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April 2014 Extensible Web Summit

Last week, W3C TAG (Technical Architecture Group) held an “Extensible Web Summit” hosted by the PhoneGap team at the Adobe offices in San Francisco. The summit brought together TAG members, people from the Extensible Web Community Group, browser implementers, JavaScript library authors, and web developers to talk about the future of the web platform. I believe the consensus of the people who participated was that the TAG should host more summits like these on a regular basis.

The conversations at the summit were informed by the Extensible Web Manifesto, which lays out a few ideas on how to add new features to the web. What makes the most sense to me in the manifesto is the idea of exposing lower-level capabilities that high-level features can be built upon. It’s an easy trap to build constrained high-level features that can’t be extended past a narrow set of use cases. It’s somewhat harder — but more rewarding — to find lower-level primitives that expose the inner workings of a feature and allow for extensions to new use cases.

The summit was organized barcamp style, with topics suggested by the attendees. A list of sessions with links to the conversation minutes can be found on the summit’s Lanyrd site. Topics ranged over the whole web stack, from exploring the levels below the browser through how web applications get packaged.

In the introductory talks, Tab Atkins from Google acknowledged that CSS is one of the least-extensible parts of the web stack. If a CSS declaration isn’t understood, it generally gets thrown out with no way to retrieve the information. This makes it difficult to write JavaScript libraries that extend CSS capabilities, as you have to reconstruct all the CSS parsing and cascading you require.

Custom properties help with some of these problems. Once they are widely supported, CSS polyfills can avoid re-inventing CSS parsing and cascading. The summit had a session on what else might be useful for extending CSS. One of the suggestions was some way for script to hook in to when styles change — perhaps something like a style mutation observer.

We have DOM MutationObservers to watch for DOM changes. But style changes aren’t exposed in this way:  if a script needs to react to a style change, all sorts of hacks are needed to find out when something changed and what that change might be. A standardized style mutation observer would be a big help for these problems.

So one result of the extensible Web Summit is renewed interest in exposing style changes. There’s already a thread on www-style following up on the summit session, and I’m planning on pushing forward on the idea as much as I can. If you are interested, please join the discussion there.

And if you find anything else interesting in the summit notes, please follow up on the topics that interest you. Part of the Extensible Web Manifesto is about getting more feedback from web developers in choosing how we move the web forward. Hopefully we can have more events like this summit where we can draw upon ideas from a larger and larger set of people who want to make the web awesome.

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