<blink> and <marquee>

I was chatting with a fellow web developer recently and made a joke about the HTML <blink> and <marquee> tags, only to discover that he had no idea what I was talking about. They’re a part of web history that’s fallen off the radar and younger developers are unlikely to have ever come across them. But for a little while, back in the 90s, they were a big deal.

Macromedia Dreamweaver 3 code editor window showing a <h2> heading wrapped in <marquee> and <blink> tags, for emphasis.
Even Macromedia Dreamweaver, which embodied the essence of 1990s web design, seemed to treat wrapping <blink> in <marquee> as an antipattern.

Invention of the <blink> element is often credited to Lou Montulli, who wrote pioneering web browser Lynx before being joining Netscape in 1994. He insists that he didn’t write any of the code that eventually became the first implementation of <blink>. Instead, he claims: while out at a bar (on the evening he’d first meet his wife!), he pointed out that many of the fancy new stylistic elements the other Netscape engineers were proposing wouldn’t work in Lynx, which is a text-only browser. The fanciest conceivable effect that would work across both browsers would be making the text flash on and off, he joked. Then another engineer – who he doesn’t identify – pulled a late night hack session and added it.

And so it was that when Netscape Navigator 2.0 was released in 1995 it added support for the <blink> tag. Also animated GIFs and the first inklings of JavaScript, which collectively would go on to define the “personal website” experience for years to come. Here’s how you’d use it:

<BLINK>This is my blinking text!</BLINK>

With no attributes, it was clear from the outset that this tag was supposed to be a joke. By the time HTML4 was published as a a recommendation two years later, it was documented as being a joke. But the Web of the late 1990s saw it used a lot. If you wanted somebody to notice the “latest updates” section on your personal home page, you’d wrap a <blink> tag around the title (or, if you were a sadist, the entire block).

Cameron's World website, screenshot, showing GIFS and bright pallette
If you missed this particular chapter of the Web’s history, you can simulate it at Cameron’s World.

In the same year as Netscape Navigator 2.0 was released, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 2.0. At this point, Internet Explorer was still very-much playing catch-up with the features the Netscape team had implemented, but clearly some senior Microsoft engineer took a look at the <blink> tag, refused to play along with the joke, but had an innovation of their own: the <marquee> tag! It had a whole suite of attributes to control the scroll direction, speed, and whether it looped or bounced backwards and forwards. While <blink> encouraged disgusting and inaccessible design as a joke, <marquee> did it on purpose.

<MARQUEE>Oh my god this still works in most modern browsers!</MARQUEE>

Oh my god this still works in most modern browsers!

If you see the text above moving… you’re looking at a living fossil in browser history.

But here’s the interesting bit: for a while in the late 1990s, it became a somewhat common practice to wrap content that you wanted to emphasise with animation in both a <blink> and a <marquee> tag. That way, the Netscape users would see it flash, the IE users would see it scroll or bounce. Like this:

<MARQUEE><BLINK>This is my really important message!</BLINK></MARQUEE>
Internet Explorer 5 showing a marquee effect.
Wrap a <blink> inside a <marquee> and IE users will see the marquee. Delightful.

The web has always been built on Postel’s Law: a web browser should assume that it won’t understand everything it reads, but it should provide a best-effort rendering for the benefit of its user anyway. Ever wondered why the modern <video> element is a block rather than a self-closing tag? It’s so you can embed within it code that an earlier browser – one that doesn’t understand <video> – can read (a browser’s default state when seeing a new element it doesn’t understand is to ignore it and carry on). So embedding a <blink> in a <marquee> gave you the best of both worlds, right? (welll…)

Netscape Navigator 5 showing a blink effect.
Wrap a <blink> inside a <marquee> and Netscape users will see the blink. Joy.

Better yet, you were safe in the knowledge that anybody using a browser that didn’t understand either of these tags could still read your content. Used properly, the web is about progressive enhancement. Implement for everybody, enhance for those who support the shiny features. JavaScript and CSS can be applied with the same rules, and doing so pays dividends in maintainability and accessibility (though, sadly, that doesn’t stop people writing sites that needlessly require these technologies).

Opera 5 showing no blinking nor marquee text.
Personally, I was a (paying! – back when people used to pay for web browsers!) Opera user so I mostly saw neither <blink> nor <marquee> elements. I don’t feel like I missed out.

I remember, though, the first time I tried Netscape 7, in 2002. Netscape 7 and its close descendent are, as far as I can tell, the only web browsers to support both <blink> and <marquee>. Even then, it was picky about the order in which they were presented and the elements wrapped-within them. But support was good enough that some people’s personal web pages suddenly began to exhibit the most ugly effect imaginable: the combination of both scrolling and flashing text.

Netscape 7 showing text that both blinks and marquee-scrolls.
If Netscape 7’s UI didn’t already make your eyes bleed (I’ve toned it down here by installing the “classic skin”), its simultaneous rendering of <blink> and <marquee> would.

The <blink> tag is very-definitely dead (hurrah!), but you can bring it back with pure CSS if you must. <marquee>, amazingly, still survives, not only in polyfills but natively, as you might be able to see above. However, if you’re in any doubt as to whether or not you should use it: you shouldn’t. If you’re looking for digital nostalgia, there’s a whole rabbit hole to dive down, but you don’t need to inflict <marquee> on the rest of us.

Why the GOV.UK Design System team changed the input type for numbers

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Android number pad

Using <input type="text" inputmode="numeric" pattern="[0-9]*"> allows for a degree of separation between how the user enters data (“input mode”), what the browser expects the user input to contain (type equals number), and potentially how it tries to validate it.

I’ve sung the praises of the GDS research team before, and it’s for things like this that I respect them the most: they’re knowing for taking a deep-dive user-centric approach to understanding usability issues, and they deliver valuable actionable answers off the back of it.

If you’ve got Web forms that ask people for numbers, this is how you should be doing it. If you’re doing so specifically for 2FA purposes, see that post I shared last month on a similar topic.

Old CSS, new CSS

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I first got into web design/development in the late 90s, and only as I type this sentence do I realize how long ago that was.

And boy, it was horrendous. I mean, being able to make stuff and put it online where other people could see it was pretty slick, but we did not have very much to work with.

I’ve been taking for granted that most folks doing web stuff still remember those days, or at least the decade that followed, but I think that assumption might be a wee bit out of date. Some time ago I encountered a tweet marvelling at what we had to do without border-radius. I still remember waiting with bated breath for it to be unprefixed!

But then, I suspect I also know a number of folks who only tried web design in the old days, and assume nothing about it has changed since.

I’m here to tell all of you to get off my lawn. Here’s a history of CSS and web design, as I remember it.

(Please bear in mind that this post is a fine blend of memory and research, so I can’t guarantee any of it is actually correct, especially the bits about causality. You may want to try the W3C’s history of CSS, which is considerably shorter, has a better chance of matching reality, and contains significantly less swearing.)

(Also, this would benefit greatly from more diagrams, but it took long enough just to write.)

I too remember the bad-old days of the pre-CSS and early-CSS Web. Back then, when we were developing for it, we thought that it was magical. We tolerated issues like having to copy-paste our navigation around a stack of static pages, manually change our design all over the place etc…. but man… I wouldn’t want to go back to working that way!

This is an excellent long-read for an up-close-and-personal look at how CSS has changed over the decades. Well worth a look if you’ve any interest in the topic.

HTML attributes to improve your two factor experience

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There are plenty of opportunities for friction in the user experience when logging in, particularly while entering a two factor authentication code. As developers we should be building applications that support the need for account security but don’t detract from the user experience. Sometimes it can feel as though these requirements are in a battle against each other.

In this post we will look at the humble <input> element and the HTML attributes that will help speed up our users’ two factor authentication experience.

Summary: simple changes like making your TOTP-receiving <input> to have inputmode="numeric" gives user-agents solid hints about what kind of data is expected, allowing mobile phones to show a numeric keypad rather than a full keyboard, while setting autocomplete="one-time-code" hints to password managers and autocomplete tools that what’s being collected needn’t be stored for future use as it’ll expire (and can also help indicate to authenticators where they should auto-type).

As my current research project will show, the user experience of multifactor authentication is a barrier to entry for many users who might otherwise benefit from it. Let’s lower that barrier.

Making It Boring

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“Why make the web more boring? Because boring is fast, resilient, fault tolerant, and accessible. Boring is the essence of unobtrusive designs that facilitate interactions rather than hinder them.” says Jeremy.

He’s right. I’ve become increasingly concerned in recent years in the trend towards overuse of heavyweight frameworks. These frameworks impose limitations on device/network capabilities, browser features, caching, accessibility, stability, and more. It’s possible to work around many of those limitations, but doing so often takes additional work, and so most developers, especially junior developers raised on a heavyweight framework who haven’t yet been exposed to the benefits of working around them. Plus, such mitigations tend to make already-bloated web applications – full of unnecessary cruft – larger still; the network demands of the application grow ever larger.

What are these frameworks for? They often provide valuable components and polyfills, certainly, but they also have a tendency to reimplement what the browser already gives you: e.g. routing and caching come free with HTTP, buttons and links from HTML, design from CSS, (progressive) interactivity from JS. Every developer should feel free to use a framework if it suits them and the project they’re working on… but adoption of a framework should only come after consideration and understanding of what it provides, and at what cost.

HTML Movies

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1. a (1998)

Documentary about the Buddhist sect responsible for the 1995 Tokyo subway Sarin gas attack.

2. body (2003)

Also known as Jism. No, really. A tale of passion and murder featuring an alcoholic lawyer and the wife of a travelling millionaire.

3. canvas (1992)

Gary Busey stars as an artist who takes part in a heist to save his brother from murderous art thieves.

We could have had so many HTML-themed Troma Nights, if we’d wanted…

Browsers are pretty good at loading pages, it turns out

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The <a> tag is one of the most important building blocks of the Internet. It lets you create a hyperlink: a piece of text, usually colored blue, that you can use to go to a new page. When you click on a hyperlink, your web browser downloads the new page from the server and displays it on the screen. Most web browsers also store the pages you previously visited so you can quickly go back to them. The best part is, the <a> tag gives you all of that behavior for free! Just tell the browser where you want to go, and it handles the rest.

Lately, though, that hasn’t been enough for website developers. The new fad is “client-side navigation”, where instead of relying on the browser to load new pages for you, you write a bunch of JavaScript code to do it instead. It’s actually really hard to get it right—loading the new page is simple enough, but you also have to write code to display a loading bar, make the Back and Forward buttons work, show an error page if the connection drops, and so on.

For a while, I didn’t understand why anyone did this. Was it just silly make-work, like how every social network redesigns their website every couple years for no discernable reason? Do <a> tags interfere with some creepy ad-tracking technique? Was there some really complicated technical reason why you shouldn’t use them?

Spoiler: good old-fashioned <a> hyperlinks tend to outperform Javascript-driven client-side navigation. We already learned about one reason for this – that adding more Javascript code just to get back what the browser gives you for free increases the payload you deliver to the user – but Carter demonstrates that progressive rendering goes a long way to explaining it, too. You see: browsers understand traditional navigation and are well-equipped with a suite of shortcuts to help them optimise for it. They can start rendering content before it’s all downloaded, offset (hinted-at) asynchronous data for later, and of course they already contain a pretty solid caching engine and you don’t even have to implement it yourself.