'Supporting Internet Explorer is hell': Web developers identify top needs – new survey

WebAssembly key tech for replacing native apps, say respondents

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Mozilla has released the first "Web DNA Report", in which devs identify their top needs in terms of web development - and browser compatibility is the biggest issue by far, especially when it comes to supporting our old friend Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Despite Mozilla's sponsorship, the new survey has cross-vendor support. The MDN (Mozilla Developer Network) Product Advisory Board includes members from Samsung, Bocoup, W3C, Google and Microsoft as well as Mozilla. A cohort of 28,000 developers and designers took part in the survey, with all partial responses disqualified. Participants were mainly either full stack or front end developers, according to their own description. Only 8.2 per cent of the respondents identified as women, which the authors say is "unfortunately a common problem with many developer surveys."

The survey was accompanied by a number of "pilot interviews", guided remote interviews of an hour or so to cover key topics.

There are two points that stand out. The first is that browser compatibility remains a big issue, described by the report's authors as "the dominant theme". One developer says, "Supporting IE is a hell which we do because we have to."

It is not just having to support multiple incompatible browsers (especially the aged IE11), but also avoiding features that do not work everywhere, testing with multiple browsers, and making a design look the same.

Although the use of IE is declining, it is, according to the report, "over-represented in enterprises, legacy line of business apps, and certain industries," making it hard to avoid, bearing in mind who is paying the salaries. That said, it is not just IE which is a problem: there are plenty of differences between Apple Safari and Google Chrome, for example, and all browsers "have their quirks".

No place like Chrom(ium)

Should everyone move to the Chromium browser (on which Chrome is based)? This is "a good thing as a designer … but not the best thing because there should always be some competition," says one respondent.

The other theme is that in this particular community, there is a strong desire for the limitations of web applications to be removed. Therefore, when asked what is missing from the web, the answers are things like access to hardware, access to the file system, performance limitations, and access to native APIs.

In this area, WebAssembly plays a key role. "WebAssembly is going to change the web … from being a mostly consumption light editing environment to a fully featured editing environment," says one respondent, while another says, "If you allow web applications to be more like native apps, then you can basically replace many of these native apps with web pages."

HTML as a technology is well liked, but 44 per cent of respondents struggle with CSS, identifying "challenges creating the layout specified." The tricksy nature of CSS combined with the burden of supporting multiple browsers and multiple devices makes this unsurprising.

There are some notable comments about the challenge of getting authentication right, now that the simplicity (and insecurity) of simple usernames and passwords is recognised as insufficient. It is either very hard, said some developers, or very easy "if you're willing to just divest yourself of control over everything"; or in other words, use what is provided by Google, Facebook or Microsoft.

Other issues in the top 10 pain points include suffering outdated or inaccurate documentation for frameworks and libraries, discovering bugs not caught in testing, supporting multiple frameworks in the same code base, keeping up with new tools and frameworks, implementing security, and complying with privacy regulations.

If you ask developers and designers for pain points, they will find them. It should be noted, though, that over 75 per cent declared themselves satisfied with the web as a platform. Even browser compatibility is seen as getting better. "If you think about the amount of weird tricks [you had] to pull off 10 years ago to make sure that your website look[ed] good in every web browser, the amount of things you have to do now is kindergarten level," said one participant.

The first Web DNA report aims to inform standards groups and browser vendors of priorities

The full survey is here. ®

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