Book Review: The Modern Web (TESTHEAD)

On February 14, 2014, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
I am zeroing in on clearing out my back log of books that came with me on my flight to Florida. I have a few more to get through, some decidedly “retro” by now, and a few that some might find amusing. NoStarch publishes “The MangaGuide to…” series, and I have three titles that I’m working through related to Databases, Statistics and Physics. Consider these the “domain knowledge in a nutshell books”, and I’ll be posting them in a couple of weeks). With that out of the way ;)…
The web has become a rather fragmented beast these past twenty some odd years. Once upon a  time, it was simple. Well. relatively simple. Three-tiered architecture was the norm, HTML was blocking, some frames could make for structure, and a handful of CGI scripts would give you some interactivity. Add a little JavaScript for eye candy and you were good. 
Now? there’s a different flavor of web framework for any given day of the week, and then some. JavaScript has grown to the point where we don’t even really talk about it, unless it’s to refer to the particular library we are using (jQuery? Backbone? Ember? Angular? All of the above?). CSS and HTML have blended, and the simple structure of old has given way to a myriad of tagging, style references, script references, and other techniques to manage the miss-mash of parts that make up what you see on your screen. Oh yeah, lest we forget “what you see on your screen” has also taken on a whole new meaning. It used to mean computer screen. Now it’s computer, tablet, embedded screen, mobile phone, and a variety of other devices with sizes and shapes we were only dreaming about two decades ago.
Imagine yourself a person wanting to create a site today. I don’t mean going to one of those all-in-one site hosting shops and turning the crank on their template library (though there’s nothing wrong with that), I mean “start from bare teal, roll your own, make a site from scratch” kind of things. With the dizzying array of options out there, what’s an aspiring web developer to do?
Peter Gasston (author of “The Book of CSS3”) has effectively asked the same questions, and his answer is “The Modern Web”. Peter starts with the premise that the days of making a site for just the desktop are long gone. Any site that doesn’t consider mobile as an alternate platform (and truth be told, for many people, their only platform) they’re going to miss out on a lot of people. therefore, the multi platform ideal (device agnostic) is set up front and explanations of options available take that mobile-inclusive model into account. Each chapter looks at a broad array of possible options and available tools, and provides a survey of what they can do. Each chapter ends with a Further Reading section that will take you to a variety of sites and reference points to help you wrap your head around all of these details.
So what does “The Modern Web” have to say for itself?
Chapter 1 describes the Web Platform, sets the stage, and talks a bit about the realities that have led us to what I described in the opening paragraphs. It’s a primer for the ideas that will be covered in the rest of the book. Gasston encourages the idea of the “web platform” and that it contains all of the building blocks to be covered, including HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. It also encourages the user to keep up to date in the developments of browsers, what they are doing, what they are not doing, and what they have stopped doing. Gasston also says “test, test, and then test again”, which is a message I can wholeheartedly appreciate.
Chapter 2 is about Structure and Semantics,  or to put a finer point on it, the semantic differences available now to structure documents using HTML5. One of them has become a steady companion of late, and that’s Web Accessibility Initiatives Accessible Rich Internet Applications or WAI-ARIA (usually shortened to ARIA by yours truly). If you have ever wanted to understand Accessibility and the broader 508 standard, and what you an do to get a greater appreciation of what to do to enable this, ARIA tags are a must. The ability to segment the structure of documents based on content and platform means that we spend less time trying to shoehorn our sites into specific platforms, but rather make a ubiquitous platform that can be accessed depending on the device, and create the content to reside in that framework.
Chapter 3 talks about Device Responsive CSS, and at the heart of that is the ability to perform “media queries” what that means is, “tell me what device I am on, and I’ll tell you the best way to display the data.” This is a mostly theoretical chapter, showing what could happen with a variety of devices and leveraging options like Mobile first design. 
Chapter 4 discusses New Approaches to CSS Layouts, including how to set up multi column layouts, taking a look at the Flexbox tool, and the way it structures content, and leveraging the Grid layout so familiar to professional print publishing (defining what’s a space, where the space is, and how to allocate content to a particular space). 
Chapter 5 brings us to the current (as of the book writing) state of JavaScript, and that today’s JavaScript has exploded with available libraries (Burgess uses the term “Cambrian” to describe the proliferation and fragmentation of JavaScript libraries and capabilities). Libraries can be immensely useful, but be warned, they often come at a price, typically in the performance of your site or app. However, there is a benefit to having a lot of capabilities and features that can be referenced under one roof.
Chapter 6 covers device API’s that are now available to web developers thanks to HTML5, etc. Options such as Geolocation, utilizing Web storage, using utilities like drag and drop, accessing the devices camera and manipulating the images captured, connecting to external sites and apps, etc. Again, this is a broad survey, not a detailed breakdown. Explore the further reading if any of these items is interesting to you. 
Chapter 7 looks at Images and Graphics, specifically Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) and the canvas option in HTML5. While JPEG’s, PNG’s and GIF’s are certainly still used, these newer techniques allow for the ability to draw vector and bitmap graphics dynamically. Each has their uses, along with some sample code snippets to demonstrate them in action.
Chapter 8 is dedicated to forms, more to the point, it is dedicated to the ways that forms can take advantage of the new HTML5 options to help drive rich web applications. A variety of new input options exist to leverage phone and tablet interfaces, where the input type (search box, URL, phone number, etc.) determines in advance what input options are needed and what to display to the user. The ability to auto-display choices to a user based on a data list is shown, as are a variety of input options, such as sliders for numerical values, spin-wheels for choosing dates, and other aspects familiar to mobile users can now be called by assigning their attributes to forms and applications. One of the nicer HTML5 options related to forms is that we can now create client side form validation, whereas before we needed to rely on secondary JavaScript, now it’s just part of the form field declarations (cool!).
Chapter 9 looks at how HTML5 handles multimedia directly using the audio and video tags, and the options to allow the user to display a variety of players, controls and options, as well as to utilize a variety of audio and video formats. Options like subtitles can be added, as well as captioned displayed at key points (think of those little pop-ups in YouTube, etc. yep, those). There are several formats, and of course, not all are compatible with all browsers, to the ability to pick and choose, or use a system’s default, adds to the robustness of the options (and also adds to the complexity of providing video and audio data native via the browser). 
Chapter 10 looks at the difference between a general web and mobile site, and the processes used to package a true “web app” that can be accessed and downloaded from a web marketplace like Google Store. In addition, options like Phonegap, which allows for a greater level of integration with a particular device, and AppCache, which lets a user store data on their device so they can user the app offline, get some coverage and examples.
Chapter 11 can be seen as an Epilogue to the book as a whole, in that it is a look to the future and some areas that are still baking, but may well become available in the not too distant future. Web Components, which allows for blocks to be reused and enhanced, while being in a protected space from standards CSS and JavaScript. CSS is also undergoing tome changes, with regions and exclusions allowing more customizable layout options. A lot of this is still in the works, but some of it is available now. Check the Further Reading sections to see what and how far along.
The book ends with two appendices. Appendix A covers Browser support for each of the sections in the book, while Appendix B is a gathering of chapter by chapter Further reading links and sources. 
Bottom Line:

The so called Modern Web is a miss mash of technologies, standards, practices and options that overlap and cover a lot of areas. There is a lot of detail crammed into this one book, and there’s a fair amount of tinkering to be done to see what works and how. Each section has a variety of examples and ways to see just what the page/site/app is doing. For the web developer who already has a handle on these technologies, this will be a good reference style book to examine and look for further details in the Further Reading (really, there’s a lot of “Further Reading that can be done!). 
The beginning Web Programmer may feel a bit lost in some of this, but with time, and practice with each option, it feels more comfortable. It’s not meant to be a HowTo book, but more of a survey course, with some specific examples spelled out here and there. I do think this book has a special niche that can benefit from it directly, and I’m lucky to be part of that group. Software Testers, if you’d like a book that covers a wide array of “futuristic” web tech, the positives and negatives, and the potential pitfalls that would be of great value to a software tester, this is a wonderful addition to your library. It’s certainly been a nice addition to mine :). 

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