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What Polymer / Angular tell us about the future of the Web Platform and JavaScript Frameworks

Yehuda Katz recently gave a talk entitled “The Future of the Client-Side Web” in which he detailed the current challenges that web standards bodies face when trying to design APIs for web developers to use. In this talk, Yehuda also highlighted Google’s recently announced Polymer Project as a good example of the right way to push the web platform forward.

Polymer provides a “low enough” level API that gives web developers the power to redefine the way they write markup using the power of newer features coming to JavaScript in ES6. The specifics of the implementation aren’t relevant to what I want to say here, but Yehuda does a great job covering the details at a high level in the video; I suggest you watch it if they interest you.

What I found interesting was the message that was at the heart of the talk, here’s my paraphrased version:

Web Platform standards bodies need to focus less on getting implementations of new APIs right the first time (hello AppCache) and instead provide web developers with a set of lower level APIs that are exposed to JavaScript. When this approach has been followed, developers are capable of iterating far faster than standards bodies which results in consensus on API design being reached faster and with less upfront design.

This is a fundamental shift in thinking that should be embraced and I believe this approach has already been validated by a number of well-known JavaScript libraries.

The Backbone Lesson

Since its release, Backbone has exploded in popularity and many other frameworks have since been built on top of the low-level components it provides. Jeremy Ashkenas and the team at Document Cloud did an amazing job of releasing a set of components that can be adapted to fit almost any scenario when building a web application—from simple uses of Backbone.View inside an existing legacy application all the way up to writing a self-contained application that runs in the browser.

When I first started working in Backbone almost two years ago, I remember feeling overwhelmed at how I was supposed to use all the pieces provided. I believe this speaks to the essence of how Backbone was created, and looking back now it is clear to me that Backbone follows the design model that Yehuda praises in his talk; it gave us a low-level set of components and didn’t really enforce any particular design decisions on how to use them—aside from an important guiding principle: get your data out of the DOM.

The Ember Conundrum

A recent blog post comparing Ember and Angular—originally entitled “AngularJS vs Ember, It’s not even close”—highlights some perceived shortcomings of Angular, chief among them being there are too many pitfalls in the simplistic features Angular provides and the Angular team should strive to provide higher-level conventions/components that developers can follow. While Yehuda didn’t write the comparison post, the point of view expressed by the author really struck me as being in stark contrast to the decentralized/low-level API design approach that Yehuda extols the virtues of in his talk: success is realized when developers are given access to low-level components without many opinions on how they should be used. Designing a powerful, approachable, easy-to-learn-difficult-to-master framework is hard, but Ember is very opinionated.

It seems to me like the Ember team and contributors would be better served by following these design goals; spending more time observing how web developers use their low-level APIs when crafting solutions and less time trying to get a high-level rich-web application framework right the first time. Perhaps this is why the path to Ember’s 1.0 release has been so full of frequent, backwards compatibility breaking API changes.

The Angular Approach

Initially I was skeptical about the power of Angular, having spent a good 18 months of my life invested in writing applications with Backbone I wasn’t eager to make a jump to another framework. Thankfully my skepticism was quickly swept aside as I discovered the beauty in the simplicity of the Angular API. With Angular, I don’t have to extend framework built-in objects or methods; I can just use POJSO’s (Plain Old JavaScript Objects) and functions. I also don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about how to structure my application thanks to angular.module and built-in dependency injection. Angular really hits the sweet spot between low-level components and tightly scoped high-level abstractions. It provides high-level features that each have a singular focus as well as low-level components that I can craft into domain-specific solutions within my applications.

The ability to craft custom markup through angular.directive is an interesting high-level piece in that it has the power to create custom components that are as coarse or granular as you need them to be. Angular is just opinionated enough that it allows developers to work with the low-level components provided to craft higher level abstractions. In fact, I think that is the core benefit of Angular. Having the power to abstract:

<div id="chart" data-type="bar">
  <div class="legend"></div>
  ... lots of other stuff



is an incredibly powerful idea.

Web Components and the future of Markup

One of the most exciting changes to the Web Platform in the last five years is the upcoming Web Components spec. Eric Bidelman gave a great overview of it during Google IO this year and Alex Komoroske and Matthew McNulty had an amazing demo that showcased some of the capabilities. I’m excited about Web Components because it will allow web developers to experiment at a lower-level by reshaping the way that we write markup. It will also offer true encapsulation on the web, a feature that has been sorely lacking.

It seems like the lessons the Angular team have learned are helping to shape the direction of Web Components. In fact, Miško Hevery from the Angular team has this to say on Angular + Web Components:

Web Components (Polymer, Ember, or any other framework/library) will work seamlessly within Angular apps and directives.

Components written in Angular will export to Web Components (to be used by Polymer, Ember, or any other framework/library).

The awesome thing about Angular and Polymer is that you can use them to achieve these kinds of markup abstractions in your applications right now, along with all the other great features they provide. I’m eager to see how the lower-level features in ES6 and low-level libraries like Polymer are going to be used by developers to create even more amazing frameworks in the future.

Moving the Web Forward with Low-Level APIs

I think Yehuda has it right; standards bodies need to focus less on getting high-level APIs right up front and more on providing developers with enough low-level APIs with which to experiment. The same principle applies to the design of JavaScript application frameworks. My hope is that the standards bodies and JavaScript framework authors embrace this decentralized approach to design going forward. Ideally this will move the web development community beyond rhetoric and zero-sum thinking, and into an age of innovation.