Edge 3: back in London

by Andrew Betts,

Last Friday, I hosted the third edition of our Edge conference at Microsoft’s Cardinal Place office complex in central London. We created some fantastic content, kicked off some deep and meaningful blog posts and discussions, got insightful feedback and, er, I learnt a lot about corporate network restrictions.

Developer tools panel at Edge 3: Pavel Feldman, Narciso Jaramillo, Jake Archibald, Joe Walker, Kenneth Auchenberg, Henri Bergius
Developer tools panel at Edge 3: Pavel Feldman, Narciso Jaramillo, Jake Archibald (moderator), Joe Walker, Kenneth Auchenberg.

Big thanks are due to Martin Beeby and his colleagues for contributing their time and Microsoft’s resources to make this very specialised event happen.

This time around we ran sessions on Components, Developer tooling, Build process, Page load performance, Pointers and interactions, Accessibility and Future web. I won’t cover all the content that came out of these individually – for that see our official real-time session notes linked from each session on the schedule page (or Steve Workman’s session notes) – but many points discussed grew into larger discussions after the event and are worth focusing on. For me the thread that draws them all together is the relative power, speed and complexity of web development, and how it is affected by the choices you make as a developer as well as the state of the technologies in the ecosystem.

Three unsexy pillars of web development

Paul Lewis’s follow up post Web Components and three unsexy pillars highlighted dull-but-critical parts of web development practice: accessibility, security and performance. All three topics came up very early on, since when we build UI into components, all these concerns shift from the page to the component level. This resonated strongly with me – you can easily build two things that are identical from a feature/product standpoint, but which are architecturally like comparing a Jaguar with a milk float.

Thing is, there’s a sense of perspective to apply here – there’s no point building a Jaguar if you are going to use it to deliver milk and you need to stop every 50 yards. Still, most of us are building at least one or two grown-up things that we hope might get a billion users or so, and these pillars are worth building into your instinctive practice.

Tooling

That practice is coming to be defined, at least in large part, by the tools that you use. Paul Irish did his characteristic tour of amazing developer tooling at breathtaking speed, and then much of the developer tooling panel was given over to a fascinating debate between Joe Walker (dev tools lead for Mozilla) and Kenneth Auchenberg (creator of RemoteDebug), both outstanding contributors with distinct perspectives, on the integration of inspection/debugging tools with browsers. Jeremy Keith’s Edge followup post Notes from the Edge echos Auchenberg’s call for inspection tooling to be an area of standardisation and cooperation rather than competition and differentiation between browser vendors.

Some tools I really like – progress on new IDEs like Sublime, Brackets and Atom is enhancing developer productivity, but others still feel like sticking plasters or solutions to the wrong problem – evidenced by the proliferation of build tools like Grunt and Gulp and the 20 quadrillion plugins for each. The solution to the complexity of build tools and toolchains seems to be less about making the build tools’ config simpler (eg Gulp) and more about redefining the process completely.

On that theme, Peter Müller followed up Edge conf with the post I love the Unix Philosophy but.., about how doing ‘one thing well’ is all well and good but the pipes between those processes are ill-designed for a complex graph of web assets (which his Assetgraph tool sets out to solve). On the dev tools panel, we also had Henri Bergius, whose flow based programming tool NoFlo takes this to its logical extreme and makes the entire development workflow graph based.

I’m still cautious of weighing down projects with lots of build tooling, and at the FT we’ve tried to combat this while keeping its benefits by creating a build tool as a service. We’re yet to see whether this approach is a good idea over the long term.

Components and accessibility

Our coverage of components sparked the most interest – with Jeremy Keith commenting that ARIA is ill equipped to describe Web components with its current, limited vocabulary and lack of extensibility. Bruce Lawson defends the capabilities of ARIA but worries that developers don’t care enough and we need passionate evangelism combined with pull requests. On the panel, Nicole Sullivan argued for the divorcing of semantics from markup, and using ARIA to do that.

Bruce also wonders if we’ll all be importing each other’s components by referencing ‘canonical’ components from a CDN like CDNJS. But that brings up the question of reinventing the wheel – will we end up with a hundred different ways of doing a fancy <select> element? Mairead Buchan is concerned enough about this that she’s written a proposal, The Golden Path, wondering if we could have some kind of peer-review platform for best practice web components.

I like this – it also seems like a good route to standardisation. A component could become popular, be improved collaboratively via some platform, and then gradually moved along a standards track until it becomes a natively supported element in future browsers. Addy Osmani opened an issue on the web components best practices issue tracker to discuss the idea, and it seems to be gaining traction, perhaps as something to build on top of the existing customelements.io directory.

Overall reaction

World-famous cat-loving flame-haired open source advocate and Terminator impressionist Christian Heilmann from Mozilla wrote a blog post entitled Edgeconf 3: Just be there next time, trust me, which was nice. I also loved this tweet from Joe Walker, which captured exactly what we’re trying to do with Edge:

We asked for feedback from attendees, and got about 50 responses, which rated the sessions like this:

Feedback from delegates

They also nominated their stand out contributors, of which these were the top six:

  1. Derek Featherstone (@feather)
  2. Remy Sharp (@rem)
  3. Alice Bartlett (@alicebartlett)
  4. Peter Gasston (@stopsatgreen)
  5. Jake Archibald (@jaffathecake)
  6. Matthew Tylee Atkinson (@matatk)

I like these results because it shows that at Edge, you can be the second most valued contributor simply by being in the audience (Remy was not on any panel). Alice Bartlett’s contribution to the Future Web panel was highly valued despite her session overall scoring less well, showing that we can recognise the difference between outstanding personal contributions to a discussion and the curation/moderation that sets the scope for the discussion in the first place. Finally, one of the top six (Mat) is a contributor most people had never heard of, showing that the egoless approach helps to focus minds on the opinions and arguments, not the prestige of the people who have them.

Let’s do this again

Adobe have kindly agreed to host the next Edge conf in San Francisco on September 20th, 2014. We’ll be at Adobe’s downtown office for the first Edge conf to come from the West coast (as ever we’ll also be streaming live online).

More details will be announced soon, so if you want to be first in line, sign up to our newsletter over on the Edge website.

All the videos of the conference are now available on the website, incidentally, professionally captioned and with content search.