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Transforming the web (through transformation)

Decorating content may no longer be enough

Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metamorphosis_frog_Meyers.pngThousands of people invented it independently. Millions use it without thinking about a broader context. It’s time to name it so we can talk about it.

Transformation is changing the way we look at the balance between clients and servers, our approach to formatting and layout, and our expectations of what’s possible on the Web. As applications shift from transformation on the server toward transformation on arrival on the client, transformation’s central role becomes more visible.

“Templating” doesn’t quite capture what’s happening here. While templates are often a key tool, describing that tool doesn’t explain the shift from server to client. Templating also misses the many cases where developers are using plain JavaScript to insert, delete, and modify the document tree in response to incoming data.

These practices have been emerging for a long time, in many different guises:

  • In the Dynamic HTML days, scripts might tinker with the DOM tree as well as modify CSS presentation.
  • Transformation was supposed to be a regular and constant thing in the early XSLT plans. Stylesheets on the client would generate presentation from clean blocks of XML content.
  • Ajax opened the door to shell pages, apps that set up a UI, but get most of their content elsewhere, using JavaScript to put it in place.
  • New data format options evolved at about the same time that Ajax emerged. JSON offered a more concise set of programmer-friendly content tools. Many apps include a ‘bind JSON to HTML before showing it to the user’ step.
  • Template systems now run on the client as well as the server. In many systems, templates on the server feed data to the client, which applies other templates to that data before presenting it to users.
  • The HTTP powering Ajax still created a long slow cycle of interaction. WebSockets and WebRTC now offer additional approaches for collecting content with less overhead, making it easier to create many more small transformations.
  • Some developers and designers have long thought of the document tree as a malleable collection of layout boxes rather than a deliberately coherent base layer. Separation of concerns? A dead horse, apparently. Recent debates over CSS Regions highlighted these issues again.

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