Every year I have worked at a web agency, come December I have been asked to write a blog about ‘trends in web development for 20XX’.
But the problem with a developer trying to predict future trends is that our discipline – unlike, say, UX design – is proactive rather than reactive.
And by that I mean proactive in a really slow and not-actually-very-proactive way.
Take this blog about “really exciting new HTML and CSS features for creating better websites”. A good UX designer will read this and immediately think about how they might improve user experience with these features.
But look at the comment from a developer: “Will this support all browsers? If so, what will be the least version to support?” I can assure you, this is what we are all thinking.
Web developers can’t be reactive to new browser capabilities because reactively implementing these features will probably mean a lot of proactive faffing about to build backwards-compatible alternatives.
Imagine a designer utilising a cool new feature in the latest version of their design software, then having to laboriously create another design for each previous iteration in case the file needs to be opened by someone with an outdated program.
Designers are relatively free to follow trends – and start them – because their craft is forward-facing. Developers always have to be looking over their shoulder for the creeping goblin of obsolete software.
Even though Internet Explorer’s share of the desktop market has fallen to a mere 5% this year, IE support is still a requirement for many of our builds. After all, 5% is 1 in 20 and who is going to turn away every 20th customer?
This is why following trends leaves developers in a Sisyphus-esque torment, where we’ll spend ages pushing the boulder of a new feature up the mountain only to have a legacy product knock it right back down again.
Things are improving though. In 2016 Microsoft ended support for all versions of IE except 11. The trouble is, they have also committed to support 11 as long as Windows 10 is a thing, which could be as long as 2025.
This is why developers have been proactively calling for our community, rather than Microsoft, to kill IE 11 once and for all – by just ignoring it. If we stop building websites that work in IE, people will stop using IE and Microsoft will have no reason to continue to support it. “It is not a technical problem,” writes Neal Burger, “it is a political problem. You need to persuade the higher-ups of getting rid of IE 11.” [My highlighting]
And it’s kinda working. This month it was revealed and then confirmed that Microsoft would be rebuilding its unpopular Edge browser using Chromium, the open-source basis of Google’s Chrome and other browsers, rather than their in-house engine, EdgeHTML.
This is good news for website developers who will have fewer sets of standards to comply with and good news for browser plugin developers who will have a (slightly) wider market. It is bad news for Mozilla, the makers of Firefox, because it brings Google even closer to a monopoly, but that’s another topic.
In practical terms, this homogenising of browser technology and ditching of legacy products may help usher in some trends for 2019. I hesitate to say it, but this year we might finally be able to start using CSS grid with reliable results. Then again, I distinctly remember writing something similar about 2016 when Microsoft began their cull of old browsers.
Meanwhile in PHP engineering circles, there is relief – and the occasional moment of panic – all around as hosting companies have begun to force customers to upgrade from PHP 5 (first released in 2004!) to the far superior version 7.2.
Anything that standardises web development and saves us time writing hacks for defunct technology is a good trend, but this isn’t a trend that developers will follow in 2019 – it is one they incepted themselves by refusing to code for antique frameworks. Retro might be hip in design, but it ain’t in dev, daddio.
As a WordPress-based agency, you could argue that the biggest trend of 2019 will be the roll-out of the Gutenberg content editor. But this isn’t a trend – we won’t adopt Gutenberg because it’s fashionable, we’ll adopt it because it’s unavoidable.
That’s not to say Gutenberg is unwelcome. To understand why Gutenberg exists, you have to understand the way open source software such as WordPress is created. There may be senior figures driving certain initiatives, but it is the ground force of developers who set the tone.
Gutenberg will have a big impact on how designers work on WordPress sites and will no doubt lead to some interesting trends in that field. But the concept of block-based content is not new to development, not even to WordPress, with many third-party plugins offering this capability for years. Rather than trendy, Gutenberg just became mainstream.
Deeds not code
I will take this opportunity to apologise to the editor of this blog who probably wanted a light read, a search-friendly and upbeat fluff piece about what thrilling things you can look forward to from new-build websites in 2019. Instead they got a rant.
But I’m afraid, as you might have gathered from the tone of this article, what you’re actually going to get in 2019 is developers becoming even more belligerent and forthright.
I mean, we’ll still be some of the nicest people you could ever meet, but we’re not going to take anybody’s shit any more. We’ve got enough to be dealing with keeping up with the ‘trends’ for multi-device apps, speed benchmarks, accessibility standards, AMP compliance, etc, etc, to also be coding for people who can’t be bothered to upgrade their operating system, browser or hosting platform.
I’m not being flippant. Dev-led campaigns like Public Code and Net Neutrality show the tech community taking a shift towards the political. And rightly so. With issues such as hacking, privacy, fake news and cyber bullying never out of the news, everyone in STEM has a duty to be civic-minded and progressive, which is hard to do if web technology itself is holding you back.
Whether it’s creating software for political campaigns, taking a stand on ethical issues such as accessibility or simply demanding outdated browsers be put to bed to make our own lives easier, the biggest trend of 2019 will arguably be that more software, website and app creators start to realise they are in control.
And when that happens, maybe we’ll have time to come up with a few trends in time for 2020.