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The gap between web technology and tools

2012 February 25
by Sven Busse

Juten Tach,

caution: rant ahead!

I am currently sitting in the middle of an emotional triangle of

  1. being in the midst of developing a website
  2. having seen this talk from Bret Victor about “having an immediate connection to your creation”
  3. having seen this talk from Ethan Marcotte about Responsive Web Design

And the sum of these impressions for me is frustration.

For the last decades we have seen technologies in the broad field of multimedia (including the web) explode. Nowadays we have HTML5, CSS3, WebGL, Flash, Native Apps, Native Desktop Apps, Sandboxed Desktop Apps and a bunch of more stuff at our fingertips. The limitations on what we can build are getting narrower and narrower. Of course, we have to look on performance here and there, of course we have to deal with limitations some environments put on us, but if you compare the current possibilities to what we had 10 years ago, it’s like we’re in multimedia heaven. Or isn’t it?

Problem is, on a creation level, for me it still feels like 10 years ago or even more. Of course, we have fancy editors now with syntax highlighting, for some parts, we even have refactoring tools. But all these editors make the problem even more apparent in my view. We are having a huge gap between our creative ideas and the real result. And it is growing every year, it feels. Just look at how many technologies todays web developers can choose from or even have to master at the same time. It is not just HTML, CSS, Javascript. It is also the browsers, it is the various javascript libraries, the css frameworks, minifiers, boilerplates, grid systems, the build scripts, the CSS enhancer languages, languages that build on top of javascript or compile into javascript. Not to mention the new kids like WebGL, Web Workers (and the new paradigm this introduces) and so on.

Don’t get me wrong, i love all of this. It is exciting and if you start to dream about what incredible things we can build with these, it is taking my breath away. But this complexity has a bad side effect: It is not possible to master all of these fields (except for some few geniuses who do, but unfortunately the most of us are pretty much average, aren’t we?!). Which is OK you might say, so there can be experts in every field. But every expert introduces another layer between the original creator (or author or thinker, etc.) and the actual result. And every layer most naturally always also functions as some kind of filter, taking just some tiny bit of idea away from the original, even if it is unintentional. Still the result can be stunning and innovative. But in too many cases it is not, because too much of the idea gets lost along the way of briefings, meetings, static photoshop layouts, concept documents and false or incomplete interpretations of the experts.

For an example, just have a look at the content industry, like magazines, news sites and so on. Go to their website or look at their tablet apps or mobile apps. The majority of their content is text, some images and sometimes a video. Every once in a while they feature an “interactive experience”, which gets promoted highly then. But most of the time, they have some standard templates with text and images. And who would want to blame them for it? It is extremely costly to produce highly interactive and dynamic pieces of content. Many work-hours have to be put into such a thing. Many people from various fields are needed. It is simply no possible to do that for every piece of content.

And why? Because we are lacking the tools to do it. Heck, the web is 20 years old and we’re still hacking html code into text editors. In order to build some piece of web content, we have to mentally compile at least three languages (HTML,CSS, Javascript) and imagine, what it will look like, then type everything into the editor and then look at the result. Of course this is nerdy and cool and we feel like we’re in total control, but let me tell you: It is bullshit. It is a massive waste of time. The computer should be doing most of this and let us concentrate on thinking and articulating, how we want things to look and behave in the easiest and fastest way.

Instead we’re seeing an ever increasing gap between an explosion of new technologies and features and a just moderately evolving field of tools, that should help us using those technologies. Just think about it: What is the biggest innovation in tools, that you have seen in the last 10 years, when it comes to developing websites? And i am not talking about libraries, frameworks and the like, i am talking about tools! Here are some, that come to my mind:

  • firebug (and the respective tools in the other browsers)
  • sort-of-sometimes-working code completion for HTML, CSS and Javascript
  • REPL

You probably know some more, but the fact is, it still pretty much comes down to manually hacking code into a text editor and then testing, what comes out of it. I remember, that sometime in the 90s, there where these WYSIWIG editors, like Frontpage, Dreamweaver and so on. But they produced ugly code and even today everyone i know, wouldn’t think of using these tools.

I think, if we really want to move forward with all these new possibilities, we need better tools for creating multimedia user experiences. As hard as it might sound to some of the experts, i think we need to get rid at least of some of the layers between the creator and the result to come closer to the creative ideas again and to be able to spend less time and money on the creation itself. Only better tools can make that happen.

6 Responses leave one →
  1. February 26, 2012

    Amen

  2. February 26, 2012

    I’m with you! Back in the days a (i.e.) designer was able to hack something very impressive together with the Flash IDE. Same applies for WYSIWYG Editors like frontpage (you mentioned it).

    However, it is very hard for “Tools” to keep up with a technology to more complex it gets. I think at some tipping-point the tool is no longer able to hide the complexity of the underling technology from the user. Then the tool itself gets more and more complex.

    At this point, the user either doesn’t understand the tool anymore or no longer sees the need to use the tool but instead learns the technology directly. This is exactly what happend to the Flash IDE.

    I have very few hopes that we’ll ever see good tools in the our technology sector. More harsh: tools are dead. Maybe some Star Trek AI tool, that is able to both “read my mind” and create super clean code… :)

    Until that, we’ll see all the layers you mentioned (and there might even be more in the future).

  3. Markus Schork permalink
    February 28, 2012

    I fully agree with your view! Let’s kickstart one! ;-)

    • Sven Busse permalink*
      February 28, 2012

      Yeah! That’s the attitude :)

  4. March 15, 2012

    Great article, Sven!

    @Aron: I also understand your point “tools are dead, learn the technology directly” from a coder’s perspective, but from an academic point of view I hope to see more node-based-tools or helper-tools like “Storyboard” in Xcode in the future.

  5. March 15, 2012

    Yes, having spend more time thinking about this issue I must agree that it’s easy to say for a programmer. Sven definitely has a point here.

    What I was trying to say is, that maybe the tools didn’t get worst, it’s the technology that became more complex. However, there’s no reason why the tools shouldn’t catch up. Yeah, let’s build one :)

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