Hypermedia On Whatever you'd Like

Carson Gross

The one big remaining (advantage of MPAs) is (server side programming) language choice. If you’re already part of the anti-JavaScript resistance, then nothing I say in the rest of this talk is going to matter that much.

But, I’m going to get into this later: that ship might have sailed…

Rich Harris - Have SPA’s Ruined The Web?

A concept we like to talk about is “The HOWL Stack”. HOWL stands for Hypermedia On Whatever you’d Like.

This is a joke-but-not-really software stack, and a reference to more well known stacks like The LAMP Stack or The MEAN Stack.

The TLDR of The HOWL Stack is this: when you use a hypermedia-driven approach for your web application, you free yourself up to choose whatever server-side technology best fits your problem and your own technical tastes.

#Feeling The JavaScript Pressure

If you decide to use an SPA framework for your web application you will, naturally, have a large front-end codebase that is written in JavaScript.

Given that, the following question inevitably will come up:

“Well, why aren’t we doing the back-end in JavaScript too?”

This is a reasonable question to ask and there are a lot of advantages to adopting the same programming language on both sides of the wire:

This pressure to adopt JavaScript will only grow as your investment in the JavaScript front end ecosystem grows.

Furthermore, JavaScript has improved dramatically in the last five years and there are now multiple excellent server-side runtimes for executing it. Many of the older arguments about the messiness of the language can be waved off as preventable via linting, developer discipline, and so forth.

JavaScript is the dominant language among the web development thought leaders and there are massive numbers of tutorials, code camps, etc. that strongly emphasize the language. Nothing succeeds like success, and JavaScript (as well as React) have succeeded.

Let’s call the result of this The JavaScript Pressure and acknowledge that nearly every developer working with the web feels it at least to some extent.

#Hypermedia: Our Only Hope

What hope do non-JavaScript developers have in web development?

Well, there is one older technology sitting there in the browser alongside JavaScript: hypermedia.

Browsers offer excellent HTML support (and the related Document Object Model, or DOM). In fact, even if you are using an SPA framework, you will be working with that hypermedia infrastructure in some form (via JSX templates, for example) if only to create UIs that a browser can understand.

So you are going to be using HTML or the related DOM APIs in some manner in your web application.

Well, what if we made HTML a more powerful hypermedia?

That’s the idea of htmx, which makes it possible to implement common modern web application patterns using the hypermedia approach. This closes the UX gap between traditional MPAs and SPAs, making taking the hypermedia route feasible for a much larger set of web applications.

Once you adopt this hypermedia approach (and remember, you are going to be using hypermedia infrastructure anyway, so why not leverage it as much as possible?) a surprising side effect occurs:

Suddenly, the advantage of server-side language choice that Harris attributed to MPAs is back on the table.

If your application’s front end is mainly written in terms of HTML, maybe with a bit of client-side scripting, and with no large JavaScript code-base, you’ve suddenly dramatically diminished (or entirely eliminated) The JavaScript Pressure on the back end.

You can now make your server-side language (and framework) choice based on other considerations: technical, aesthetic or otherwise:

These are all perfectly reasonable technical, philosophical and aesthetic perspectives.

And, by adopting hypermedia as your primary front-end technology, you pursue any of these goals without a bicameral code-base. Hypermedia doesn’t care what you use to produce it: you can use hypermedia on whatever you’d like.

#An Open Web for Everyone

And when we say “whatever”, we really mean it.

Here is a screenshot of the htmx discord’s HOWL subsection recently. Note that these are just the channels that happen to have active traffic, there are many more.

You can see we have ongoing conversations in a bunch of different programming languages and frameworks: Java, Go, .NET, Rust, Clojure, PHP, Ruby, Python, Ocaml. We even have some folks talking about using htmx with Bash and Cobol!

This is exactly the future that we want to see: a rich and vibrant Web in which every back-end language and framework can play as an equal & interesting alternative. Each language and framework has their own unique strengths & cultures and each can contribute to the magical hypermedia system that is The Web.

#But, Is it An Anti-JavaScript Resistance?

Before we finish this essay, we do want to address the idea that the resistance to JavaScript everywhere is necessarily Anti-JavaScript.

Now, admittedly, we have laughed at our fair share of jokes about JavaScript, and we have gone so far as to create an alternative scripting language for the web, hyperscript.

So it might seem like we should be card-carrying anti-javascriptites.

But, to the contrary, we are deeply appreciative of JavaScript.

After all, both htmx and hyperscript are built in JavaScript. We couldn’t have created these libraries without JavaScript, which, whatever else one might say, has the great virtue of being there.

And we even go so far as to recommend using JavaScript for front-end scripting needs in a hypermedia-driven application, so long as you script in a hypermedia-friendly way.

Further, we wouldn’t steer someone away from using JavaScript (or TypeScript) on the server side for a hypermedia-driven application, if that language is the best option for your team. As we said earlier, JavaScript now has multiple excellent server-side runtimes and many excellent server-side libraries available.

It might be the best option for you and your team, and there is no reason not to use it in that case.

Hypermedia On Whatever you’d Like means just that: whatever you’d like.

But JavaScript is not, and it should not be, the only server-side option for your team.

#Turning The Ship Around

With the resurgence of interest in (and improvements of) hypermedia, an open and diverse future for The Web is now a real possibility, if not an emerging reality.

The Web was designed to be an open, polyglot & participative hypermedia system.

And the ship hasn’t sailed on that dream, at least not yet!

We can keep that dream alive by re-learning and re-embracing the foundational technology of the web: hypermedia.

I hate that the htmx community has devolved into builders helping each other without regard for likes, engaging those who don’t follow the hype, expanding sound bytes into nuance. It may not score cheap social media points, but it’s healthy. The web used to be worse than this.