Friday, November 4, 2011

A rant about Front End Developers not knowing Modular Programming

I find myself these days needing to teach many Front End Developers about basic software engineering principles that they didn't even know they didn't know. Here is a rant based on a post of mine to an internal support forum at a client site. I keep finding FEDs that think that any piece of DOM, bit of JavaScript, or chunk of CSS that they can see via Firebug is fair game to fiddle with, and they ask in all innocence why that is a bad thing! ...rant...rant...

Why does my App break when I upgrade to the new version of the Framework?

Question: Help, the following code broke when we upgraded to the new version of the [gui] framework.

Answer: In there, I see there are quite a few references to private component attributes and methods...

There are general software engineering principles of "encapsulation" and "information hiding" which come from the Modular Programming era in the mid-1970s (just before Object Oriented expanded upon it).  To combat "brittleness" of a system, Components hide their (private) implementation details inside a (public) interface so that changes in one part of a system don't break other far-flung parts of that system (aka "loose coupling").  The warranty provided by the component is that as long as you use it as designed, and via the stable interface, the insides are free to be changed/fixed/enhanced without affecting you.

So, a component (where "widget" is just another word for component) is not just a collection of functionality like the collection of bits and wires below...

 ...but rather a collection of functionality that has had a stable interface published on the outside of a "black box" thus hiding the implementation inside that box, as shown below...

This warranty is voided however if you break into the box and connect to its private implementation (aka "hacking") as seen below...

 In [GUI Framework], there are two major indicators as to whether a property or method of a widget is public interface versus private implementation:
  1. If the name of the property or method starts with an underscore ("_") then it is definitely private (or at best "protected")
  2. If the property or method is documented in the [GUI Framework] JsDoc API Docs then it is definitely public.
SO, IN CONCLUSION, if someone advises that non-documented or private parts of a widget be used by your app, you should get them to sign a document acknowledging that they are voiding their warranty...only the Interfaces are promised to be kept stable, not the Implementations!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Performance Tips of the RIA All-Stars


This guide will summarize the performance-related DOs and DON'Ts of JavaScript and Web Site development as espoused by well-known pundits like Douglas Crockford. The publications listed below are surveyed, but since they overlap, this guide can act as both summary and cheat sheet for their catalog of techniques. The tips fall into 2 major categories: CODING and LOADING. i.e. making JavaScript and CSS performant, and minimizing the apparent time needed to load responsive user interfaces.

  • [HPW] High Performance Web Sites, Steve Souders, O'Reilly, 2007
  • [JGP] JavaScript: The Good Parts, Douglas Crockford, O'Reilly, 2008
  • [EFW] Even Faster Web Sites, Steve Souders, O'Reilly, 2009
  • [HPJ] High Performance JavaScript, Nicholas Zakas, O'Reilly, 2010

As with any optimization effort, the number one rule is to only optimize the portions of a system that are bottlenecks as actually measured at run time. Often, optimization techniques have serious downsides that require tradeoff judgments to be made. For example, Crockford [JGP, P.65] says both that "Regular expressions usually have a significant performance advantage over equivalent string operations in JavaScript" AND "regular expressions can be very difficult to maintain and debug". Souders [EFW, P.6] says "Everything is a trade-off. When optimizing for performance, do not waste time trying to speed up code that does not consume a significant amount of the time. Measure first. Back out of any optimization that does not provide an enjoyable benefit." Galbraith [EFW, P.9] says "developers seeking to create responsive, high-performance web sites can't, and shouldn't, go about achieving that goal by optimizing every single piece of code as they write it. The opposite is true: a developer should optimize only what isn't fast enough."

On the other hand, there are basic practices (like not putting operations inside a loop that can be done once outside the loop) that can be followed right from the start. As Zakas [HPJ, P.XII] says, "JavaScript forces the developer to perform the optimizations that a compiler would normally handle in other languages". This catalog will contain a bit of each category.

And finally, in a very few cases, these authors contradict each other; for example, bitwise operators are either really fast, or really slow, depending on who is judging. Crockford [JGP, P.112], in Appendix B: Bad Parts, says bitwise operators are "very slow", whereas, Zakas [HPJ, P.156], in Use the Fast Parts, says bitwise operators are "incredibly fast"!

  • This guide assumes that the reader is already familiar with basic but modern JavaScript/Web development, and leaves to another guide the task of bringing the reader up to that level.
  • While the books referenced above contain a wealth of development advice, this guide will only summarize those tips that are related to improved performance.
  • Each tip is a summary of a high level idea. Please refer to the book sections referenced for more implementation details as well as discussion of alternate techniques for more specialized situations.

Section 1: Coding Tips

  • "JavaScript forces the developer to perform the optimizations that a compiler would normally handle" - N. Zakas
Arrays are not Arrays...
[JGP, P.58,105] "[Conventional] arrays can be very fast data structures. Unfortunately, JavaScript does not have anything like this kind of array. ... their performance can be considerably worse than real arrays". Arrays in JavaScript are basically objects (i.e. dynamic bags of properties) whose property names are merely the string version of the integer subscripts.
...but String Arrays are faster than String Concatenation
[JGP, P.78][EFW, P.99] "If you are assembling a string from a large number of pieces, it is usually faster to put the pieces into an array and join them than it is to concatenate the pieces with the + operator." The more pieces that are concatenated together (think very big loops here), the faster it is to use Array.join.
    var a = []; 
    a.push('a');  a.push('b');  a.push('c');  a.push('d'); 
    var c = a.join('');   // c is 'abcd' and faster than c = 'a'+'b'+'c'+'d';
[EFW, P.99] While modern browsers have improved string performance to the point that this advice may be out of date, never the less, "The performance decrease of the array technique in other browsers is typically much less than the performance increase gained in [pre-v8] Internet Explorer".
Fastest implementation of the missing String.trim function
[EFW, P.101] JavaScript is missing a string trim function, and it is usually implemented by the application. After performing research on the fastest way to execute string trimming in JavaScript, the following function consistently performs better than other variations:
    function trim( text ){ 
        text = text.replace(/^\s+/, ""); 
        for (var i=text.length-1; i>=0; --i) { 
            if (/\S/.test(text.charAt(i))) { 
                text = text.substring( 0, i+1 ); 
        return text; 
Faster to process an array of properties than sorting an enumeration
[JGP, P.24] "The for in statement can loop over all of the property names in an object... [but] there is no guarantee on the order of the names." So, rather than having to sort them (not to mention filtering out all of the unwanted inherited properties), use a normal for loop against an array of property names in the desired order. E.G.
    var i, pn = [ 'first-name', 'middle-name', 'last-name' ]; 
    for (i=0; i < pn.length; ++i) { 
        document.writeln( pn[i] + ': ' +  personObject[ pn[i] ] ); 
Use Simple Regular Expressions instead of string manipulation
[JGP, P.65, 69] "Regular expressions usually have a significant performance advantage over equivalent string operations in JavaScript...[however] regular expressions can be very difficult to maintain and debug...[and] the part of the language that is least portable is the implementation of regular expressions. Regular expressions that are very complicated or convoluted are more likely to have portability problems. Nested regular expressions can also suffer horrible performance problems in some implementations. Simplicity is the best strategy."
Eval is Evil (and so are its aliases)
[JGP, P.110] Slow performance is just one reason to not use eval() and its equivalents. Between the two lines below, line one "will be significantly slower because it needs to run the compiler just to execute a trivial assignment statement...The Function constructor is another form of eval, and should similarly be avoided. The browser provides setTimeout and setInterval functions that can take string arguments or function arguments. When given string arguments, setTimeout and setInterval also act as eval. The string argument form also should be avoided."
    eval("myValue = myObject." + myKey + ";"); 
    myvalue = myObject[ myKey ];
Always store multi-accessed values in local variables
[HPJ, P.20-33] [EFW, P.79-88] "Generally speaking, you can improve the performance of JavaScript code by storing frequently used object members, array items, and out-of-scope variables in local variables. You can then access the local variables faster than the originals. ... A good rule of thumb is to always store out-of-scope values in local variables if they are used more than once within a function. ... Literal values and local variables can be accessed very quickly, whereas array items and object members take longer. ... Local variables are faster to access than out-of-scope variables because they exist in the first variable object of the scope chain. The further into the scope chain a variable is, the longer it takes to access. Global variables are always the slowest to access because they are always last in the scope chain. ... Nested object members incur significant performance impact and should be minimized. ... The deeper into the prototype chain that a property or method exists, the slower it is to access."
Avoid the with statement
[HPJ, P.33] "Avoid the with statement because it augments the execution context scope chain. ... Also, be careful with the catch clause of a try-catch statement because it has the same effect." The net effect of each is that it makes the previously local variables no longer local, and hence, slower.
Optimize your loops because JavaScript won't
[EFW, P.93] "loops are a frequent source of performance issues in JavaScript, and the way you write loops drastically changes its execution time. Once again, JavaScript developers don't get to rely on compiler optimizations that make loops faster" Beyond the normal refactoring of code to be outside of a loop wherever possible, there are a couple of operations of the loop itself that must be hand optimized. The first version of the loop below runs much slower than the second because it is looking up the length property of values over and over, and the comparison of i-- to zero is much faster than comparing i to length.
    //traditional unoptimized for loop
    var values = [1,2,3,4,5];
    for (var i=0; i < values.length; ++i){ process(values[i]); }
    //over 50% faster version
    var length = values.length;
    for (var i=length; i--;){ process(values[i]); } 
Use Cooperative Multitasking for Long-Running Scripts
[EFW, P.102] "One of the critical performance issues with JavaScript is that code execution freezes a web page. Because JavaScript is a single-threaded language, only one script can be run at a time per window or tab. This means that all user interaction is necessarily halted while JavaScript code is being executed." In general, when attempting to simulate true simultaneous execution of multiple processes (like JavaScript and the user interface), each process must either volunteer to regularly yield control temporarily to other processes (cooperative multitasking), or have control regularly taken from it (preemptive multitasking). The only option with JavaScript is voluntarily yielding control to the UI thread by splitting your logic into pieces and having each piece schedule the next piece with a time delay in between. "Generally speaking, no single continuous script execution should take longer than 100 milliseconds; anything longer than that and the web page will almost certainly appear to be running slowly to the user". The setTimeout function takes a function and a delay amount as parameters. "When the delay has passed, the code to execute is placed into a queue. The JavaScript engine uses this queue to determine what to do next. When a script finishes executing, the JavaScript engine yields to allow other browser tasks to catch up. The web page display is typically updated during this time in relation to changes made via the script. Once the display has been updated, the JavaScript engine checks for more scripts to run on the queue. If another script is waiting, it is executed and the process repeats; if there are no more scripts to execute, the JavaScript engine remains idle until another script appears in the queue."
Use Memoization to cache intermediate calculations
[JGP, P.44] One of the benefits of doing true "functional programming" is that it is easy to avoid performing calculations that have already been done. True functional programming has the rule that the result of a function depends totally on its parameters; i.e. it will always give the same result given the same parameters. This means that a cache object could be kept by a function to store the result for each set of parameters as they are encountered. When a function is called, the first thing it does it try to look up a cached result for the parameters it is given, and return it if found. If the result is not found, then it is calculated and saved in the cache before returning the result.

A simple example is the Fibonacci function. The first version below is the traditional implementation and the second uses a memoization helper to prevent recalculation. Since Fibonacci calls itself recursively, the savings add up very quickly.

// traditional implementation
function fibonacci(n){ return n<2 ? n : fibonacci(n-1) + fibonacci(n-2); }; 
// simple memoization helper for functions-with-a-single-numeric-parameter
var memoizer = function( mementoArray, lambda )
    var memoizedLambda = function( n ) { 
        var result = mementoArray[n]; 
        if (typeof result !== 'number')
            mementoArray[n] = result = lambda( memoizedLambda, n );
        return result;
    return memoizedLambda; 
// memoized version [ with preloaded memos for f(0)=0 and f(1)=1 ]
var fibonacci = memoizer( [0,1], function(myself,n){ return myself(n-1) + myself(n-2); } );
Avoid CSS expressions
[HPW, P.51] "CSS expressions are a powerful (and dangerous) way to set CSS properties dynamically. They're supported in Internet Explorer version 5 and later... The expression method is simply ignored by other browsers, so it is a useful tool for setting properties in Internet Explorer to create a consistent experience across browsers. ... CSS expressions are re-evaluated when the page changes, such as when it is resized... The problem with expressions is that they are evaluated more frequently than most people expect. Not only are they evaluated whenever the page is rendered and resized, but also when the page is scrolled and even when the user moves the mouse over the page. ... CSS expressions benefit from being automatically tied to events in the browser, but that's also their downfall."

The major technique used to avoid CSS expressions is to have your own JavaScript function registered as an event listener triggered by only the appropriate event(s). It should set the dynamic CSS property to the desired recalculated value.

CSS Selectors are Backwards
[EFW, P.194] "The impact of CSS selectors on performance derives from the amount of time it takes the browser to match the selectors against the elements in the document. ... Consider the following rule:     #toc > LI { font-weight: bold; } Most of us, especially those who read left to right, might assume that the browser matches this rule by moving from left to right, and thus, this rule doesn't seem too expensive. In our minds, we imagine the browser working like this: find the unique toc element and apply this styling to its immediate children who are LI elements. We know that there is only one toc element, and it has only a few LI children, so this CSS selector should be pretty efficient. In reality, CSS selectors are matched by moving from right to left! With this knowledge, our rule that at first seemed efficient is revealed to be fairly expensive. The browser must iterate over every LI element in the page and determine whether its parent is toc. This descendant selector example is even worse:     #toc A { color: #444; } Instead of just checking for anchor elements inside toc, as would happen if it was read left to right, the browser has to check every anchor in the entire document. And instead of just checking each anchor's parent, the browser has to climb the document tree looking for an ancestor with the ID toc. If the anchor being evaluated isn't a descendant of toc, the browser has to walk the tree of ancestors until it reaches the document root."

Section 2: Loading Tips

  • "Nothing else can happen while JavaScript code is being executed" - N. Zakas
  • "Rule 1: Make Fewer HTTP Requests" - Steve Souders
  • "Only 10-20% of the end user response time is spent downloading the HTML document.
    The other 80-90% is spent downloading all the components in the page." - the Performance Golden Rule
What is Fast Enough
[EFW, P.9] "It's fine to say that code needs to execute ''as fast as possible'', but ... exactly what is ''fast enough'' ... Jakob Nielsen is a well-known and well-regarded expert in the field of web usability; the following quote addresses the issue of ''fast enough'':
The response time guidelines for web-based applications are the same as for all other applications. These guidelines have been the same for 37 years now, so they are also not likely to change wit whatever implementation technology comes next.
0.1 second: Limit for users feeling that they are directly manipulating objects in the UI. For example, this is the limit from the time the user selects a column in a table until that column should highlight or otherwise give feedback that it's selected. Ideally, this would also be the response time for sorting the column-if so, users would feel that they are sorting the table.
1 second: Limit for users feeling that they are freely navigating the command space without having to unduly wait for the computer. A delay of 0.2-1.0 seconds does mean that users notice the delay and thus feel the computer is ''working'' on the command, as opposed to having the command be a direct effect of the users' actions. Example: If sorting a table according to the selected column can't be done in 0.1 seconds, it certainly has to be done in 1 second, or users will feel that the UI is sluggish and will lose the sense of ''flow'' in performing their task. For delays of more than 1 second, indicate to the user that the computer is working on the problem, for example by changing the shape of the cursor.
10 seconds: Limit for users keeping their attention on the task. Anything slower than 10 seconds needs a percent-done indicator as well as a clearly signposted way for the user to interrupt the operation. Assume that users will need to reorient themselves when they return to the UI after a delay of more than 10 seconds. Delays of longer than 10 seconds are only acceptable during natural breaks in the user's work, for example when switching tasks.
In other words, if your JavaScript code takes longer than 0.1 seconds to execute, your page won't have that slick, snappy feel; if it takes longer than 1 second, the application feels sluggish; longer than 10 seconds, and the user will be extremely frustrated. These are the definitive guidelines to use for defining ''fast enough.'' "
Put Stylesheets at the Top
[HPW, P.44] "In their effort to improve one of the most visited pages on the Web, the Yahoo portal team initially made it worse by moving the [CSS] stylesheet to the bottom of the page. They found the optimal solution by following the HTML specification and leaving it at the top. Neither of the alternatives, the blank white screen or flash of unstyled content, are worth the risk. ... If you have a stylesheet that's not required to render the page, with some extra effort you can load it dynamically after the document loads."
Put JavaScript at the Bottom
[HPJ, P.3] [HPW, P.45] "Put all <script> tags at the bottom of the page, just inside of the closing </body> tag. This ensures that the page can be almost completely rendered before script execution begins." "[While modern browsers] allow parallel downloads of JavaScript files...JavaScript downloads still block downloading of other resources, such as images. And even though downloading a script doesn't block other scripts from downloading, the page must still wait for the JavaScript code to be downloaded and executed before continuing." "Since each <script> tag blocks the page from continuing to render until it has fully downloaded and executed the JavaScript code, the perceived performance of this page will suffer. Keep in mind that browsers don't start rendering anything on the page until the opening <body> tag is encountered. Putting scripts at the top of the page typically leads to a noticeable delay, often in the form of a blank white page" "This is the Yahoo Exceptional Performance team's first rule about JavaScript: put scripts at the bottom."
Use External Scripts but Group them Together...
[HPJ, P.4] [HPW, P.55] "In Raw Terms, Inline [scripts are] Faster... [but] using external files in the real world generally produces faster pages. This is due to ... the opportunity for JavaScript and CSS files to be cached by the browser." "Group scripts together. The fewer <script> tags on the page, the faster the page can be loaded and become interactive. ... when dealing with external JavaScript files, each HTTP request brings with it additional performance overhead, so downloading one single 100 KB file will be faster than downloading four 25 KB files. It's helpful to limit the number of external script files that your page references. ... Typically, a large website or web application will have several required JavaScript files. You can minimize the performance impact by concatenating these files together into a single file and then calling that single file with a single <script> tag. The catenation can happen offline using a build tool or in real-time using a tool like the Yahoo combo handler."
...ON THE OTHER HAND, don't group them All together
(aka: Download Most JavaScript in a Nonblocking Fashion)
[HPJ, P.5-9] [EFW, P.22, 51, 73] "It turns out that Facebook executes only 9% of the downloaded JavaScript functions by the time the onload event is called." "Limiting yourself to downloading a single large JavaScript file will only result in locking the browser out for a long period of time, despite it being just one HTTP request. To get around this situation, you need to incrementally add more JavaScript to the page in a way that doesn't block the browser. The secret to nonblocking scripts is to load the JavaScript source code after the page has finished loading...[i.e.] after the window's load event has been fired." "Dynamic script loading is the most frequently used pattern for nonblocking JavaScript downloads due to its cross-browser compatibility and ease of use." "A new <script> element can be created very easily using standard DOM methods:
    var script = document.createElement("script"); 
    script.type = "text/javascript"; 
    script.src = "file1.js"; 
... [file1.js] begins downloading as soon as the element is added to the page. The important thing about this technique is that the file is downloaded and executed without blocking other page processes... It's generally safer to add new <script> nodes to the <head> element instead of the <body>, especially if this code is executing during page load. ... This works well when the script is self-executing but can be problematic if the code contains only interfaces to be used by other scripts on the page. In that case, you need to track when the code has been fully downloaded and is ready for use. This is accomplished using events that are fired by the dynamic <script> node. ... You can dynamically load as many JavaScript files as necessary on a page, but make sure you consider the order in which files must be loaded. ... [Many] browsers will download and execute the various code files in the order in which they are returned from the server. You can guarantee the order by [daisy] chaining the downloads ...[or] concatenate the files into a single file where each part is in the correct order. That single file can then be downloaded ... (since this is happening asynchronously, there's no penalty for having a larger file)." "The challenge in splitting your JavaScript code is to avoid undefined symbols." "Preserving the order of JavaScript is critical, and this is true for CSS as well."
Separate Bootstrap Code from the bulk of the JavaScript
[HPJ, P.10] [EFW, P.27] "The recommended approach to loading a significant amount of JavaScript onto a page is a two-step process: first, include the code necessary to dynamically load JavaScript, and then load the rest of the JavaScript code needed for page initialization. Since the first part of the code is as small as possible, potentially containing just the loadScript() function, it downloads and executes quickly, and so shouldn't cause much interference with the page. Once the initial code is in place, use it to load the remaining JavaScript [in a nonblocking fashion with a callback invoked on load completion]. For example:
    <script type="text/javascript" src="myScriptLoader.js"></script>
    <script type="text/javascript">
      myScriptLoader( "the-rest.js", function(){ MyApplication.init(); } );
Place the loading code just before the closing </body> tag [so that] when the second JavaScript file has finished downloading, all of the DOM necessary for the application has been created and is ready to be interacted with, avoiding the need to check for another event (such as window.onload) to know when the page is ready for initialization." "The concept of a small initial amount of code on the page followed by downloading additional functionality is at the core of the YUI 3 design."
Prevent redirects due to missing trailing URL slashes
[HPW, P.76] "A redirect is used to reroute users from one URL to another. ...the main thing to remember is that redirects make your pages slower. ... One of the most wasteful redirects happens frequently and web developers are generally not aware of it. It occurs when a trailing slash (/) is missing from a URL that should otherwise have one. For example, results in a redirect to . The only difference is the addition of a trailing slash. ... Note that a redirect does not happen if the trailing slash is missing after the hostname. For example, does not generate a redirect."
Never put an inline script after a <link> tag
[HPJ, P.4][EFW, P.75] "Steve Souders has found that an inline script placed after a <link> tag referencing an external stylesheet caused the browser to block while waiting for the stylesheet to download. This is done to ensure that the inline script will have the most correct style information with which to work. Souders recommends never putting an inline script after a <link> tag for this reason."
Minify JavaScript
[HPW, P.69] "Minification is the practice of removing unnecessary characters from code to reduce its size, thereby improving load times. When code is minified, all comments are removed, as well as unneeded whitespace characters (space, newline, and tab). In the case of JavaScript, this improves response time performance because the size of the downloaded file is reduced. ... The most popular tool for minifying JavaScript code is JSMin ( ... Gzip compression has the biggest impact [about 70%], but minification further reduces file sizes [by about 20%]." "The savings from minifying CSS are typically less than the savings from minifying JavaScript because CSS generally has fewer comments and less whitespace than JavaScript. The greatest potential for size savings comes from optimizing CSS; i.e. merging identical classes, removing unused classes, etc."
Remove Duplicate Scripts
[HPW, P.85] "It hurts performance to include the same JavaScript file twice in one page. This mistake isn't as unusual as you might think. A review of the 10 top U.S. web sites shows that two of them (CNN and YouTube) contain a duplicated script. ... The two sites that have duplicate scripts also happen to have an above-average number of scripts (CNN has 11; YouTube has 7). ... One way to avoid accidentally including the same script twice is to implement a script management module in your templating system. ... While tackling the duplicate script issue, add functionality to handle script dependencies and versioning of scripts too."
Use a Content Delivery Network
[HPW, P.18] "The average user's bandwidth increases every year, but a user's proximity to your web server still has an impact on a page's response time. ... A content delivery network (CDN) is a collection of web servers distributed across multiple locations to deliver content to users more efficiently. ... CDNs are used to deliver static content, such as images, scripts, stylesheets, and Flash. Static files are easy to host and have few dependencies. That is why a CDN is easily leveraged to improve the response times for a geographically dispersed user population." Keeping in mind the Performance Golden Rule that says "Only 10-20% of the end user response time is spent downloading the HTML document. The other 80-90% is spent downloading all the components in the page", [Tests and Yahoo experience show that] components hosted on a CDN loaded 18-20% faster than with all components hosted from a single web server."
Use Server Compression
[HPW, P.39] "If an HTTP request results in a smaller response, the transfer time decreases because fewer packets must travel from the server to the client. ... [Using server-side preprocessing] to compress HTTP responses... is the easiest technique for reducing page weight and it also has the biggest impact. Gzip is currently the most popular and effective compression method. It is a free format (i.e., unencumbered by patents or other restrictions). ... Servers choose what to gzip based on file type, but are typically too limited in what they are configured to compress. Many web sites gzip their HTML documents, but it's also worthwhile to gzip your scripts and stylesheets, and in fact, any text response including XML and JSON. Image and PDF files should not be gzipped because they are already compressed. ... Generally, it's worth gzipping any file greater than 1 or 2K."
Add "Long Shelf Life" Headers
[HPW, P.32] "Browsers (and proxies) use a cache to reduce the number of HTTP requests and decrease the size of HTTP responses, thus making web pages load faster. A web server uses the Expires header to tell the web client that it can use the current copy of a component until the specified time. ... The Cache-Control header was introduced in HTTP/1.1 to overcome limitations with the Expires header. ... [it] uses the max-age directive to specify [in seconds] how long a component may be cached. ... If the browser has a copy of the component in its cache, but isn't sure whether it's still valid, a conditional GET request is made. ... The browser is essentially saying, ''I have a version of this resource with the following last-modified date. May I just use it?'' ... If the component has not been modified since the specified date, the server ... skips sending the body of the response, resulting in a smaller and faster response. Conditional GET helps pages load faster, but they still require making a roundtrip between the client and server to perform the validity check. ... Those conditional requests add up [easily adding over 50% to the response time for subsequent views of a typical web page.]" Configuring your web servers to generate headers that specify the predicted lifespan of each component will maximize cache effectiveness. Using versioning to make each component "immutable" will allow "far future Expires" (i.e. very long lifespans) to be specified thus avoiding unnecessary Conditional GETs.
Remove ETags
[HPW, P.89] "Entity tags (ETags) are a mechanism that web servers and browsers use to validate cached components. Reducing the number of HTTP requests needed for a page is the best way to accelerate the user experience. You can achieve this by maximizing the browser's ability to cache your components, but the [default] ETag header thwarts caching when a web site is hosted on more than one server. ... The problem with ETags is that they are typically constructed using attributes that make them unique to a specific server hosting a site. ... The end result is that ETags generated by Apache and IIS for the exact same component won't match from one server to another. ... If you have components that have to be [version-stamped] based on something other than the last-modified date, [customized] ETags are a powerful way of doing that. If you don't have the need to customize ETags, it is best to simply remove them. ... removing the ETag altogether would avoid these unnecessary and inefficient downloads of data that's already in the browser's cache."
Use Iframes Sparingly
[EFW, P.191] "Even blank iframes are expensive. They are one to two orders of magnitude more expensive than other DOM elements. When used in the typical way (<iframe src="url"></ifram>), iframes block the onload event. This prolongs the browser's busy indicators, resulting in a page that is perceived to be slower. ... Although iframes don't directly block resource downloads in the main page, there are ways that the main page can block the iframe's downloads. ... The browser's limited connections per server are shared across the main page and iframes, even though an iframe is an entirely independent document. ... With all of these costs, it's often best to avoid the use of iframes, and yet a quick survey shows that they are still used frequently. ... An alternative way to [use frames] with better performance would be for the main page to create a DIV to hold the contents of the [frame]. When the main page requests the [frame's] external script asynchronously, the ID of this DIV could be included in the script's URL. The [frame's] JavaScript would then insert the [frame] in the page by setting the innerHTML of the DIV. This approach is also more compatible with [frames] that take over a large part of the window and thus cannot be constrained by an iframe. The use of iframes is declining as these other techniques for inserting." ON THE OTHER HAND, iframes have been retained and even enhanced in HTML5.
Flush the Document Chunks Early
[EFW, P.191] While the backend server is generating its response to a web page request, the browser (and the user) must sit and wait. "In most cases, the browser waits for the HTML document to arrive before it starts rendering the page and downloading the page's resources." In order for the user to get some immediate feedback, and for the browser to start downloading images and the like, the backend server logic should flush an initial chunk of HTML back to the browser before starting any "slow" logic needed on its end to marshall up the remainder of the HTML. To do this, HTML 1.1 "chunked encoding" needs to be supported by both the browser and server, and the server logic needs to "flush" its output buffer back to the browser after an appropriate HTML split point has been reached. "This is exactly what's needed to combat the two shortcomings of a slow HTML document: blocked rendering and blocked downloads." ON THE OTHER HAND, early flushing and chunked encoding has many gotchas which can make it problematic in the real-world.
Reduce DNS Lookups...
[HPW, P.73] [EFW, P.171] "the Domain Name System (DNS) maps hostnames to IP addresses, just as phonebooks map people's names to their phone numbers. ... DNS has a cost. It typically takes 20-120 milliseconds for the browser to look up the IP address for a given hostname." Minimizing how many different domain names your page references reduces DNS lookup delays. "Google is the preeminent example of this, with only one DNS lookup necessary for the entire page."
...ON THE OTHER HAND, Shard your Domain
[EFW, P.161-8] Most browsers limit the number of resources that they will simultaneously download from any particular domain name. "Some web pages have all their HTTP requests served from one domain. Other sites spread their resources across multiple domains. ... sometimes increasing the number of domains is better for performance, even at the cost of adding more DNS lookups." Splitting resource downloads between multiple domain names (e.g. and is known as Domain Sharding. Having a particular resource always associated with a particular domain name is needed to maximize caching. "Research published by Yahoo shows that increasing the number of domains from one to two improves performance, but increasing it above two has a negative effect on load times. The final answer depends on the number and size of resources, but sharding across two domains is a good rule of thumb."
Make Fewer and Thinner Image Requests
[HPW, P.10] [EFW, P.133] "Images are an easy place to improve performance without removing features. Often, we can make substantial improvements in the size and number of images with little to no reduction in quality. (1) If you use multiple hyperlinked images (say a row of buttons), [client-side] image maps may be a way to reduce the number of HTTP requests without changing the page's look and feel. An image map allows you to associate multiple URLs with a single image. The destination URL is chosen based on where the user clicks on the image. (2) Like image maps, CSS sprites allow you to combine images [onto one large compound image such that each individual image can be cropped via CSS] ... One surprising benefit is reduced download size. Most people would expect the combined image to be larger than the sum of the separate images because the combined image has additional area used for spacing. In fact, the combined image tends to be smaller than the sum of the separate images as a result of reducing the amount of image overhead (color tables, formatting information, etc.). (3) Optimizing images begins with creative decisions made by the designer about the minimum number of colors, resolution, or accuracy required for a given image [availing the use of lossy optimizations.] ... Once the quality choice has been made, use [automated] nonlossy compression to squeak the last bytes out of the image. ... fantastic open source tools exist for optimizing images. ● Start by choosing the appropriate format: JPEG for photos, GIF for animations, and PNG for everything else. Strive for PNG8 whenever possible. ● Crush PNGs, optimize GIF animations, and strip JPEG metadata from the images you own. Use progressive JPEG encoding for JPEGs more than 10 KB in file size. ● Avoid AlphaImageLoader. ● Optimize CSS sprites. ● Create modular sprites if your site has more than two to three pages. ● Don't scale images in HTML. ● Generated images should be crushed, too. Once generated, they should be cached for as long as possible. Convert images to PNG8 and determine whether 256 colors is acceptable."

Monday, January 31, 2011

JavaScript: The Surprising Parts

This post is a summary of the the things that surprised me as I've been reading several books to update my knowledge of JavaScript (and practices that have changed since 2004/2005).  While this info would have been big news to most and worth writing articles about back then, it begs the question as to why I should blog about it given that now there are several good books available on the subject. There are two self-canceling reasons; (1) this blog will act as a cheat sheet for me, and (2) the very act of writing it will make me more likely not to need a cheat sheet.  While there are many small things that I didn't happen to know (or remember knowing), I am writing here about the things that actually surprised me, and they tended to be either big or small surprises, so I will organize them that way.

Small Surprises
  • [JGP, p.6] undefined is not a reserved word!
  • [JGP, p.107] undefined is not a constant; it is a global variable which can be redefined! (so is NaN).
  • [JGP, p.103] Reserved words can be used as object property names (unless accessed via dot notation)! Even stranger, an empty string is a legal property name! (as in obj[""]=123;
  • [JGP, p.7] integer types are really double under the hood!
  • [JGP, p.10, 102] Nested block statements (i.e. {...}) do not define a new variable scope!
  • [JGP, p.29] If a method is called as a simple function, this is not undefined but rather defined as the global object!
  • [JGP, p.36, 102] Local variables exist before they are declared! (which is why they may as well all be declared at the beginning of a function)
  • [JGP, p.105] The arguments array is not an array! (For that matter, arrays are not arrays!)
  • [JGP, p.109] The == operator does type coercion and the === operator does not. But the type coercion is done so poorly that it is too dangerous to use == at all in general!
  • [JGP, p.102] The return statement will return undefined if the return value expression does not start on the same line as the return keyword!
  • [HPJ, p.2] Browsers block loading anything else while the JavaScript inside a script tag executes! 
  • [HPJ, p.7] Scripts can be dynamically loaded by creating script tags via DHTML, and those scripts don't block loading other elements (like images, etc).
  • [HPJ, p.20] Global variables are not the fastest to access (compared to variables in other scopes), as would be the case in compiled languages, but are in fact the slowest since all the other scopes are searched first.
  • [JGP, p.112, HPJ, p.156] Bitwise operators are either really fast, or really slow, depending on who is judging. Crockford, in Appendix B: Bad Parts, say bitwise operators are "very slow", whereas, Zakas, in Use the Fast Parts, say bitwise operators are "incredibly fast"!

Large Surprises
  • [JGP, p.37, HPJ, pp.21-26] Closures imply Cactus Stacks.  I didn't really understand in a deep way what closures were, and JGP didn't help (nor any other JavaScript articles/books for that matter). After all, Pascal had nested function definitions where the inner procedures had access to the outer local variables, but that didn't make closures.  What really made me understand was realizing that JavaScript was like Scheme with regard to closures. (See JavaScript is Scheme not Java below). As I wrote in a comment to someone else's blog attempting to explain JavaScript closures...
    I think it would be more accurate to say right up front that our normal notion of a “stack” (as used to hold parameters and local variables) does not apply in languages like JavaScript (and Scheme, etc). Unlike Pascal, Ada, C, C++, Java, etc., JavaScript has only “heap with garbage collection"; all those “stack frames” to hold parameters and local variables are just more objects on the heap. When no more references to each exist, they individually get garbage collected. This means that there is no special “saving the stack frame” after the outer function has returned for closures to use…they all just get garbage collected like anything else does when all references to it are deleted.
    BTW, the only way I ever grokked this was after learning Scheme by watching the UC-Berkeley Comp Sci 61A class on iTunes U. Except for the EARRRRLY Fortran on CDC supercomputer days, where recursion was not supported and the hardware instruction set did not implement stacks, I had not experienced a language that wasn’t fundamentally stack-oriented (well ok, there was that funny Lisp language in the exotic languages class). The 61A class video explained (with nice pictures) how the “stack frames” are instead “environments” that chain to each other (just like JavaScript objects chain via Prototypes). There is a global environment with the global vars, plus a new environment for each function (to hold params and local vars), and instead of a stack of frames on a hardware stack, it is a linked list of environments on the heap.
    It probably also requires explaining right up front that unlike the Pascal, Ada, C, Java, etc languages (where functions are defined at COMPILE-TIME), JavaScript, Scheme, etc languages define functions at RUN-TIME. Because of this, there is always an "environment" that is active at the time of function creation/definition, namely, the call-stack that exists while the code creating a function is executed. [EXCEPT, of course that there is no stack... There is a great way to visualize how the stack is really a tree at].
    A reference to this “current environment” chain is saved as a part of the function definition. In Java-like languages this makes no sense because there is no “current stack or environment” at compile time when the function was defined/compiled.
    SO, when a function gets called, instead of “pushing” its params/local vars on top of THE stack, it “pushes” it on top of an environment chain that was saved with the function definition. And since it isn't a real (hardware) stack, but actually sitting in the heap, the function can refer to “local variables” of its “outer” function long after that outer function has returned.
  • [JGP, pp.40-57]  JavaScript is Scheme not Java.  Having accidentally watched the entire 61A course that teaches Scheme and functional programming (mentioned above) before ever reading JGP, I immediately recognized the exotic techniques of JGP chapter 4 (currying, etc) as paralleling the topics in 61A. [BTW, I originally watched 61A because I wanted to learn about this Hadoop buzzword I kept coming across in Job Ads. When I looked it up and saw that it had something to do with Map/Reduce (whatever that was), and that this iTunes class had a section on Map/Reduce, I tried to watch just those lessons. It soon became clear that I needed to start from the beginning of the course to learn Scheme itself.] Learning the culture and toolkit of functional programming, which goes way beyond simply using function pointers or having functions be objects, I could see that the new style of programming JavaScript was not very strange Java, but fairly normal Scheme.  Back in 2005, I was aware of, but avoided, many of those alternate ways that JavaScript could be twisted to define classes, objects, functions, methods, inheritance, etc, BECAUSE, why would you want to make your  JavaScript code look so un-Java-like!?! If one embraces JavaScript as Scheme, it is not a weird syntax but simply a different programming paradigm: functional programming with lambdas and lexical scoping.

    One of the many differences between functional and non-functional programming is the cognitive "weight" of functions.  In Fortran thru Java (and JavaScript as I had been using it), methods and functions are fairly heavy weight things that get full blown API documentation (e.g. JavaDoc/jsDoc), and lots of whitespace around them, and are mostly not defined in a nested scope.  In functional programming, functions definitions are like water, and are created, used, and abandoned in as casual a fashion as Strings are in "normal" languages. Function definitions within function definitions in Scheme are as common as string concatenations in Basic. SO, one has to get over the feeling that it is expensive overkill to define a function just to wrap another function so that a one variable closure can be created.
[JGP] Crockford, Douglas. JavaScript: The Good Parts, O'Reilly, 2008
[HPJ] Zakas, Nicholas. High Performance JavaScript, O'Reilly, 2010

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Adding Cross-browser support to the Gravey Framework

In order to get back into the Web 2.0 development world, I have recently taken on the project of upgrading the Gravey framework to run on browsers other than Internet Explorer. This post is a chronicle of what I encountered/learned getting its sample applications to also run on iPad 4.2, Safari 5.0, Chrome 8.0, Firefox 3.6, SeaMonkey 2.0, and IE 8.0 (while not breaking IE6 on Win2K). [Note that the issues listed herein may have an IE-centric viewpoint, but it is only because the original code base naively used circa-2005 IE-only techniques, and therefore the news for Gravey is how everybody else does it now.]
The Gravey framework ( is a JavaScript-only set of code that supports building Rich-Internet-Apps (RIA) using AJAX where the logic completely resides in the browser. The server-side need only provide a REST-style API for data persistence (which can be a simple as the file:: protocol accessing local xml files). The framework includes GUI widgets, automated domain object persistence, in-browser XML/XSL processing, and complete undo/redo capability.  In short, it was intended to allow RIA development in the style of "fat GUI" development in Java without requiring any particular server side technology (e.g. J2EE, .Net, LAMP, whatever).  The new version 2.5 of Gravey now runs on several browsers (including Safari on the iPad) without requiring any particular client-side technology (e.g. jQuery, Prototype, whatever).
Because it was back in 2005, when I was learning DHTML/OO-JavaScript/AJAX/CSS/REST on the fly, while building Gravey for use in several internal applications for a top-5-in-the-USA bank, and because their requirements only mandated (and their schedule only allowed) Internet Explorer 5.5 as the target browser, Gravey v1.0/v2.0 required IE5+, and were only tested on IE5/IE6 in Win2K/WinXP.

Since Gravey is built in layers, I had originally intended to merely retrofit the bottom layer to use jQuery to make short work of cross-browser compatibility.  However, I immediately encountered enough problems with jQuery that I was required to really learn the issues anyway, and so I ultimately fixed all of the problems in Gravey directly, and as a result, it still has no dependence on any other frameworks.

• AJAX / XML / XSL Issues

Issue:  jQuery doesn't cover in-browser XSL processing
Gravey and its example apps use in-browser processing of the XML returned from AJAX calls via XSL (also loaded from the server).  It turns out that the XSL processing API is browser-specific, and because jQuery didn't handle it, I was going to have to learn how to fix it directly anyway...

Issue:  IE doesn't do XSL processing like everyone else
In order to support older IE browsers, the existing Gravey code that uses ActiveX is required, but other browsers need to use the standard DOM APIs.
  • IE really wants XSL files to be loaded via Msxml2.DOMDocument even though XML files can be loaded via Msxml2.XMLHTTP. So, once the XML DOM has been loaded via AJAX, the IE XSL processing looks like...
    var xmlDom = XHR.responseXML;
    var xslDom = new ActiveXObject("Msxml2.DOMDocument");
        xslDom.async = false;
        xslDom.load( xslURL );
    if (xslDom.parseError.errorCode != 0)
        alert("Error loading["+xslURL+"]:" + xmlDom.parseError.reason);
    var resultStr = xmlDom.transformNode( xslDom );
  • The other browsers accomplish this via the standard API...
    var xmlDom  = XHR1.responseXML;
    var xslDom  = XHR2.responseXML;
    var xslProc = new XSLTProcessor();
        xslProc.importStylesheet( xslDOM );
    var resultStr = 
xslProc.transformToDocument( xmlDOM ).documentElement.textContent;
  • BTW, when I used an XMLSerializer to generate the result string in the above code, it gave me quotes around the result, so using the .textContent was simpler and did not include extraneous quotes.
  • IE also requires the XML file to be loaded via Msxml2.DOMDocument when the files are local. In other words, when the .html page is loaded from local disk via the "file::" protocol instead of via "http::" from a web server, IE fails attempting to load the xml unless it is via Msxml2.DOMDocument. Otherwise, for local files, the AJAX callback will be given readyState==4 and status==0, instead of status==200. At this point in Firefox/others, the file has loaded ok, but in IE it will have failed.
Issue:  Some browsers can't handle <xsl:import>
While good ole IE6 can handle an XSL file including another one via the <xsl:import> directive, new browsers like Safari and Chrome can't.  I never did find a reasonable fix, so I bit the bullet and just copied the imported XSL directly into the top level XSL file. Not pretty but it works.  If I had a larger system to worry about, I would preprocess, on the server side, the XSL file to include the imports before sending it back to the browser's AJAX request.

Issue:  Firefox doesn't call your AJAX callback on synchronous requests
Parts of Gravey performed AJAX requests with async=false with no problem until Firefox came along.  It turns out FF doesn't call your callback function like everyone else on synchronous requests. For a fix, I simply changed to async=true because I was already processing the responses via callback instead of inline code anyway! [ Back in 2005, I had thought that synchronous requests might be faster, or higher priority, than async requests, but experience has taught me otherwise.]

••• DOM Issues •••

Issue:  jQuery doesn't like funny characters in your element IDs.
This problem I ran into immediately because Gravey uses all sorts of special characters (e.g. ".", "#", "_", ":", etc), and it took a while to track down a fix.  By that time, I had taken to fixing Gravey directly.  But there is a work-around...
Given that ID="", replace the following...
    $( jq(ID) ).whatever...
    function jq(ID){ return '#' + ID.replace(/(:|\.)/g,'\\$1'); }

Issue:  Only IE looks up Names as well as IDs in getElementById()
Gravey originally created HMTL elements identified by the "name" attribute because it worked just fine in IE when doing document.getElementById("foo").  Other browsers don't, SO, I changed all those .name references to .id references.

Issue:  innerHTML doesn't equal what it was just set to
Early on, I came across speculation that browser security might strip away inline JavaScript when setting the .innerHTML of some element. Being paranoid, I put in code to check if the .innerHTML I just set, was different than what I just set it to. To my surprise, it was quite often literally different, but not functionally different. In other words, the before and after strings did not match because the quotes might have been changed, the attributes might be in different orders, and the upper/lowercase of the tags might have been switched.  I never caught browser security stripping off anything, but the .toString() of the innerHTML could be completely reworked compared to my original HTML string.

Issue:  Saving data between page loads in window or navigator properties is no longer reliable
In the olden days of IE6 on Win2K, one could create properties on the navigator object that would allow communications between page loads.  With modern browsers this isn't reliable.  Gravey used this ability to save a reference to data between the time an AJAX request was made and when the callback was later invoked on the reply event. Luckily, I was only doing this because I didn't understand JavaScript "closures" enough to use one instead.  The Gravey 2.5 code uses a closure to save data in the callback function to be accessed when that function is later invoked on the reply event.

If I really needed client-side storage of data in between page loads or between pages, I would hope to wait until the near future when HTML5 is supposed to have local storage to share fat data between pages. There is an article here that tests this new feature out on a the usual suspect browsers.

Issue:  Some browsers change the placement of span and legend tags
In tracking down all the event handling problems, I came across a bug in some browsers (e.g. Firefox/Safari/SeaMonkey, but not Chrome/IE) where I created a <legend> tag inside of a <span> tag (via setting innerHTML), but in Firefox (via Firebug) I could see that it put the legend outside and after the span!  Luckily, I could live with the <span> being inside of the <legend>, and all the browsers seem to handle that ok.

Issue:  IE8 changes behavior depending on where a page is served up from
I was trying to use a simple trick to determine if the browser is IE (and which version of IE) via conditional compilation as shown here at Unfortunately, IE8 on WinXP would compile the comments and define the flags when the page was loaded from my test server on my LAN.  The exact same code would NOT compile when served up from my Internet web site.  Go figure. I tried adding a DOCTYPE to invoke quirks mode (which I had not specified before), but that made no difference. I wound up using the code below to distinguish between the cases that I needed to determine: pre-IE7, IE-in-general, IE-style-AJAX, Firefox-style-AJAX.
In the home web page...
    <!--[if lte IE 6]>
    <script type="text/javascript">
      var Pre7IE = true;

In the javascript...
    function IE_Pre7(){ return (typeof(Pre7IE)=="undefined") ? false : Pre7IE; }
    function FF_AJAX(){ return document.implementation
                            && document.implementation.createDocument; }
    function IE_AJAX(){ return IE_Pre7() || !FF_AJAX(); }
    function Is_IE  (){ return '\v'=='v'; }

••• Display and Styling Issues •••

Issue:  Handling of partial escape sequences is browser-specific
A bug in Gravey went undetected because IE quietly ignored partial escape sequences like "&nb". The bug generated partial escape sequences in element text (e.g. <div>foo&nb</div>) and browsers like Safari and IE quietly display "foo".  Other browsers like Firefox and Chrome display "foo&nb". I fixed the bug so that only full sequences like "&nbsp;" would be generated.

Issue:  Special character escape sequences are browser and OS-specific
Originally, Gravey used special characters via the Microsoft "symbol" font, so I had a goal to replace them with standard HTML characters. E.G. replace...
    '<font face="Symbol">&#101;</font>'

The set of graphic characters like arrows, and bullets, and greek letters, etc can not be all rendered by all browsers.  Unfortunately, the intuitive idea that if an older browser can render a character, its newer brethren would also, is alas not true.  Most browsers, including IE6 on Win2000, can render the black star (&#9734;) and white star (&#9733;) characters, but IE8 on WinXP can't!  Some characters can be displayed when given the hex charcode, but not the name (e.g. &rArr;). And some characters that you would think are part of a set are not all implemented together. E.G. Of the up/down/right/left arrow set (see shapes), IE6 can render the right arrow but not the down arrow.

Issue:  Fieldset Legend rendering is browser-specific
Given the same style settings, the Legends of Fieldsets render differently on different browsers. Gravey had used the attribute "text-align:center" which didn't do anything on IE, but it shifts the entire legend display to the center (instead of the left that I want) on non-IE browsers. I removed the attribute. Unfortunately, the "vertical-align: middle" attribute DOES do something I want in IE but not the other browsers.  It was needed to get the gif images (being used for expanded/collapsed icons) to line up with the title text inside the legend box.  After a lot of fiddling with transparent pixels around the icons and legend padding attributes, I gave up and switched to graphic arrow characters (ala Google results).  Unfortunately, I ran into all of the special character problems listed earlier, and still had to specify a different set of characters (wingdings) for IE6 than specified for the other browsers.

Issue:  CSS doesn't easily replace all HTML presentational attributes
While the original Gravey used some external CSS, there was still a lot of inline style specs, and old-time HTML presentational markup and "spacer" gifs. I set out to replace them all with CSS, but since I was using IE specific attributes like cellspacing, cellpadding, bordercolordark and bordercolorlight it was not trivial. Sadly, some IE attributes like table "cellspacing" can't be replaced with CSS. Others like cellpadding, bordercolordark and bordercolorlight can but with great effort. Luckily, Gravey used a cellspacing and cellpadding of zero, some of which can be specified with "border-collapse:collapse". Also, the bordercolorlight/dark colors being used created an effect similar to { border-style: outset }.

Issue:  Background color gradients are browser-specific
The gradient coloring Gravey used was IE specific. Other browser specific style settings had to be added. E.G. the following...
    body {
gets replaced with...
    body {
      background: -webkit-gradient(linear, left top, left bottom, from(#f8f8f8), to(#802222));
      background: -moz-linear-gradient(top, #f8f8f8, #802222) no-repeat;

Issue:  Tooltip rendering is browser-specific
Tooltips are used extensively by Gravey, and for images it used the .alt text. It turns out that non-IE browsers don't render image .alt text, only .title text, so I changed all the alts to titles.
There is also a known bug in Firefox where tooltips are not displayed on disabled buttons. As a workaround, the "readOnly" attribute can be used, however, when setting the readonly attribute rather than the disabled attribute, I could never get the CSS styling to kick in, even though I tried the selectors ".fooClass[readonly]" and "input[readonly]" and "input:read-only". So, I wound up dynamically setting (via JavaScript) the style for both readonly/not-readonly explicitly via classnames (ala .foo and .fooRO).

Issue:  Cursor styles are browser-specific
Gravey extensively used the "hand" and "not-allowed" cursor shapes which turn out to be IE-specific.  The "hand" cursor can be changed to the standard "pointer" to get the same effect. But while many browsers implement the non-standard "not-allowed", Firefox on the Mac does not and has no real equivalent. Because there is a visual difference between the default cursor and the "pointer" on Firefox, I live with it as is.

Issue:  Disabled button styles are browser-specific
Gravey expects the rendering of GUI widgets to reflect their enabled/disabled status. Some browsers stop showing disabled buttons differently if their foreground color is set to black (as Gravey was doing and IE not caring).  I was able to simply stop setting the foreground color since black was the default color anyway).

Issue:  Chrome displays popup menu items in a strange order
There is a strange (but known?) bug in Chrome where it displays items in a pop-up menu in a weird order that is different than the order shown in all the other browsers. I give up and document it as a known Chrome bug.

Issue:  Cross-browser manipulation of element visibility is complicated
Gravey originally got away with making chunks of HTML visible or not via... = visibleFlag ? "visible"  : "hidden";   = visibleFlag ? "relative" : "absolute";    = visibleFlag ? "inline"   : "none";

However, to do this with other browsers the original visible state needs to be saved and reused later when restoring visibility.  Code like the following is needed...
    if (visibleFlag) showElem(e); else hideElem(e);

    function hideElem( e )
      if ( === "none" ) return;
      e.oldDisplay =; = "none"; = "hidden";
    function showElem( e )
    { = "visible";
      if ( e.oldDisplay ) = e.oldDisplay;
      else if ("none") = "";

Also, some browsers have a problem unless the HTML is rendered visible before making it hidden.

Issue:  Pop-up windows are no longer reliable
In the early IE5 days, the cursor would not reliably change to the "please wait" icon when told to, so as a workaround, Gravey used a little "please wait" popup window that was launched and later killed.  Unfortunately, modern browsers suppress popup windows, so, that code won't reliably work anymore. If the cursor STILL can not be reliably set in this modern age, then a replacement "please wait" popup window would have to be done via fancy CSS floating DIVs as I've seen elsewhere.

••• Event Handling Issues •••

Issue:  Event object location is browser-specific
In IE, the event object may be accessed in event handler functions by the global variable "event". Most other browsers pass the event object as a parameter to the event handler function and it is not available as a global variable.
  • Thus, code like the following...
    <body onKeyPress="onKey()">
    function onKey(){ alert(event...); }
    must be changed to... 
      document.onkeypress = onKey;
      function onKey(e){ e = e || window.event; alert(e...); }
  • Another consequence of event handlers being passed the event as a parameter is that the calling signature has to be changed when passing your own parameters to the event handler. Even if you don't care about the event arg itself, the other parameters need to be shifted down otherwise the formal parameter list won't match the actual parameter list. For example, Gravey generates new HTML elements by building a string and setting the innerHTML.
    So, change code like this...
        e.innerHTML = "<select onchange='return foo("+myArg+")'>";
        function foo( myArg ){ alert(myArg); }

    to this...
        e.innerHTML = "<select onchange='return foo(event,"+myArg+")'>";
        function foo( e, myArg )
    { alert(myArg); }
Issue: Not all body tag event handlers are attached to the "window" object

When moving the specification of event handlers from inline in the <body> tag to being set in JavaScript, one might think that they all go on the window event, but not so.  Thus, this tag...
    <body onKeyPress="onKey()" onBeforeUnload="onBUL()" onLoad="onLoad()">
gets replaced with...
        document.onkeypress   = onKey;
        window.onbeforeunload = onBUL;
        window.onload         = onLoad;

Issue:  Keyboard event objects are browser-specific
In keyboard-related events, some browsers supply the key pressed via the event's "keyCode" attribute, whereas others via the "which" attribute.
  • Thus code that reads keys...
      function onKeyPress(){ alert( event.keyCode ); }
    must be changed to...
      function onKeyPress( e ){
       e = e || window.event;
        var code = e.keyCode || e.which;
    alert( code );

  • Thus code that sets keys (like keystroke filtering)...
      event.keyCode = char;
    must be changed to...
      e = e || window.event;
      if (e.keyCode) e.keyCode = char; else e.which = char;
  • Secondarily, some browsers supply a code that directly reflects the use of control keys, etc, whereas others supply a code for the basic key and require also looking at other attributes that flag the use of any modifier keys.  Thus, to detect a control-z key, the following...
      function onKeyPress(){ if ( event.keyCode==26 ) ... }

    must be changed to...
      function onKeyPress( e ){
       e = e || window.event;
        var code = e.keyCode || e.which;
        if ( code==26 || code==122 && e.ctrlKey ) ...

Even then, Chrome on the Mac will not generate an event at all when control-y is pressed, even though control-z works fine.  So, after not finding any info about this Chrome quirk, I gave up and documented the use of shift-control-y as a workaround.

Issue:  Modifier keys on mouse click are browser-specific
Gravey and its example apps use "control-clicks" (ie. holding down the control key while clicking) in several places. Unfortunately, on the Mac, control-click activates the context menu (ala back-click). So, for it, allow the "command" key to be used as an alternate. Unfortunately, the DOM3 standard indicator for this key is the event.metaKey flag and Internet Exploder does not even implement that attribute, so references to it will be undefined. So, this code...
  function onClick(){
    var specialFlag = event.ctrlKey;
has to be changed to...
  function onClick(e){
    e = e || window.event;
    var cmdKey = (typeof e.metaKey=="undefined") ? false : e.metaKey;
    var specialFlag = e.ctrlKey || cmdKey;

Issue:  Some "are you sure you want to leave?" techniques are browser-specific
In order to ask if the user really wants to leave the web page, only some browsers recognize setting the event object's "returnValue" attribute to the desired message.  However all browsers tested (except for a known bug on the iPad) will recognize returning the string message from the onbeforeunload event handler.  Thus, code like this...
    function onBeforeUnLoad(){
      if (unsavedData) event.returnValue = "Are you sure?";
gets replaced with code like this...
    function onBeforeUnLoad(){
      if (unsavedData) return "Are you sure?";

Issue: Getting a reference to the event's target element is browser-specific
For example, to blur the element that is the target of a keyboard event, the original code...
has to be changed to (according to here in
    var targ = || e.srcElement;
    if (targ.nodeType == 3) // defeat Safari bug
        targ = targ.parentNode;

Issue:  Focus and Blur and Change events are browser-specific
There is a known problem: "Safari and Chrome do not fire focus/blur events when the user uses the mouse to access checkboxes, radios or buttons. Text fields, textareas and select boxes work correctly."
Hmmm...this is difficult because the entire architecture of Gravey is based on blur events triggering datamodel updates. Lets see if I can fake it for the offending browsers with the change event (but only the offending ones since onchange is apparently buggy on IE).  Actually because of what I am doing on blur is idempotent, I can just make both onchange and onblur invoke the same event handler (and also because of idempotency I dont have to worry about the unpredictable ordering of blur and change events in different browsers).