Yehuda Katz is a member of the Ember.js, Ruby on Rails and jQuery Core Teams; he spends his daytime hours at the startup he founded, Tilde Inc.. Yehuda is co-author of best-selling jQuery in Action and Rails 3 in Action. He spends most of his time hacking on open source—his main projects, like Thor, Handlebars and Janus—or traveling the world doing evangelism work. He can be found on Twitter as @wycats and on Github.

Archive for December, 2012

I’m Running to Reform the W3C’s TAG

Elections for the W3C’s Technical Architecture Group are underway, and I’m running!

There are nine candidates for four open seats. Among the nine candidates, Alex Russell, Anne van Kesteren, Peter Linss, and Marcos Cáceres are running on a reform platform. What is the TAG, and what do I mean by reform?

What is the TAG?

According to the TAG’s charter, it has several roles:

  • to document and build consensus around principles of Web architecture
  • to interpret and clarify these principles when necessary
  • to resolve issues involving general Web architecture brought to the TAG
  • to help coordinate cross-technology architecture developments inside and outside W3C

As Alex has said before, the existing web architecture needs reform that would make it more layered. We should be able to explain the declarative parts of the spec (like markup) in terms of lower level primitives that compose well and that developers can use for other purposes.

And the W3C must coordinate much more closely with TC39, the (very active) committee that is designing the future of JavaScript. As a member of both TC39 and the W3C, I believe that it is vital that as we build the future of the web platform, both organizations work closely together to ensure that the future is both structurally coherent and pleasant for developers of the web platform to use.

Developers

I am running as a full-time developer on the web platform to bring that perspective to the TAG.

For the past several years, I have lobbied for more developer involvement in the standards process through the jQuery organization. This year, the jQuery Foundation joined both the W3C and ECMA, giving web developers direct representatives in the consensus-building process of building the future.

Many web developers take a very cynical attitude towards the standards process, still burned from the flames of the first browser wars. As a group, web developers also have a very pragmatic perspective: because we can’t use new features in the short-term, it’s very costly to take an early interest in standards that aren’t even done yet.

Of course, as a group, we developers don’t hesitate to complain about standards that didn’t turn out the way we would like.

(The key words “MUST”, “MUST NOT”, “REQUIRED”, “SHOULD”, “SHOULD NOT”, “MAY”, and “OPTIONAL” in the normative parts of this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC2119.)

The W3C and its working groups MUST continue to evangelize to developers about the importance of participating early and often. We MUST help more developers understand the virtues of broad solutions and looking beyond specific present-day scenarios. And we MUST evolve to think of web developers not simply as “authors” of content, but as sophisticated developers on the most popular software development platform ever conceived.

Layering

When working with Tom Dale on Ember.js, we often joke that our APIs are layered, like a delicious cake.

What we mean by layering is that our high-level features are built upon publicly exposed lower-level primitives. This gives us the freedom to experiment with easy-to-use concise APIs, while making it possible for people with slightly different needs to still make use of our hard implementation work. In many cases, such as in our data abstraction, we have multiple layers, making it possible for people to implement their requirements at the appropriate level of abstraction.

It can be tempting to build primitives and leave it up to third parties to build the higher level APIs. It can also be tempting to build higher level APIs only for particular scenarios, to quickly solve a problem.

Both approaches are prevalent on the web platform. Specs like IndexedDB are built at a very low level of abstraction, leaving it up to library authors to build a higher level of abstraction. In contrast, features like App Cache are built at a high level of abstraction, for a particular use-case, with no lower level primitives to use if a user’s exact requirements do not match the assumptions of the specification.

Alex’s effort on this topic is focused on Web Components and Shadow DOM, an effort to explain the semantics of existing tags in terms of lower-level primitives. These primitives allow web developers to create new kinds of elements that can have a similar level of sophistication to the built-in elements. Eventually, it should be possible to describe how existing elements work in terms of these new primitives.

Here’s another example a layer deeper: many parts of the DOM API have magic behavior that are extremely difficult to explain in terms of the exposed API of ECMAScript 3. For example, the innerHTML property has side-effects, and ES3 does not provide a mechanism for declaring setters. The ECMAScript 5 specification provides some additional primitives that make it possible to explain more of the existing DOM behavior in terms of JavaScript. While designing ECMAScript 6, the committee has repeatedly discussed how certain new features could help explain more of the DOM API.

Today, the web platform inherits a large number of existing specifications designed at one of the ends of the layering spectrum. I would like to see the TAG make an explicit effort to describe how the working groups can reform existing APIs to have better layering semantics, and to encourage them to build new specifications with layering in mind.

TC39 and JavaScript

Today, developers of the web platform increasingly use JavaScript to develop full-blown applications that compete with their native counterparts.

This has led to a renaissance in JavaScript implementations, and more focus on the ECMAScript specification itself by TC39. It is important that the evolution of JavaScript and the DOM APIs take one another into consideration, so that developers perceive them as harmonious, rather than awkward and ungainly.

Any developer who has worked with NodeList and related APIs knows that the discrepancies between DOM Array-likes and JavaScript Arrays cause pain. Alex has talked before about how standardizing subclassing of built-in object would improve this situation. This would allow the W3C to explicitly subclass Array for its Array-like constructs in a well-understood, compatible way. That proposal will be strongest if it is championed by active members of both TC39 and the HTML working group.

Similarly, TC39 has worked tirelessly on a proposal for loading JavaScript in an environment-agnostic way (the “modules” proposal). That proposal, especially the aspects that could impact the network stack, would be stronger with the direct involvement of an interested member of a relevant W3C working group.

As the web’s development picks up pace, the W3C cannot see itself as an organization that interacts with ECMA at the periphery. It must see itself as a close partner with TC39 in the development and evolution of the web platform.

Progress

If that (and Alex’s similar post) sounds like progress to you, I’d appreciate your organization’s vote. My fellow reformers Alex Russell, Anne van Kesteren, Peter Linss and Marcos Cáceres are also running for reform.

AC reps for each organization can vote here and have 4 votes to allocate in this election. Voting closes near the end of the month, and it’s also holiday season, so if you work at a member organization and aren’t the AC rep, please, find out who that person in your organization is and make sure they vote.

As Alex said:

The TAG can’t fix the web or the W3C, but I believe that with the right people involved it can do a lot more to help the well-intentioned people who are hard at work in the WGs to build in smarter ways that pay all of us back in the long run.

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