The “Hype Pendulum” of Web Development

November 21st 2016
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@poshaughnessyPeter O'Shaughnessy

I believe that the adoption of new technologies follows a particular pattern. However, I’m not talking about the familiar “Hype Cycle”. While this perspective can be helpful, it is also somewhat misleading:

Gartner Hype Cycle

The graph shows a simple peak and trough, but the reality is more like an ongoing tug backwards and forwards, between hype and backlash. I’m calling this the “Hype Pendulum”:

Let me explain with a couple of examples from the world of web development.

HTML5 and PWAs

The iPhone App Store opened in 2008, 18 months after the launch of the phone. The web was suddenly left behind in terms of features; native was the cool kid. A couple of years later, Wired famously proclaimed the Web was “dead”.

The Web standards community were busy working on HTML5 though. It reached the mainstream consciousness in 2010 when Steve Jobs posted his “Thoughts on Flash”. By 2011, with the HTML5 spec reaching “Last Call”, we we were experiencing something of a hype spike:

“The hype created by the promise of HTML5 has almost reached fever pitch”
- Mobile Foresight, 2011

Yet just a year later, Facebook famously “ditched” HTML5 in its native app. Once again, the web was written off. This moment probably marked the “trough of disillusionment” nadir.

“When the pendulum swung away from HTML5 in 2012, it swung pretty far and scared away many potential innovators.”
- ReadWriteWeb, 2013

But over the next few years, interest in web app technologies began to quietly rise up again. In 2015, a new term “Progressive Web Apps” was coined, to describe a bunch of approaches and capabilities that were all now possible. Now we’re in 2016 and we may be starting to see a hype spike once again:

“By now, you’ve probably heard that Progressive Web Apps are the future of all mankind. They’ll bring world peace, end hunger, save the rainbows and unicorns, bring balance to the force, and a whole lot more.”
- Ionic, 2016

I do truly believe PWAs have a big future though. Perhaps there will be further swings of the pendulum before we’re fully settled in web apps’ Plateau of Productivity — but I’m sure we’re getting there!

Responsive Design

People had been making responsive sites earlier, but the concept took off when Ethan Marcotte famously coined the term in his A List Apart article in May 2010. It received a tonne of attention, but it wasn’t long before dissenters pushed back, chiefly citing mobile performance versus separate mobile sites, an attachment to the “pixel perfect” designs of print media, or simply the perceived effort involved:

“Responsive Web Design is NOT right for your website”
- Blogger, 2013
“Responsive Design Is a Waste Of Time”
- Blogger, 2013
“Responsive design really sucks”
- Blogger, 2014

It took time for the Hype Pendulum to settle and for Responsive Design to be generally accepted as the default way to design web pages. I’d say it got there by around 2015, helped by Google’s SEO policies giving a boost to responsive sites.

Hype Pendulums everywhere

Does every new web technology undergo a Hype Pendulum? It seems so to me. For example, think of the reaction to any popular JavaScript framework.

The example that actually inspired this post — thank you to Ashley WilliamsFFConf talk — is NPM. As the world’s largest repository of code modules, NPM became a symbol of modular code design. NPM — and in turn, modular code — was the subject of a backlash in 2016 due to the left-pad controversy, which according to media outlets, “broke the internet”!

Node.js is another example. Originally written by Ryan Dahl in 2009, I remember first trying it out myself in 2010, the year that Express and Socket.io were born. It wasn’t long before the hype was in full swing:

“Why nodeJS is awesome and why you shouldn’t even think about using it”
- Blogger, 2013

The inevitable backlash included the infamous “Node.js is cancer” post.

Why does this happen?

The Hype Pendulum is partly a by-product of how our human attention works. Balanced, nuanced arguments don’t make such good headlines - rants get more clicks. Binary arguments and zero-sum games appeal due to their reassuring simplicity. Backlashes are also symptomatic of our impatience in a fast-moving world; when we hear about the shiny new technology or approach, we want to use it right away.

It’s useful to remember that the extremes of hype and backlash are temporary fluctuations along a timeline of innovation that usually stretches out longer than we would like. Sometimes an early form of technology fails to fully take off, until it returns in a new form that’s more ready for prime time. Performance is a common theme of backlashes; thankfully the performance limitations tend to diminish over time with hardware advances and software optimisations. Sometimes our developer tooling and understanding take a while to catch up. It takes time for innovations to settle, as the Long Nose of Innovation shows:

Long Nose of Innovation by Bill Buxton — image by sketchplanations.com

It’s also a factor of our motivations. As web evangelists, it’s our role (and passion) to promote the latest technologies and best practices. As web developers, it’s our role to push back if we find real-world issues that need to be addressed.

How to deal with it

It can be tempting to immediately lurch towards the latest fad, or immediately rail against it. The safer bet is to leave the Hype Pendulum to swing, while we absorb information from both sides, try things out for ourselves and come to informed decisions.

With the constant flurry of new libraries and frameworks, much has been said recently about the ‘fatigue’ this can lead to. As Ada Rose Edwards says, “Knowing HTML, CSS and Vanilla JS through and through will have more long term merit than any flash in pan library or tool kit”.

As a developer advocate, please do call me out if I ever appear to be overly hyping up a new technique or approach, without due consideration to potential downsides. I have a tendency to say things are awesome ;-)

The Lego Movie

Although sometimes overly hasty and extreme, backlashes can be important. They can help to ensure that we don’t rush into releasing technology so quickly that we miss potential security or privacy issues. We don’t want to be Chad and Brad from Maciej Ceglowski’s “Who Will Command the Robot Armies?” “developers who are just trying to crush out some code out on deadline, and don’t think about the wider consequences of their actions”.

Although sometimes the Hype Pendulum may be tiresome, it’s generally productive. As Barack Obama recently said, the path of progress “has never been a straight line. We zig and zag…”. The hype around the latest web technologies may swing backwards and forwards, but this is the case for all innovations. As long as we keep progressing overall, we’ll leave the web in good shape: a better, stronger platform for everybody. And that really will be awesome!

Note: this article was written outside of my role as a Developer Advocate, but I work at Samsung Internet, Samsung’s mobile web browser. You may be interested to read more of our blog posts and follow us on Twitter!

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