Careful Now

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Tom Warren’s “Chrome is turning into the new Internet Explorer 6” for The Verge has a title that, to us front-end web developers, suggests that Chrome is turning into a browser far behind in technology and replete with tricky bugs. Aside from the occasional offhand generic, “Chrome is getting so bad lately,” comments you hear, we know that’s not true. Chrome often leads the pack for good web tech.

Instead, it’s about another equally concerning danger: developers building sites specifically for Chrome. In theory, that’s not really a thing thing, because if you build a website with web standards (of which there isn’t really much of an alternative) it’ll work in Chrome like any other modern web browser. But it is a thing if you build the site to somehow block other browsers and only allow Chrome. Warren:

Google has been at the center of a lot of “works best with Chrome” messages we’re starting to see appear on the web. Google Meet, Allo, YouTube TV, Google Earth, and YouTube Studio Beta all block Windows 10’s default browser, Microsoft Edge, from accessing them and they all point users to download Chrome instead. Google Meet, Google Earth, and YouTube TV are also not supported on Firefox with messages to download Chrome.

I wouldn’t call it an epidemic but it’s not a good trend. Best I can tell, it’s server-side UA sniffing that entirely blocks the sites:

Sheesh.

If anything, I’d think you’d just let people use the site and display a warning if you’re really worried some particular feature might not work. Or even better, fix it. I have no behind-the-scenes knowledge of why they made the choice to block certain browsers, but it’s hard to imagine a technical limitation that would force it. And if it is, I’d suggest letting it be very publicly known to incentivize the other browsers to support what is needed, assuming it’s an established standard.

Even more concerning than browser-specific websites is seeing browsers ship non-standardized features just because they want them, not behind any vendor prefix or flag. There was a time when web developers would have got out the pitchforks if a browser was doing this, but I sense some complacency seeping in.

These days, the vibe is more centered around complaining about other browsers lack of support for things. For example, one browser ships something, we see one green dot in caniuse, and we lambast the other browsers to catch up. Instead, we might ask, was it a good idea to ship that feature yet?

No modern browser is shipping vendor prefixes anymore since we all ultimately decided that was a bad idea. A side effect of that is that shipping a new feature in CSS or JavaScript is all the riskier. I would think shipping an unprefixed feature to a stable version of the browser would mean the feature is standardized and not going to significantly change. Yet, it’s been happening.

In CSS, Chrome shipped motion-* properties, but then that all changed to offset-*, and the old motion-* properties just stopped working. That’s more than just annoying, that kind of thing helps developers justify saying, “I just build this site for Chrome, if you wanna use it, use Chrome.” Fine for a demo, perhaps, but bad for the web industry as a whole. Again, I have no special insight into why this happens, I’m just a developer looking in from the outside.

Here’s another CSS one I just saw the other day. People are excited about text-decoration-skip: ink; because it looks great and helps people. They are using it a lot. But apparently, that’s not the correct name for it? It’s been changed to text-decoration-skip-ink: auto; and so Chrome 64 is canning text-decoration-skip: ink; which is confusing even to people at Google.

Chris Krycho had a take on it recently as well:

Over the past few years, I’ve increasingly seen articles with headlines that run something like, “New Feature Coming To the Web” — followed by content which described how Chrome had implemented an experimental new feature. “You’ll be able to use this soon!” has been the promise.

The reality is a bit more complicated. Sometimes, ideas the Chrome team pioneers make their way out to the rest of the browsers and become tools we can all use. Sometimes… they get shelved because none of the other browsers decide to implement them.

Many times, when this latter tack happens, developers grouse about the other browser makers who are “holding the web back.” But there is a fundamental problem in this way of looking at things: Chrome isn’t the standard. The fact that Chrome proposes something, and even the fact that a bunch of developers like it, does not a standard make. Nor does it impose an obligation to other browsers to prioritize it, or even to ship it.

This isn’t all to throw Chrome under the bus. I’m a Chrome fan. I’m sure there are examples from all the major vendors in the same vein. I’d just like my two cents to be careful now. The web is the best platform to build for and generally heading in a direction that makes that even truer. The easiest way to screw that up is not being careful with standards.