2020 is only three weeks old, but there has been a lot of browser news that decreases rendering engine diversity. It’s time for some good news on that front: a new rendering engine, Flow. Below I conduct an interview with Piers Wombwell, Flow’s lead developer.
This year alone, on the negative side Mozilla announced it’s laying off 70 people, most of whom appear to come from the browser side of things, while it turns out that Opera’s main cash cow is now providing loans in Kenya, India, and Nigeria, and it is looking to use ‘improved credit scoring’ (from browsing data?) for its business practices.
On the positive side, the Chromium-based Edge is here, and it looks good. Still, rendering engine diversity took a hit, as we knew it would ever since the announcement.
So let’s up the diversity a notch by welcoming a new rendering engine to the desktop space. British company Ekioh is working on a the Flow browser, which sports a completely new multi-threaded rendering engine that does not have any relation to WebKit, Gecko, or Blink.
I’m not convinced that Flow is the solution to all the world’s problems (its target platforms and use-cases alone make it unlikely to make it onto the most-used-browsers leaderboard any time soon), but I’m really glad that my doomsaying about the death of browser diversity being a one-way street might… might… turn out not to be true.
Time will tell. But for now, this is Good News for the Web.
I think that CSS would be greatly helped if we solemnly state that “CSS4 is here!” In this post I’ll try to convince you of my viewpoint.
I am proposing that we web developers, supported by the W3C CSS WG, start saying “CSS4 is here!” and excitedly chatter about how it will hit the market any moment now and transform the practice of CSS.
Of course “CSS4” has no technical meaning whatsoever. All current CSS specifications have their own specific versions ranging from 1 to 4, but CSS as a whole does not have a version, and it doesn’t need one, either.
Regardless of what we say or do, CSS 4 will not hit the market and will not transform anything. It also does not describe any technical reality.
When CSS2 gained prominence at around the turn of the millennium it was revolutionary, and part of the reason for that – aside from the fact that it gave us all some features we’d wanted for a long time – was that it gave us a term to rally behind. This browser already supports it, that browser’s getting there, this other browser supports it but has a f**ked-up box model (you all know the one I’m talking about)… we at last had an overarching term to discuss what was supported, what was new, what was ready for people to write articles and books about. Nobody’s going to buy a book that promises to teach them “CSS3 Selectors Level 3, Fonts Level 3, Writing Modes Level 3, and Containment Level 1”: that title’s not even going to fit on the cover. But if we wrapped up a snapshot of what’s current and called it CSS4… now that’s going to sell.
Can we show the CSS WG that there’s mileage in this idea and make it happen? Oh, I hope so. Because while the modular approach to CSS is beautiful and elegant and progressive… I’m afraid that we can’t use it to inspire junior developers.
Also: I don’t want this joke to forever remain among the top results when searching for CSS4…
To enable users to easily navigate to specific content in a web page, we propose adding support for specifying a text snippet in the URL. When navigating to such a URL, the browser will find the first instance of the text snippet in the page and bring it into view.
Web standards currently specify support for scrolling to anchor elements with name attributes, as well as DOM elements with ids, when navigating to a fragment. While named anchors and elements with ids enable scrolling to limited specific parts of web pages, not all documents make use of these elements, and not all parts of pages are addressable by named anchors or elements with ids.
This feature is currently implemented as an experimental feature in Chrome 74.0.3706.0 and newer. It is not yet shipped to users by default. Users who wish to experiment with it can use chrome://flags#enable-text-fragment-anchor. The implementation is incomplete and doesn’t necessarily match the specification in this document.
Allow specifying text to scroll and highlight in the URL:
This is a feature that I’ve wished that the Web had on many, many occasions. I’m sure you’ve needed it before, too: you’ve wanted to give somebody the URL of (or link to) a particular part of a page but there’s been no appropriately-placed anchor to latch on to. Being able to select part of the text on the page and just copy that after a ## in the address bar would be so much simpler.
Chrome’s implementation is somewhat conservative, requiring a prefix of ##targetText= (this minimises the risk of collision with other applications which store/pass data via hashes), but it’s still pretty full-featured, with support for prefixes and suffixes to the text to-be-selected. I quite like it, but of course it needs running down the standards track before it can be relied upon as anything other than a progressive enhancement.
I do wonder, though, whether this will be met with resistance by ad/subscription-supported content creators as a new example of the deep linking they seem to hate so much.
The plan was very simple. We would put a small banner above the video player that would only show up for IE6 users. It would read “We will be phasing out support for your browser soon. Please upgrade to one of these more modern browsers.” Next to the text would be links to the current versions of the major browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, IE8 and eventually, Opera. The text was intentionally vague and the timeline left completely undefined. We hoped that it was threatening enough to motivate end users to upgrade without forcing us to commit to any actual deprecation plan. Users would have the ability to close out this warning if they wanted to ignore it or deal with it later. The code was designed to be as subtle as possible so that it would not catch the attention of anyone monitoring our checkins. Nobody except the web development team used IE6 with any real regularity, so we knew it was unlikely anyone would notice our banner appear in the staging environment. We even delayed having the text translated for international users so that a translator asking for additional context could not inadvertently surface what we were doing. Next, we just needed a way to slip the code into production without anyone catching on.
The little-told story of how a rogue team of YouTube engineers in 2009 helped hasten IE6‘s downfall by adding a deprecation warning to the top of the site’s homepage… without getting the (immediate) attention of the senior developers and management who’d have squashed their efforts.
All of the Chrome-like features you’d expect are there, including support for Chrome plugins, but Microsoft have also clearly worked to try to integrate as much as possible of the important features that they felt were distinct to Edge in there, too. For example, Edge Blink supports SmartScreen filtering and uses Microsoft accounts for sync, and Incognito is of course rebranded InPrivate.
Edge Dev may go further than any other mainstream browser in its efforts to make Progressive Web Apps visible to the user, putting a plus sign (and sometimes an extended install prompt) right in the address bar, rather than burying it deep in a menu. Once installed, Edge PWAs “just work” in exactly the way that PWAs ought to, providing a simple and powerful user experience. Unlike some browsers, which make installing PWAs on mobile devices far easier than on desktops, presumably in a misguided belief in the importance of mobile “app culture”, it doesn’t discriminate against desktop users. It’s a slick and simple user experience all over.
Feature support is stronger than it is for Progressive Web Apps delivered as standalone apps via the Windows Store, too, with the engine not falling over at the first sign of a modal dialog for example. Hopefully (as I support one of these hybrid apps!) these too will begin to be handled properly when Edge Dev eventually achieves mainstream availability.
But perhaps most-impressive is Edge Dev’s respect for the importance of URLs. If, having installed the progressive “app” version of a site you subsequently revisit any address within its scope, you can switch to the app version via a link in the menu. I’d rather have seen a nudge in the address bar, where the user might expect to see such things (based on that being where the original install icon was), but this is still a great feature… especially given that cookies and other state maintainers are shared between the browser, meaning that performing such a switch in a properly-made application will result in the user carrying on from almost exactly where they left off.
Similarly, and also uncommonly forward-thinking, Progressive Web Apps installed as standalone applications from Edge Dev enjoy a “copy URL” option in their menu, even if the app runs without an address bar (e.g. as a result of a "display": "standalone" directive in the manifest.json). This is a huge boost to sharability and is enormously (and unusually) respectful of the fact that addresses are the Web’s killer feature! Furthermore, it respects the users’ choice to operate their “apps” in whatever way suits them best: in a browser (even a competing browser!), on their mobile device, or wherever. Well done, Microsoft!
I’m still very sad overall that Edge is becoming part of the Chromium family of browsers. But if the silver lining is that we get a pioneering and powerful new Progressive Web App engine then it can’t be all bad, can it?
But as much as we developers hope for it to go away, it just. Won’t. Die. IE8 continues to show up in browser stats, especially outside of the bubble of the Western world.
Sure, you aren’t developing for IE8 any more. But you should be developing with progressive enhancement, and if you do that right, you get all kinds of compatibility, accessibility, future- and past-proofing built-in. This isn’t just about supporting the (many) African countries where IE8 usage remains at over 1%… it’s about supporting the Web’s openness and archivibility and following best-practice in your support of new technologies.
As you may all know, I’m a die-hard supporter of the Opera web browser, despite many of my friends now claiming that Firefox is superior. I’ve been following the Mozilla project for a long while (haven’t we all), and on the many occasions I’ve tried Firefox (and it’s grandparents) I’ve always been unimpressed. It’s always been the little things that Opera did that kept me coming back to it, time and time again.
With the full release of Firefox 1.0 (download Firefox here), there’s been an explosion in the number of Firefox extensions that have become available, so I decided to try to find a combination of extensions that would at long last give Firefox the capabilities that always kept me coming back to Opera. The theory is – if I can find enough extensions to give me the functionality I need in a web browser (which Opera very-nearly perfectly provides) in Firefox, it’ll make a convert out of me. Here goes –
Mouse Gestures 1.0 – One of the great things about Opera is that it really pioneered mouse gestures (waving your cursor in strange patterns in order to facilitate shortcuts), and led the way for years thereafter. Mouse gestures are infectious – once you’ve used them and you get the hang of “doing things faster” (particularly mouse-intensive activities like web browsing), you end up trying to do it elsewhere – I’ve frequently used friends computers (with Internet Exploder, or similar) and tried to do a gesture before remembering that I can’t.The Mouse Gestures extension for Firefox is fully-featured and highly-configurable. I found the original settings a little unresponsive, and had to increase the “diagonal tolerance” (slippage permitted in a non-cardinal direction) to bring it back in line with the speed at which I execute gestures, and of course I’ve customised some of my own gestures. Apart from that, it’s wonderful.
Download Manager Tweak 0.6.3 – One thing I loved about my customised Opera configuration was that pretty much everything not directly related to browsing – my RSS-feed subscriptions (that let me keep an eye on all my friends’ weblogs in realtime), my downloads, etc. – were set up to all appear in the wonderful “sidebar”: a non-invasive way of keeping information “to hand”. Firefox’s download windows are chunky and ugly, only a little better than the hideous ones provided by Internet Exploder. This plugin allows you to move the download window to the sidebar – a far more sensible place for it – and manage all your transfers from there.
Web Developer 0.8 and Nuke Anything 0.2 – As a web developer, I love the web developer tools in Opera. The ability to switch stylesheets, emulate other browsers, change and test content on the fly, and manipulate cookies is invaluable when debugging large, complex web projects. Combining these two excellent extensions gives me all of this, and more. The Web Developer tools can do things like manipulate form data on the fly, edit offline HTML and CSS on-the-fly, simulate different screen resolutions, and validate source code – it’s fantastic. Nuke Anything allows content to be ‘removed’ from the page: a great way of digging through complicated source code to find how a particular trick is being achieved.
Sage 1.3 – Now here’s a stunning piece of software. Thanks to Jon for suggesting this one.A great feature of Opera is it’s use as an RSS reader. RSS is a wonderful way to “subscribe” to news sources, weblogs, and the like, and be notified when they’re updated or even have the new content delivered directly to your desktop. It’s so good, that I rarely use Abnib or my friends page any more. Opera makes it easy to set up and manage your subscriptions, and delivers them in the way that suits you best.
Now Firefox does natively support syndication, but it doesn’t do a very good job of it. It’s system – “Active Bookmarks”, relies on use of it’s bookmarks list, lots of scrolling, etc. Plus – and here’s the big problem – it doesn’t pass your browser cookies when picking up the feeds – this means that you can’t have it, for example, pick up restricted “friends only” feeds from your friends’ weblogs. Without this feature, there was no way I’d be leaving Opera behind.
But Sage pulls it off. It pulls in the feeds and presents them in a brilliant way. It’s default options are a little weird, and it doesn’t support automatic “timed” feed collection, but it still does a great job of this newsfeed lark. I think everybody with Firefox should install Sage.
Session Saver – Simply put, this allows Firefox to remember what tabs you had open when it was last closed (even if it crashed or there was a power cut), and re-open them when you run it again, in a very Opera-esque way.
MiniT 0.4 – A pet annoyance, but one that would have really annoyed me, is the inability to re-order the tabs while using Firefox’s tabbed browsing. I mean: why wasn’t this included with the program? Most other programs that use the dynamic “document” tab metaphor allow the user to click-drag-reorder them, including my beloved Opera. But no, you need a plug-in like MiniT to do this. It’s good: not as “fluid” as Opera, but quite satisfactory.
LastTab 1.1 – By this point, I had very few quirks left unsatisfied on my “web browser wish list”. One was that, in Opera, pressing CTRL-TAB takes you first to your most-recently used other tab, and then (if you keep pressing tab) through the others you have open. This makes sense to me, because you can then use CTRL-TAB as a two-tab “flicker” (like the “last channel” button on a TV remote): perfect for use as a “boss key” (if you don’t know, you don’t need to know). Satisfied.
This only leave one “big” niggle that still pisses me off – I can’t find a plug-in that will allow me to hold down a particular key (e.g. shift) and click on a tab, to close it (really useful for closing multiple tabs at once, after running and completing a multi-tab information seek). If anybody can suggest an extension that does this, let me know!
So; I guess I’m a Firefox convert. I knew it would happen someday, but I’m just surprised it happened so soon.