Robert Brodrecht

Performance is the New Web Standards

Photo By E01, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Introduction

Since the inception of the web, there have been 4 clear eras: text, table-based design, web standards, and responsive design. The next era of the web is performance, and I think it's already started.

I don’t have specific, well-researched dates, but I think the eras of the web are roughly:

Text: 1990 – 1996

The early web was about disseminating information. The very early web didn’t even support images.

Table-based Design: 1996 – 2000

Around HTML 3.2, the table element and associated elements were introduced and designers realized they could use these elements to make the web look more like traditional print design.

Web Standards: 2000 – 2010

I’m splitting the difference between the 1998 introduction of the Web Standards Project and the 2003 release of Jeffrey Zeldmand’s Designing with Web Standards. In that time frame, CSS became a viable option and the web standards movement started.

Responsive Design: 2010 – 2014

This era may have started around 2007 with the introduction iPhone, but Ethan Marcotte’s 2010 ALA Article “Responsive Web Design” coined the phrase and brought in an era where one website could be used to service an infinite number of screens. We were no longer thinking about the web as a platform used on the desktop.

Performance: 2014 – Present

The current era is performance. It’s already started. If you’re not on board, you better get there soon.

Google has been pushing performance for a long time, and drew a line in the sand as best they could in 2010 when they made speed a search rank signal. Since then, things have only gotten worse. High DPI screens have lead to larger images. Responsive design and CSS3 have introduced larger, more complex style sheets. SASS makes it easy to write longer selectors and other tooling has bloated pages. The proliferation of apps has lead to more tooling to allow the web platform to have app-like behavior and interaction. Other trends have lead to larger images for full-bleed headers or additional JavaScript handle fancy effects. Ultimately, developers have gotten lazy about page weight and high speed broadband makes it even easier to not think about.

Websites have gotten so bloated and slow that FaceBook created Instant Articles to cache and strip down bloated websites in order to load third-party content quicker in their native apps (iOS for now, but I’m sure Android is next). At Google I/O 2015, Google announced a technology for emerging markets that will strip down websites that users view from search results.

Basically, we screwed up. Big time. These platforms are trying to do for us what we should have been doing already. The good part is that there is already a lot of good thinking.

Over the course of 2014 and 2015, concepts such as critical path were introduced and popularized, tools such as webpagetest.org were popularized, features such as responsive images began to appear in browsers, and low-level protocols such as HTTP/2 were ratified.

Web Standards and Responsive Design are table stakes for a modern website. It won’t be long before poor performing websites are looked upon the same way table-based websites are today.

Get on board with performance or be ready to get left behind.