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~ Look, Ma! No Javascript! A case against the overuse of Javascript

Fig: Hammer vs. screw. Not the right tool for the job.

For the last couple of years this blog has not been using any Javascript. During the last decade this has become quite rare. Only 1.2% of websites do not use Javascript I see this as a problem. In this text I want to argue that Javascript is perhaps not always the right tool for the job. Especially for web-pages which visitors simply want to read and where no explicit interactive actions are wanted from a user perspective, I see Javascript as detrimental.

I was triggered to write this by a few observations. One is by a Rails frontend framework which claims that “the only technology we should be using to create web UI is JavaScript”. This implies that the whole DOM should be rendered by Javascript. On the other hand there are frameworks which now advertise server side rendering as new feature like Blazor and Nuxt. The old thing is new again.

Let’s look at a few examples. Take visiting news website. On a news site, a user expects to be able to read current news, reviews, opinions, .. and there is no expectation of interactivity. Basically, a news site could work equally well on physical paper, as was the case for the last century or more. Ideally, a news site is a static HTML page with an easy to follow layout and some images, perhaps some static ads, with information flowing in a single direction.

If we look at, for example, the Guardian, we do not get this ideal experience, instead 82 Javascript files are loaded and the full website takes six full seconds to load on a fast fiber connection. The site even tries to load files from other domains. This bloat results in 8 website programming errors and CORS-issues. The Guardian website is far from the worst example of this sprawl of Javascript, the front-end for the Guaridan is even developed in the open.

Another news site is Hacker News. With its focus on Sillicon valley and technical news, this site has probably one of the most tech-savvy readers and … it does not rely on Javascript for functioning. There is a single small, readable 150 line script to improve usability but that is it. The makes the the website fast, easily indexable, straightforward to maintain, accessible, future-proof, failsafe, and compatible with even the most basic browsers and screen-readers.

Similarly, this blog is a dynamic Rails site but thanks to extensive use of server-side rendering and caching it behaves more like a static site generator: once everything is cached, the application mostly serves static HTML fragments. The client-side requirements are minimal as well: since no Javascript is used to modify the DOM - or even at all - lay-outing is straightforward.

Note that some blog posts feature advanced web application prototypes which do use a boatload of Javascript e.g. to convert audio, visualize audio, interact with micro-controllers or MIDI instruments,… . These prototypes use many of the available browser APIs like the Web Audio API, WebAssembly, Web MIDI API, Web Bluetooth API, WebGL, …. I really do like targeting modern browsers with offer many possibilities to build easy-to-use applications. But that is exactly a distinction that needs to be made: applications versus pages. Javascript versus No Javascript.