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“The Vendor Prefix Predicament” at ALA

Published this morning in A List Apart #344: an interview I conducted with Tantek Çelik, web standards lead at Mozilla, on the subject of Mozilla’s plan to honor -webkit- prefixes on some properties in their mobile browser.  Even better: Lea Verou’s Every Time You Call a Proprietary Feature ‘CSS3,’ a Kitten Dies.  Please—think of the kittens!

My hope is that the interview brings clarity to a situation that has suffered from a number of misconceptions.  I do not necessarily hope that you agree with Tantek, nor for that matter do I hope you disagree.  While I did press him on certain points, my goal for the interview was to provide him a chance to supply information, and insight into his position.  If that job was done, then the reader can fairly evaluate the claims and plans presented.  What conclusion they reach is, as ever, up to them.

We’ve learned a lot over the past 15-20 years, but I’m not convinced the lessons have settled in deeply enough.  At any rate, there are interesting times ahead.  If you care at all about the course we chart through them, be involved now.  Discuss.  Deliberate.  Make your own case, or support someone else’s case if they’ve captured your thoughts.  Debate with someone who has a different case to make.  Don’t just sit back and assume everything will work out—for while things usually do work out, they don’t always work out for the best.  Push for the best.

And fix your browser-specific sites already!

Unfixed

Right in the middle of AEA Atlanta—which was awesome, I really must say—there were two announcements that stand to invalidate (or at least greatly alter) portions of the talk I delivered.  One, which I believe came out as I was on stage, was the publication of the latest draft of the CSS3 Positioned Layout Module.  We’ll see if it triggers change or not; I haven’t read it yet.

The other was the publication of the minutes of the CSS Working Group meeting in Paris, where it was revealed that several vendors are about to support the -webkit- vendor prefix in their own very non-WebKit browsers.  Thus, to pick but a single random example, Firefox would throw a drop shadow on a heading whose entire author CSS is h1 {-webkit-box-shadow: 2px 5px 3px gray;}.

As an author, it sounds good as long as you haven’t really thought about it very hard, or if perhaps you have a very weak sense of the history of web standards and browser development.  It fits right in with the recurring question, “Why are we screwing around with prefixes when vendors should just implement properties completely correctly, or not at all?”  Those idealized end-states always sound great, but years of evidence (and reams upon reams of bug-charting material) indicate it’s an unrealistic approach.

As a vendor, it may be the least bad choice available in an ever-competitive marketplace.  After all, if there were a few million sites that you could render as intended if only the authors used your prefix instead of just one, which would you rather: embark on a protracted, massive awareness campaign that would probably be contradicted to death by people with their own axes to grind; or just support the damn prefix and move on with life?

The practical upshot is that browsers “supporting alien CSS vendor prefixes”, as Craig Grannell put it, seriously cripples the whole concept of vendor prefixes.  It may well reduce them to outright pointlessness.  I am on record as being a fan of vendor prefixes, and furthermore as someone who advocated for the formalization of prefixing as a part of the specification-approval process.  Of course I still think I had good ideas, but those ideas are currently being sliced to death on the shoals of reality.  Fingers can point all they like, but in the end what matters is what happened, not what should have happened if only we’d been a little smarter, a little more angelic, whatever.

I’ve seen a proposal that vendors agree to only support other prefixes in cases where they are un-prefixing their own support.  To continue the previous example, that would mean that when Firefox starts supporting the bare box-shadow, they will also support -webkit-box-shadow (and, one presumes, -ms-box-shadow and -o-box-shadow and so on).  That would mitigate the worst of the damage, and it’s probably worth trying.  It could well buy us a few years.

Developers are also trying to help repair the damage before it’s too late.  Christian Heilmann has launched an effort to get GitHub-based projects updated to stop being WebKit-only, and Aarron Gustafson has published a UNIX command to find all your CSS files containing webkit along with a call to update anything that’s not cross-browser friendly.  Others are making similar calls and recommendations.  You could use PrefixFree as a quick stopgap while going through the effort of doing manual updates.  You could make sure your CSS pre-processor, if that’s how you swing, is set up to do auto-prefixing.

Non-WebKit vendors are in a corner, and we helped put them there.  If the proposed prefix change is going to be forestalled, we have to get them out.  Doing that will take a lot of time and effort and awareness and, above all, widespread interest in doing the right thing.

Thus my fairly deep pessimism.  I’d love to be proven wrong, but I have to assume the vendors will push ahead with this regardless.  It’s what we did at Netscape ten years ago, and almost certainly would have done despite any outcry.  I don’t mean to denigrate or undermine any of the efforts I mentioned before—they’re absolutely worth doing even if every non-WebKit browser starts supporting -webkit- properties next week.  If nothing else, it will serve as evidence of your commitment to professional craftsmanship.  The real question is: how many of your fellow developers come close to that level of commitment?

And I identify that as the real question because it’s the question vendors are asking—must ask—themselves, and the answer serves as the compass for their course.

CSS Editors Leaderboard

I recently decided to create a CSS Editors Leaderboard, which is my attempt to rank the various editors of CSS modules based on the current process status of their modules, how current the modules are, and so on.  It’s kind of a turn of the wheel for me, given that I started out my CSS career with browser support leaderboards.  Now you can see who’s amassed the most spec points, and who’s made the most effective use of their time and energy.  Who knows?  Maybe some editors will try to game the system by pushing their specs along the process track.  That’d be just awful.

One thing of note: I decided to write the leaderboard script so that it directly parses an HTML file to figure out the rankings.  You can see the file yourself, if you like.  At the moment it’s just a bunch of dls, but at some point I suspect I’ll convert it to a table.  The advantage is that it’s easier for other people to fact-check the source data this way: just load it up in a browser.

I thought about just parsing specs directly but it seemed like overkill to load the entirety of the CSS2.1 module just to figure out the process status, publication date, and editor list.  And then do that same thing for every one of the 38 tracked modules.  This way I have the leaderboard and a central summary of the modules’ status, and hopefully the latter will be even more human-readable in the future.

Anyway, it was a fun little project and now it’s loose in the world.  Enjoy.

CSS3 Feedback: Graphical Thoughts

(This is part of the Feedback on ‘WaSP Community CSS3 Feedback 2008′ series.)

My few thoughts on the “Graphical Effects” part of the feedback document.  A lot of what was mentioned by the community is already in the pipeline, so there’s not a lot to say about those except “hurry ‘em up, willya?”.

Gradients — like rounded corners, no surprise these came up.  (All we need is to define wet-floor-reflect and we’ll complete the Web 2.0 design tricks hat trick.)  I’d like to see them myself, and I don’t think defining them is quite as hard as the commentary implies:

Imagine, for example, applying a gradient to the text of a <span> broken across two lines. Do you apply the gradient to each part individually? Glue them together as if they were all on one line first? Draw a rectangle around both parts and apply the gradient to that? (CSS3 Backgrounds and Borders has a control for this.)

I’d say the answer is right there, in the form of background-break, but let’s assume for a moment that said property never existed and we still had to deal with this problem.  I can think of two solutions:

  1. Only allow gradients to be applied to non-inline boxes.  This would not be my preference, but it could be so defined.  There’s already precedence with CSS for that sort of limitation:  width, height, text-align, and other properties are restricted to non-inline boxes.
  2. Treat gradients the way backgrounds and borders are already treated on inline boxes.  I’d be much more in favor of this.  In other words, lay out the inline box as though it is all on one line and then break it in pieces as needed to fit into the actual text flow.  (This is the behavior of continuous, the default value of background-break.)

But since background-break exists, you just treat gradients as you would any other background in accordance with background-break‘s definitions.

The somewhat trickier problem is how to define the value syntax for background-gradient so that’s both powerful and extensible without being unusable.  I think that’s solvable, but not easily, and probably not in a way that will satisfy everyone.

(Though this would be a fabulous place for the cardinal-point values from pre-CSS1 days, which you can still find in the specification if you look hard enough, to make a roaring comeback, wouldn’t it?)

Unidirectional background repeats — I say yes.  Here, have some values: repeat-up, repeat-right, repeat-down, and repeat-left.  In each case, the image would be repeated in the indicated direction from the origin image (the one placed by background-position).  Ironically, really old versions of IE did half of this by not correctly supporting repeat-x and repeat-y, treating them instead as if they were repeat-right and repeat-down.

There are occasions where this would be very useful, especially if you can combine the values into something like repeat-down repeat-right, and most especially in conjunction with multiple backgrounds.  So you could put an image stripe across the top of the element background, another one down the left side, and then fill in the rest of the background with a repeat-down repeat-right image.  Not a particularly common case, but the only way to handle it at present is with multiple nested elements, each with its own background and possibly a lot of negative margin trickery, and nobody wants that.  (Which may also be why it isn’t a particularly common case.)

You could also put an image in the center of your page and then a single stripe that goes only downward from behind it.  Like a golf ball on a tee, say; or a tree trunk below the leafy crowm; or a stem from a flower.

Slanted corners — sure, why not?  The issues are all the same as with rounded corners; the only difference is that you have a flat corner instead of a rounded one.  It makes joins between different borders styles/colors more obvious, but that’s a good thing: any solution that works well for the slant corner should work as well for the rounded corner.  Besides, if we’re already going to the effort of rounding corners, this seems like a pretty easy add-on.

Multiple borders — I think this would be quite useful.  I occasionally fake this with a border and an outline (as in my diagnostic styles) but that only works for two; if you want three or more nested borders (or two or more in IE/Win) you have to start nesting elements.  Also, having multiple borders lets you define your own gradient borders like you were a pixel artist, and who doesn’t like pixel artists?

At the same time, though, I do feel that this should be fairly low on the implementation totem pole.  And, as pointed out in the document, if image borders get implemented then a lot of the need for multiple borders goes away.

Alpha channel image masks — the problem I have here is what happens if you, say, try to use an image to alpha-mask a non-replaced element?  How does it scale?  Or does it?  Will there be a mask-stretch property?  Who really wants to stretch an image over a great big div anyway?  (From a visual-results point of view, I mean.)

Allowing masks might help in figuring out how to do non-rectangular float areas, in that you could use the alpha image to define the area used for float exclusion.  Combine that with a stretch ability and SVG support, so you can draw scalable vector masks, and I think you’re really getting somewhere.  (As does Matt Wilcox; he and I have been chewing this over in the comments on the previous post in the series.)

CSS3 Feedback: Animated Shapes

(This is part of the Feedback on ‘WaSP Community CSS3 Feedback 2008′ series.)

The portion of the feedback devoted to shapes had two overarching themes, as I saw it.  That makes this entry a bit short, but when I tried to combine it with my feedback on “Graphical Effects“, it quickly got too long.  So, a little amuse cerveau, as it were.

Animations, transformations, and so on — the WebKit team have of course been having a field day in this area, and what they’ve done will likely make is way to other browsers.  Or not.  I don’t know.  I’m not entirely thrilled about the effort that’s gone into those properties when there are so many other, more basic things that need love and care, but there’s no denying the essential coolness of slowly rotating an entire page.  Which I totally need to do the next time I give a presentation.

I’m not going to get into the “these things are behavior and therefore JavaScript!” argument.  CSS already does behavior (think :hover) and it’s going to do more over time.  I don’t see how that historical pressure can be resisted for much longer, short of outright refusing to take on any more behaviors and thus making itself a prime candidate for replacement with something else.  We may as well do our best to make sure CSS does good behaviors well, in ways that makes the most sense to the most authors.

So that’s basically my feedback: since we’re going to do it, let’s do it right.  Apple’s made a start, and unless the syntax they’ve defined in their CSS Animations draft is completely unworkable in other browsers for technical reasons, then let’s just roll with it.  And please note I said the syntax, not the overall concept.  (Ditto for their CSS Transforms draft.)

Stuff that isn’t rectangular — including both polygonal element boxes and polygonal floats.  I’ve wanted these for at least a decade, so it’s little surprise that I’m in favor.  Ragged floats were invented as a hack to make the latter happen, of course, and the basic idea’s been improved upon more than once.

The tricky part, of course, is actually defining polygons.  Regular polygons, as in hexagons and octagons and dodecagons, are not terribly difficult; but creating an irregular polygon requires defining a set of point coordinates in relation to some origin and resolving what happens when the lines cross over each other and… well, yeah.

The build-on-what-exists approach would just adopt the syntax HTML area elements use in the coords elements.  There would be two interesting questions there, which are what happens with negative coordinate values, and what happens if you draw a polygon that cuts through some of the element’s content.  For example, you have a div containing an image, and you define the polygon to be smaller (in places) than the image.  Is the browser obligated to prevent content overlap in such cases?  I would tend to say no but I can see arguments for the opposite view, particularly when it comes to floats.

Then there’s the problem that you’d have to define a separate polygon for every element that needed a non-rectangular float, as Bert Bos notes in his thoughts on the topic from a couple of years ago.  His contour idea is certainly interesting, though I’d then start to wonder how you define a contour point on, say, an irregular faded gradient.

Anyway, I thought about adapting clip to the purpose of defining float polygons, but then I remembered the long, tortuous hell that is the history of clip (and offset-clip) and decided that a new property is the way to go.  Clean break, start fresh, et cetera.  I don’t know what it would be called.  content-shape, maybe, to go with element-shape.  Or not.

Wanted: Layout System

(This is part of the Feedback on ‘WaSP Community CSS3 Feedback 2008′ series.)

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of community feedback asking for better layout mechanisms.  Actually, people were asking for any decent layout mechanism at all, which CSS has historically lacked.  Floats mostly work, but they’re a hack and can be annoyingly fragile even when you ignore old-browser bugs.  Positioning works in limited cases, but does not handle web-oriented layout at all well.

Why do we use floats for layout, anyway?  clear.  That’s pretty much the whole answer.  The unique in-flow/out-of-flow nature of floats means they interact with each other and with the normal flow, which means they can be cleared, which makes them useful.  Because with clear, we can float layout blocks around and then push other non-floated blocks, like footers, below the floats.

Positioning, of course, permits total layout freedom in the sense that you can put a layout block anywhere with respect to its containing block.  The downfall is that absolutely positioned elements are entirely out of the normal flow, so they can’t stay out of each others’ way like floats do, and you can’t clear anything with respect to a positioned element.  If there had been a position-clear or its equivalent from the outset, we’d never have bothered with floats.

(And if we can just add position-clear to CSS, that would be completely awesome.  It’s been done with JavaScript and it will most likely be done again and better.  It wouldn’t even be that hard to implement, at least for 99.5% of cases.)

All this is why the old “only use tables for layout” argument keeps coming up over and over: strip away the overheated rhetoric and obvious link-baiting, and you find the core of a real need.  Because as powerful as CSS can be, table cells do certain things very easily that CSS makes very, very hard.  Cells stretch vertically, keeping equal heights as a matter of their intrinsic nature.  They stay out of each others’ way, while still being allowed to sit next to each other and use any sizing dimensions.  They tie their layout to their parent elements, and vice versa.

There are no equivalents in CSS.  There have been various very clever attempts to replicate bits and pieces of those capabilities using CSS.  What CSS does, it does very well: if you don’t need equal-height layout blocks, then no problem.  If you do, it’s a massive pain.  Clever techniques provide substitutes, but can’t replace what tables already do.

And please, let’s put the whole “display: table-cell will grant those abilities through CSS” to rest.  Saying that is just saying “use tables for layout” with different words.  Turning a bunch of divs or list items or whatever into table-role boxes is no better than just using table markup in the first place, and it’s arguably worse.  Using element names other than table and td to create layout tables, and then claiming it’s not using tables for layout, borders on self-deception.

Not to mention doing things that way means you’re doing your layout in a highly source-order-dependent fashion, which was one of the things about table layout we were trying to get away from in the first place.

So how do we get really powerful source-order-independent layout?  I wish I knew.  The Advanced Layout module has been sitting around for a while now, and even if you’re a fan of defining layout as ASCII art—which I find repels and appeals in equal measure, but that’s probably just me—there appears to be close to zero implementor interest.  So how do we get those abilities in a form that implementors will, y’know, implement?  I don’t know.  I don’t care.  We just need it, and have needed it for a good decade or so.  Without it, CSS is a styling language but not a layout language.  We’ve bent it into being something close to a layout language, which is nice but not really ideal.

Maybe CSS isn’t the place for this.  Maybe there needs to be a new layout language that can be defined and implemented without regard to the constraints of the existing CSS syntax rules, without worrying about backwards compatibility.  Maybe that way we can not only get strong layout but also arbitrary shapes, thus leaving behind the rectangular prison that’s defined the web for almost two decades.

I don’t have a concrete idea to propose here, because it’s not up to us any more.  A solution was worked out over the course of several years and then found wanting by the implementors.  Really, it’s up to the implementors to figure it out now.  I personally would like to just lock the browser teams from Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, and Apple in a room and not let them out until they’ve defined something that works and they’ve all agreed to implement soonest.  I might even supply food and water.

And yes, I just advocated doing this outside the W3C process.  Why wouldn’t I?  The process has, in the last decade, not produced anything even remotely resembling an answer to this problem.  Time to try another path and see if it gets any closer to the goal.

No doubt someone’s going to spin this as “See, even noted standards zealot Eric Meyer now says CSS is flawed!”—only they’ll be wrong because this isn’t a now thing.  I’ve been saying this for years in interviews, in person, and in general.  Any time someone asks me what CSS is missing or should do better, the answer has always been a variant on “a strong layout system”.  I’ve been saying it for at least a decade.  So I’m not saying it now.  I’m saying it again.  And again and again and again and…

If I sound frustrated, it’s because I am, and have been for a good long while.  I’m not the only one.  It rankles to have CSS be, as Winston Churchill would have put it, the worst form of layout except for all the others that have been tried.

CSS3 Feedback: Layout

(This is part of the Feedback on ‘WaSP Community CSS3 Feedback 2008′ series.)

In this round, layout.  Not all of it, but the bits that struck me as either really useful or really, really way too long overdue.

Float containment yes, we need a property that does just that.  As long as we’re tied to floats for layout—and I plan to rant about that soon—there should be a clear, unambiguous, intentionally defined property that tells elements to wrap themselves around floated descendant elements.  overflow works in most cases but can fall down in unusual circumstances (I’ve seen scrollbars appear where none were actually needed) and anyway, it wasn’t intended to provide the wrapping effect in the first place.  That it does so is a happy side effect, but it’s still a side effect.  The rest of the float-wrapping techniques are even more convoluted.  “There are already ways to do that so we don’t need a property” is rather like saying “we can already do layout with tables so why do we need CSS layout?”.

Positioning by center yes, please.  The way to center an absolutely positioned element within its containing block is to set the top and left to 50% each and then define negative top and left margins that are half the positioned element’s height and width.  That’s just awful, and requires at least an explicit width, if not an explicit height.  When I did the structured timeline, here’s how I got the version numbers to center below the dots:

#timeline tbody td p {
	position: absolute;
	top: 50%;
	width: 2.1em;
	margin: -5px 0 0 -1em;
}

See that -1em left margin, and the 2.1em width?  Just to get the center of positioned elements’ boxes sit on top of a certain left offset (defined elsewhere in the CSS).  Ditto the negative top margin, to pull it upward just enough so that the elements’ boxes would have the point five pixels down from their tops line up with the vertical midpoint of their containing blocks.

I wanted to do something like this:

#timeline tbody td p {
	position: absolute;
	top: 50%;
	position-anchor: 50% 5px;
}

That would have said that the point in the center of the absolutely positioned element should be placed at the point in the containing block 21.7% down from the top and 44% of the way across from the left.  That would hang the positioned element’s center on that point, regardless of the size of the positioned element—note that I took out the width.  I could stop defining explicit sizes and just let the elements be the size they want to be to show their content.

The problem is that approach doesn’t fit at all well with the way positioning layout is defined.  Suppose I said this:

#timeline tbody td p {
	position: absolute;
	top: 50%; bottom: 0;
	left: 50%; right: 25%;
	position-anchor: 50% 5px;
}

Now what?  I’m not even sure myself.  Maybe define rename it to position-offset and define percentages to be relative to the height and width of the positioned element (not its containing block), so that it doesn’t interact directly with the offset properties like top and right?

All I want is a way to hang elements off of offset points, and not be restricted to the corners of the elements, and have the solution work even when the elements have automatic height and width, and not require extra markup to make it happen.  Oh, and a ponycar.

Box sizing what in the nine hells of Valeria is taking so long?  We needed that one ten years ago.  I no longer care if it’s done as its own property or as new keywords on height and width.  I just want it.  Someone will make it happen, with or without the WG or implementors—mark my words.

Same-height elements yes, a way to tie element heights (whether they’re siblings or not) together would be welcome, although I can see how specifying it in an implementable would be tricky; no, display: table-cell  is not the answer.  Soon I will rant about this.  Soon.

CSS3 Feedback: Selector Blocks

(This is part of the Feedback on ‘WaSP Community CSS3 Feedback 2008′ series.)

Out of all the selector feedback, selector blocks was the part that really caught my attention.  I also see the usefulness of a parent selector, but that one has come up many times before, and it’s always died at the doorstep of implementors, who point out that it’s far too difficult to implement without serious performance penalties and even risk of browser lockup.  See, for example, the comment left by David Hyatt on Shaun Inman’s post on the idea.  Similarly, I think constants (or macros or whatever they’re called) are a great idea and would be very helpful, especially if you’re coding up a Jason Special.  Both are loaded with use cases, so I don’t feel like I can add a lot; besides, constants are already in the WG charter, so there’s once more hope in the land.

So anyway, selector blocks.  To pick one recent example, while working on a project that should very soon see the light of day, I had a situation involving the following chunk of rules.

h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6, table {
   font: 1em Arial, "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, sans-serif;}
h1 {font-size: 275%;}
h3:first-child {margin-top: 1em;}
p.tagline {margin: -0.25em 0 1.25em;
   font-size: 125%;
   color: #7B7960;}
h3 {margin: 1.5em 0 0.25em; font-size: 125%;}
h3:before {font-size: 75%; counter-increment: subhead;}
h4 {margin: 2.5em 0 0.75em;
   text-transform: uppercase; font-size: 125%;
   color: #928F59;}
p {margin: 0 0 1em;}
ul {padding-left: 1.5em;}
ul li {list-style: disc; margin: 0.5em 0;}

Nothing unusual about them, of course, unless you count my use of counters.  These rules had been written early on in development, and the design had evolved around that part of the document.  As more page components were added, I realized that I needed to scope all these rules to one section of the document: specifically, a div with a class of main.  So here’s what I had to do.

.main h1, .main h2, .main h3, .main h4, 
.main h5, .main h6, .main table {
   font: 1em Arial, "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, sans-serif;}
.main h1 {font-size: 275%;}
.main h3:first-child {margin-top: 1em;}
.main p.tagline {margin: -0.25em 0 1.25em;
   font-size: 125%;
   color: #7B7960;}
.main h3 {margin: 1.5em 0 0.25em; font-size: 125%;}
.main h3:before {font-size: 75%; counter-increment: subhead;}
.main h4 {margin: 2.5em 0 0.75em;
   text-transform: uppercase; font-size: 125%;
   color: #928F59;}
.main p {margin: 0 0 1em;}
.main ul {padding-left: 1.5em;}
.main ul li {list-style: disc; margin: 0.5em 0;}

This, on the other hand, is what I really wanted to do:

.main {
   h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6, table {
      font: 1em Arial, "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, sans-serif;}
   h1 {font-size: 275%;}
   h3:first-child {margin-top: 1em;}
   p.tagline {margin: -0.25em 0 1.25em;
      font-size: 125%;
      color: #7B7960;}
   h3 {margin: 1.5em 0 0.25em; font-size: 125%;}
   h3:before {font-size: 75%; counter-increment: subhead;}
   h4 {margin: 2.5em 0 0.75em;
      text-transform: uppercase; font-size: 125%;
      color: #928F59;}
   p {margin: 1em 0;}
   ul {padding-left: 1.5em;}
   ul li {list-style: disc; margin: 0.5em 0;}
}

Or, if necessary, to put the whole original chunk into its own style sheet and then do one of the following:

div.main {@import url(main-style.css);}

<div class="main" style="@import url(main-style.css);">

Interestingly, the latter is theoretically possible, thanks to the more advanced profiles in the CSS module “Syntax of CSS rules in HTML’s ‘style’ attribute“.  I’m not aware of the former having been seriously considered (despite my best efforts, once upon a time), though it’s always possible I missed something.

But either one of those approaches would be a last resort, in my opinion.  I’d much rather just wrap the whole chunk in .main { }, like I showed previously, and be done with it.  That capability would also simplify certain annoyingly repetitive patterns, like the very first of those rules.  I think it’s pretty obvious which of the following is easier to write and maintain:

body.home #content .entry h2, 
body.home #content .entry h3, 
body.home #content .entry h4, 
body.home #content .entry h5, 
body.home #content .entry h6 {...}

body.home #content .entry {
   h2, h3, h4, h5, h6 {...}
}

I mean, just look at the former, and imagine what one goes through to write it in the first place.  Copy, paste, paste, paste, paste, paste… maddening.  And that’s just for a small block of CSS like this one.  Imagine the tedium of doing this for a block of 50 rules, or 150.  (Also, this is the the same thing that was requested in the feedback as “Grouped Alternates“, albeit with a different syntax.)

One objection to this sort of pattern is that it increases dependence on descendant selectors, which are computationally inefficient.  But it doesn’t: I had to create a whole bunch of descendant selectors as it was, and did so far more clumsily.  And had I missed a command-V somewhere, I’d have had styles that applied outside their intended subtree.  Introducing a way to nest blocks like this doesn’t change anything except make it easier and more maintainable to do what we already do.  Honestly, it’s pretty much impossible to increase dependence on descendant selectors.  The best we can do now is make them less difficult to write.

I realize that the syntax I depict would cause backwards-compatibility problems, as in older browsers would not behave as intended when exposed to this sort of thing, but I’ve also stopped being concerned about that.  We can’t keep holding ourselves hostage to decisions made a decade or more back.  Provide the capability and authors will use it when they can.  Over time, its use will become more prevalent—kind of the same way authors adopted CSS in the first place.

I also realize that this case has been made time and again by many, many other people.  This isn’t even the first time I’ve made this case, though I think the other times were within the WG and therefore off the public record.  The fact that it keeps being made is a strong indicator that the need exists, and dismissing the idea because the same end effect can be achieved with existing selector syntax (as shown above) isn’t acceptable.  That’s like saying that complex selection effects can be achieved with JavaScript or XPath, so there’s no need for advanced CSS selectors.

So that’s my use case.  I actually have a bunch more, but they all follow the same basic pattern: the desire to group rules together into subsections of a document, or to otherwise simplify the writing of CSS.

December 2014
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