unhosted web apps

freedom from web 2.0's monopoly platforms

10. Linking things together on the world wide web

(en Français)

The web as a database

If, like me, you got into unhosted web app development from the software engineering side, then you will have to learn a few tricks to make that switch. First of all, of course, JavaScript and the Document Object Model (DOM) that we manipulate with it, lend themselves much more to asynchronous, event-driven programming than to procedural or object-oriented programming.

Organizing variables in closures instead of in classes and weaving code paths from callbacks all takes a bit of getting used to. Recently, there is a move towards promises which makes this a bit more intuitive, but as always when you switch programming platforms, you can learn the syntax in a day, but learning the mindset can take a year.

This is not the only paradigm switch you will have to go through, though. Remember the web was originally designed as a collection of interlinked hypertext documents. Links are its most basic atomic structure. This implies two big differences with traditional software engineering.

First, each data record, or in web terms each document, refers to other records using pointers that live in the untyped global namespace of URLs, and that may or may not work.

Second, the data is not enumerable. You can enumerate the data that is reachable by following links from one specific document, but you can never retrieve an exhaustive list of all the web's content.

Of course, both these characteristics can be overcome by restricting the data your app uses to one specific DNS domain. But in its design, the web is open-ended, and this makes it a very funny sort of database.

In-app content

Suppose you develop an app for a newspaper, which allows people to read issues of that newspaper on a tablet, in a "rich" way, as they say, so with a responsive, full-screen layout and with interactive use of swipe gestures, etcetera. You would probably split this into a "shell", which is all the parts of the app that stay the same, and "content" which is the actual content of that day's newspaper issue, so the text, images, etcetera.

If you were to develop such an app using non-web technology, then the newspaper content would be locked into the app, in the sense that the user would not have an obvious way to share a specific newspaper article with a friend. But if you develop this app as a web app, then linking to content would suddenly be easy.

The user should be able to exit full-screen mode at any point, and see a URL in the address bar that uniquely identifies the current content of the screen. In a hosted web app, this URL can be relative to the currently logged-in user, as determined by the Cookie.

In an unhosted web app, there is no Cookie, and no logged-in user. However, there can be state that is relative to for instance a remoteStorage account that was connected to the app at runtime.

The URL in the address bar will change when a user clicks a link, but you will often want to design your app so that content is retrieved asynchronously instead of loading a new page on each click. This type of app architecture is often called a one-page app, or "OPA". In that case you will need to use history.pushState() to update the current URL to reflect the current app state.

Apart from using URLs to represent app state, in a way that allows users to link deeply into specific states (pages) of your app, you should also think about the URLs of the data your app retrieves in the background.

This leads us to the next important topic, the web of data.

Linked data

As we said earlier, the web started as a collection of hypertext documents, and evolved from there into the "html5" app platform we know today. But very early on, the potential of using the web for not only human-readable but also machine-readable data was discovered.

Suppose you publish an unhosted web app that contains a map of the world. This probably means you will split your app up into on the one hand a "shell" that is able to display parts of a map, and on the other hand the actual map data.

Now thanks to the open design of the web there are two things you can do, which would not be so easy to do on other app platforms. First, you can allow other apps to reuse the map data that forms part of your app. Just as long as it is in a well-known data format, if you tell other app developers the URLs on which you host the data that your app fetches asynchronously, they will be able to reuse it in their apps.

And likewise, you will be able to seamlessly reuse data from other publishers in your app, as long as those other publishers use a data format that your app shell can read, and you trust what they publish.

There is no way for the user to easily extract the URLs of data that your app fetches in the background. The developers of other apps will have to either study your app to reverse-engineer it, or read your app's API documentation. To make this job easier, it is good practice to include documentation links in your data. Many good data formats actually contain this requirement. For instance, many of the data formats that our remoteStorage modules use contain an [email protected]' field that points to a documentation URL. Other developers can find those links when looking at the data, and that way they stand a better chance of decyphering what your data means.

There is a second advantage of including documentation URLs inside data: it makes data formats uniquely recognizable. A URL is a Universal Resource Locator, but at the same time it can act as a "URI": a Universal Resource Identifier that uniquely identifies a concept as well as pointing to a document about it. The chance that your format's unique documentation URL shows up in a file by accident is pretty much zero, so if a file contains your URI then that tells the reader that the file is indeed claiming to comply with your format, as identified by that string.

In practice, this is not working very well yet because there are a lot of equivalent data formats, each with their own URI, that overlap and that could be merged. For instance, Facebook publishes machine-readable data about users with the URI "http://graph.facebook.com/schema/user" in there. This URI is Facebook-specific, so it doesn't help a lot in generalizing the data format. Of course, the data that Facebook exposes is in large part Facebook-specific, and there is no obviously good way to map a Facebook Like to a Twitter Retweet, so this is all partially inevitable.

Emerging intelligence is a myth

A lot of things that computers do seem like magic. If you are not a programmer (and even if you are) then it's often hard to predict what computers will be able to do, and what they won't. Specifically, there seems to be a belief among the general public that machine-readable data allows a machine to "understand" the data, in the sense that it will be able to adopt to fluctuations in data formats, as long as those fluctuations are documented in ways that are again machine-readable. I'm sorry if this is news to you, but that is simply not true.

It all stands and falls with how you define "understanding" of course, but in general, the rule of thumb is that each app will have a finite list of data formats it supports. If a data format is not in this list, then the app will not be able to make sensible use of data in that format, in terms of the app's functionality. The app developer has to put support for each data format into an app one-by-one, writing unit tests that describe each significant behavioral response to such data, and if those tests pass, then the app supports the new data format.

Once a data format is supported, the app can read it without supervision of the programmer (that is what we mean by machine-readable), and using the URIs, or other unique markers, it can even detect on the fly, and with reasonable certainty, if a document you throw at it was intended by its publisher to be in a certain data format.

But an app cannot learn how to react to new data formats. At least not at the current stance of Artificial Intelligence engineering.

The only exception to this are "data browser" apps: their only task is to allow the user to browse data, and these apps process whole families of data formats because all they have to do with them is maybe a bit of syntax highlighting or at most some data type validation. They do not interact "deeply" with the data, which is why they can deal with data from any domain - the domain of the data is simply irrelevant to the app's functionality. Even so, even those apps cannot learn to read json formats, however compliant and self-describing the format, if they were designed to read xml formats.

Hash URIs and 303s

There is a school in web architecture (I always half-jokingly call it the "URI purism" school), which states that whenever you use a URL as a URI (i.e., to denote a concept), then you may not call it a URL (you have to call it either URI or URN), and it should either have a hash ('#') in it, or respond with a 303 status code. I don't see the point of this; everybody outside of URI purism just uses URLs without these imho random complications, which is a lot simpler and works fine, too.

I'm only mentioning this here for completeness, not as an actual recommendation from my side. :)

Design each convention independently

For a programmer, there is often no bigger joy than inventing something from scratch. Trying to come up with the ultimate all-encompassing solution to a problem is fun.

We already saw this effect in episode 1; when faced with the problem of closed Social Networking Sites (SNSs), most programmers will set out to build an open SNS system from scratch.

But it's not how we should be developing the web platform. The web is extensible, and we have to add small pieces bit-by-bit, letting each of them win adoption or not, based on what that small piece does.

This makes developing the web platform a bit harder than developing a closed platform. At the same time, it leads to a more robust result.

To make this a bit clearer, I will give two examples. First, suppose we want to allow users of a remoteStorage-based app to set an avatar for themselves, and display avatars of their friends. We could for instance add setAvatar() and getAvatar() methods. We then submit this addition to the remoteStorage.profile module upstream, and this way, other remoteStorage-based apps can use the same avatars in an app-independent way.

But we can do even better: we can use the avatar people advertise in their webfinger profile. That way, the system we use for avatars is independent of remoteStorage as a specific storage API.

The other example I want to give is the separation of data formats and interaction protocols. For instance, an ActivityStreams document can be published in an atom feed or in many other ways, and likewise many other data formats can be used when publishing data through an atom feed; these two things are independently swappable building blocks. This flexibility is what sometimes makes the web chaotic as an application platform, but ultimately it's also what makes it very decentralized and robust.

Read-write web

We can take the avatar-example from the last paragraph even a bit further. By adding a link from their webfinger file to a public document on their remoteStorage account, users can still edit their avatar using remoteStorage. We added support for Content-Type headers to draft-dejong-remotestorage-01.txt specifically to make the data on a user's remoteStorage account be data that is fully "on the web" in every sense, and to make things like this possible. It turns the user's remoteStorage account into a "read-write web" site: a website, where the content can be edited over its normal primary http interface, using verbs other than GET (in our case PUT and DELETE).

Semantic markup

There is one last thing I want to mention about the architecture of the web: documents that are primarily human-readable, but also partially machine-readable. Whenever you publish a human-readable document, it is good practice to add some machine-readable links inside the html code. This page for instance has a link to the atom feed of this blog series, and a machine-readable link to my own Indie Web site, with a link-relation of "author".

This means for instance that if you have the 'Subscribe' button enabled on your Firefox toolbar, you will see it light up, and your browser will be able to find the machine-readable atom feed through which updates to this blog will be published. Likewise, search engines and other "meta" websites can display meta-data about a web page just by parsing these small machine-readable hints from the html. Google also provides instructions on how to mark up recipes so that they will become searchable in a "deep" way.

As an unhosted web app developer you will probably deal more with documents that are already primarily machine-readable, but it's still an important feature to be aware of, that one document on the web can form part of the human-readable document web, and of the machine-readable data web, at the same time.

Conclusion

The loosely coupled architecture of web linking is an essential part of its power as a platform, but mainly also it is what gives the web its openness. The web is what people do in practice. Some technologies will need support from browser vendors, in which case it may for instance happen that Firefox and Chrome both implement a version of the feature, then compare notes, choose one standard version of the feature, and document that so that other browsers can implement it too.

For features that require no changes to how browsers work, literally anyone can try to start a convention, blog about it, and try to convince other people with the same problem to join in. It is a truly open system.

comments welcome!

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