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60FPS is the new Image Replacement Technique

I always hated image replacement techniques. Not that I didn’t appreciate the cleverness of FIR, SiFR and the myriad other hacks folks developed to deliver text as images in an accessible way, so that we could use any fonts and typographical effects on our Web pages (at least sparingly).

But it always smelled wrong. So much effort for something which of course with the arrival of Web fonts became utterly redundant (and as it turns out a whole font we embed is probably smaller than a single image we used to send down for every heading on a page).

At least IR technique innovators tried heroically to make their techniques accessible. But underneath the techniques was this fundamental misunderstanding of what the Web was. We kept trying to turn it into paper. Because print design is inherently better, more capable than Web design.

In recent days, the concern du jour among designers and developers for the Web (and various lookers-on and pundits with various axes to grind) has been performance. Well, specifically getting 60FPS performance from animated UI experiences. Because somehow if we don’t get 60 frames per second of eye candy on our latest shiniest phones, the Web is broken, the sky is falling and so forth.

Indeed so horrendous is this shortcoming (of a platform which has reached more people, and supported more devices by perhaps an order of magnitude than any ever before, and likely any ever to come) that the choice by a single San Francisco based startup to (in the case solely of their Web application for mobile devices, their “normal” Web application uses traditional DOM based techniques) eschew the DOM for their own rendering engine using the canvasis a scathing condemnation of the DOM/CSS web standards stack“.

Look, I really should let Gruber’s [1] never ending focus on how native is inherently better, faster, whatever, than the Web go, but when someone so influential keeps it up, I can’t help myself.

Ironically, years ago, Gruber wrote about comparing Apples to Oranges. In it he wrote

The point of all this is that in some cases, some people seem unwilling to concede that any criteria other than the ones they themselves deem important actually matter, or even exist.

That’s dogmatism and the nature of dogma is such that it pretty much kills any reasonable discussion or debate.

60FPS being a “must have”, and any shortcoming right now dammit is to be scathingly condemned, while ignoring the enormous and extraordinary achievement of the technologies underlying the Web, as I mentioned reaching many more people, across a vastly greater diversity of platforms and devices than was even imaginable a decade ago, seems like ignoring more than a few criteria than “the ones deem[ed] important” by critics like John Gruber.

Now, do I wish these performance issues weren’t with us? Sure. Would I trade that performance for the interoperability, accessibility, universality of the Web. Is that even a question?

Because this is what we do when we obsess (and John Gruber is far from alone in this) about the performance of Web technologies for the particular use cases we have in mind (in the case of Flipboard, animating not all element transitions, but those that can’t be hardware accelerated, and smooth scrolling. Always the smooth scrolling).

We completely overlook what these poor benighted Web technologies have achieved, and enable you, and me, and 10 year old kids, and folks in Nairobi and well, a goodly chunk of the planets population to do.

So if John Gruber were to have said “man this stuff these guys at Flipboard have achieved in the browser is amazing, I wish they didn’t have to do these awful hacks and hopefully some folks at the W3C take notice” (because the folks on the W3C working groups responsible for this stuff and the developers of the browsers, it’s never occurred to them that maybe performance of rendering is an issue, or maybe they’re maliciously trying to hold the Web back?) I would have agreed with him. Well, at least not arced up, like I always do at this nonsense.

But no, it’s a “scathing indictment” of the DOM.

Sorry for the sarcasm, but this is a broken, broken record, where we fetishize a single shortcoming of the Web platform over its many unique strengths.

And it comes from a place of privilege and self indulgence, where our wants, our need for 60FPS on the latest shiney shiney device that will be the equivalent of an entry level device in 6 or 7 years time is the only defining factor. The Web is otherwise doomed.

Which is all fine and dandy for those of us who have the luxury or inclination or whatever of solely caring about people like us. But there’s a whole world of folks out there who’ve only just connected to the Web. Perhaps in half a decade they’ll get 60FPS on their devices. Perhaps not. Perhaps there are far bigger issues at stake?

OK, enough, I’m bookmarking this for the next time I see this nonsense is bandied around. Meantime for a far less sarcastic, overheated and far more sensible and lucid response to all this see Faruk Ateş and Christian Heilmann

[1] I actually think a lot of Gruber’s writing is thoughtful, just when it comes to this issue…

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I’ve been admiring the Web Directions events for years, and was honored to be part… What a fantastic event!

Ethan Marcotte Inventor of 'Responsive Web Design'