When the web was first envisioned it was a generic version of apps, or what history books call “applications.” It was the lowest common denominator that could run anywhere. This put the web squarely in a “frame.” The potential functionality was confined to a rectangle of content.
Apps showed us an alternative early on by letting developers execute code in the background, cache data for offline use, and use push notifications and by delivering other functionality that was not possible on websites at the time. But the web is presently undergoing a dramatic change. Browsers are responding to the app revolution and now anyone can take advantage of these shifts to “break the frame.”
Here are the top three ways to break the frame that are available now or coming in early 2015:
2. Sensor access will make pages aware of the user’s environment. For years web pages have only known the user’s screen size and browser type. Now sensor data of all types is being made available. Ambient light, microphone, and camera are all being exposed by various W3C standards. This gives websites an incredible vantage point outside of the rectangular bounds of the page.
3. Push notifications will allow sites an ongoing connection to their users even after users have closed the site’s browser tab.
4. The combination of ServiceWorkers and push notifications also has a very important symbiotic effect. Pushes don’t necessarily have to show a notification to users, and instead could execute arbitrary ServiceWorker code. Put differently, imagine a new episode of your favorite show triggering a push to a ServiceWorker that then pre-loads the content in a cache the second it’s available for when you’re offline later on the train ride home and want to watch it. Frame busted!
Any cause for concern?
Some people might get the willies reading that list of capabilities coming to their browser. Indeed, it can be scary. Rest assured, a lot of time and energy has been spent on making each and every feature require a permission check and/or visual indication that it’s being used. For example, while recording from the microphone, a tab’s icon is overlaid with a recording symbol, letting the user know what’s going on and giving them the ability to cancel it.
The other major trend is for a secure web. Some new features like ServiceWorkers and push are so powerful that HTTPS is being required to protect the user and site owner. This prevents a nefarious Wi-Fi operator or ISP from injecting code that has a long-lasting effect on the site and user. This fits well with other movements in this direction in our post-NSA-leak world. The EFF will be providing free SSL certs for all in 2015, and Google is even proposing to mark all HTTP traffic as insecure in the browser, which would lead to an explosion of sites converting to SSL.
How to position your site in 2015
It’s shaping up to be one of the most exciting years in a long time for the web. Here are some quick ways you can change your site and be ahead of the curve:
1. Go “offline first.” Use ServiceWorkers to cache the last-known state of your site, render that, and display a loading message while fetching the new data. This produces a lightning-fast user experience.
2. React intelligently. Use the sensor data available to offer presets or other tweaks. Have a site that users read a lot of content on? Adjust the contrast based on lighting conditions. A game or other interactive content? Connect up the motion sensor and have an immersive experience.
3. Reconnect with users. Find a natural way that fits with your site to reach back out to your users. This will keep you fresh in their minds and drive high re-engagement. Some great examples are alerting on new top-line content, social actions (new messages/friend requests), an item a visitor viewed is on sale, etc. Look to the app world to see what’s really worked and apply that to your site.
Casey Haakenson has worked in the web space for 18 years and is currently the CEO of Y Combinator-backed Roost.