to since the pandemic and since it normally clashes with PyCon UK this is also the first State of the Browser that I’ve been too in a while.

As a high-level pitch for the conference it a chance to hear from standard makers and browser developers about their thoughts on the web, web standards and issues in web development.

The conference had an audience of probably a third of what I felt it had the last time I attended in person. There was not issue with distancing and you could add a stickers to your attendee batch to nix photography and to ask for people to keep their distance.

Usually the chance to socialise and network is a major part of the conference experience but once I was there I realised that I didn’t really want to spend the time required to get to know someone new while COVID is as prevalent as it is, not attend the generous post-conference drinks.

Which made me wonder why I was there at all. The answer, on reflection, is that being physically present meant that I was actually present for the talks as well. I’ve bought tickets for virtual events earlier in the year and I still haven’t watch the videos.

By physically turning up I did pay more attention and I did engage and learn more than I did virtually.

I found a few things about the conference frustrating though. Firstly a number of the speakers weren’t there and instead had recorded a talk so being at the conference ended up being a collective video watch without being able to control the video and skip the boring bits. Also there were no questions from the audience because that was being handled on Discord. Now most of my Discord is taken up with gaming because, y’know that’s what Discord pretty much is for the most part. So I wasn’t able to see that side of things because I didn’t have time to set up some kind of work account. But generally whether it was Slack or something else I kind of think having the questions on the conference chat meant that the talks were actually lectures and where the speakers weren’t that proficient with their delivery it made the talks more boring.

So at the end of the experience I have no idea as to whether my attendance was a good idea or not. I probably would have been distracted at home but at least I could have sorted out Discord and have watched the pre-recorded videos in a more comfortable environment (I certainly could of dodged the morning torrential rain).

But when there was a good in-person speaker it was great. Rachel Andrew was the standout for managing a review of the history of layout systems while also previewing the thinking of the standards groups. In particular drawing a fascinating line between the necessity of the contains CSS directive to the ability to be able to look forward to container queries. Stephanie Stimac shared similar insight into what the future may hold for the development of the Form elements and their backwards-compatible codification and customisation.

Alex Russell offered a rebuttal of the locked down mobile ecosystems from a capitalist perspective but failed to really offer remedies given that this overall is a capitalist failure.

In a totally different vibe Heydon Pickering did a talk about requiring people to switch off Javascript to read his blog. It was closer to standup and I did laugh out loud several times although trying to explain what made it funny and entertaining has proven highly difficult.

Rachel Andrew is one of the people behind Notist which a few people were using to share slide links. I hadn’t heard of it before and I can see it’s pretty handy compared to trawling Youtube trying to figure out if some talk you half remember has been posted there.

Overall I think it was worth the effort, I felt I got outside my bubble for a while and felt a bit more connected to the efforts that are still ongoing to safeguard and advance the web as a whole.

Web Applications

State of the Browser 2014

I haven’t been to State of the Browser before. It is a very cheap one day conference during the weekend on the topic of web standards and the web in general.

Conway Hall, the venue is a beautiful place and very recommended. However the grand aura of humanist lectures did remind you how lame most slide-based presentations are. Shut out the light, we can’t see the cat gif!

The theme and topics of the conference are vague and therefore there was a lot of variety in the talks. More than half were coming from professional vendor advocates and while slick and enjoyable there was a palpable sense of yearly objectives being ticked off. Community communication, check; reminder of organisation mission, check. The rest of the talks were pretty crappy though so its not all roses in the community either.

I’ve put down a few immediate reaction thoughts but I thought I would try and formulate some general takeaways.

Firstly the meaning of the web is very vague, there was an attempt to formulate the meaning of a “web platform” but it floundered a bit. The difficulty is not really what is the web, which is fundamentally unchanged since its inception, but rather what are all the companies doing when they try and build and expand on web?

Essentially what do browser vendors talk about when they talk about the web? To them the web is the input that the browser will accept. Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera and Google were all represented along with Telefonica who are making a big bet on Firefox OS.

One key theme was the belief that affordable smartphones (say below £50 to by and presumably close to £10 a month to run) are imminent and they will herald a new wave of traffic and content consumption. I feel that broadening on-demand access to the web is a good opportunity but the value of this audience, beyond hopefully buying data plans that are more expensive than talk minutes and text bundles, was utterly unproven and seemed an issue of no concern to the speakers.

One interesting thing about web development is that it is a place where visual design, technology and content creation collide into one huge grope box orgy where everything gets mixed up with everything else.

The visual design of the web was mentioned more than a few times and a lot of the standards work was essentially about delivering more fidelity to conceptual designs. It’s interesting that this is seen as fundamentally good thing rather than being interrogated. Perhaps it was discussed in earlier years.

There was also an interesting division in what people saw as their responsibilities. Javascript is now sufficiently complex that there is stratification and specialisation even with this niche. “Glass” people do UX, HTML and CSS, Javascript people do MVC “backend” work and performance and literally no-one is thinking about how the server could make any of this easier.

There was a dispiriting sense from a technology perspective of people hitting everything in sight with a golden hammer made of HTML/CSS/JS. About a fifth of the things discussed on stage boiled down to “a written standard for accessing OS capabilities based on an implementation of that standard”. It makes you appreciate things like Linux where there is pressure to actually tackle root problems and needs rather than layering hack on hack. The acceptance of the diabolic state of touch detection is an example, leading to the suggestion that you should progressive enhance on the detection of mouse events. I mean after all why use a filesystem abstraction when you could just iterate over /dev yourself?

The same paucity of leadership came up on the issue of HTTP 2 where it became clear that the vendors regard it as a way of dealing with the overhead of HTTP connections not really as a way to create the right kind of networking for the new activity we want to perform online.

It was also nice to see not one but two “standards” for defining viewport relative sizes: vw in the viewport spec (which seems very sensible and progressive by the way) and w in the picture/srcset responsive images standard.

There were a few moments when people seemed to touch on a better way of doing things, for example, declarative programmatic rules for layout; but these were rare. Maybe it’s just not that kind of conference.

In terms of talks the clear standout was Martin Beeby’s talk on what the Internet Explorer team have been doing to remove bottlenecks from their rendering. Most of the stuff was sensible and straight-forward but the detail on GPU interaction was fascinating, particularly on picture loading.

One massive problem with the conference was the weird idea that speakers weren’t going to take questions after their talks. Martin mentioned that buffers between the browser and the GPU were small and I would have loved to have know whether than was an intrinsic limitation or not. The lack of ability to follow up on issues diminished the utility of all the talks.

Other than that the walkthroughs of specifications of viewport, service workers (particularly the caching API) and the picture tag were all helpful. Andreas Bovens’s talk also had a helpful review of pixel density and its new related units.

The talks were filmed, I have no idea whether they will posted at some point but those are the ones I’d recommend.

The ticket was very cheap but the main issue of the conference was the time it takes. The programming is very baggy, I felt if all the talks had been halved in length and the panel discussion chopped to make room for post-talk questions there would have been a really good long afternoon of material.

I’ll probably give it another go next year but be a bit more ruthless about what talks to attend.