The web is kinda weird because it was originally created as a typesetting system, rather than a GUI toolkit. While this definitely has its drawbacks[1] and isn’t suitable for everything, I personally rather like the “web as a GUI toolkit” exactly because of its typesetting roots; it provides some features that few other GUI environments give us.

Some things that work really well that are often hard in native GUI toolkits:

  • You can zoom pretty much any content as large or small as you like. Doing this in native UI involves either editing obscure config files, or mucking about with the system’s DPI settings (not easy to zoom per-app or changing zoom levels depending on mood or screen you’re using).

  • More cross-platform than pretty much anything else.

  • Open anything in a new context (tab or window).

  • Copy/paste anything.

  • Search any text with e.g. Ctrl+F.

  • Back button.

  • Modifying anything easily; even if you’re not doing this directly yourself this has huge benefits in the form of e.g. some simple bookmarklets or your adblocker.

These are all things that aren’t available in your standard GTK/Qt/Cocoa/MFC applications unless you specifically program them, which most apps don’t. The web gives them by default.


But the most important reason I like it requires some background: I started programming on the MSX, a machine roughly similar to the Commodore 64 or BBC Micro: you turn it on and you’re dropped to BASIC environment.

After we got a Windows machine things were a lot harder; remember, this is around 1999[2] and I was 14-year old non-native English speaker. Things like Pascal and Python and whatnot were all around, but I didn’t know about them. Programming your computer on your own was kinda hard and non-obvious, at least for me. This was a very different experience from the MSX, which you can program immediately after booting by using the manual you got with the computer.

I tried mucking about with some pirated copy of Visual Studio I got somewhere (I thought this was the only way you could program) and after some failed attempts with C++ I gave up. It probably didn’t help that Teach yourself C++ in 10 minutes isn’t a very good programming book, at least not for beginners.

So, I stopped programming for a few years and it wasn’t until I installed Linux (which got replaced by FreeBSD fairly quickly) around 2004 that I really got back in programming. Just like the MSX, my FreeBSD machine was programmable out of the box, which made it much easier to get started. Soon I was mucking about with shell scripts, Python, Perl, and C – all tools available by default.

With the web there’s a happy medium: you’re not dropped to a BASIC or Unix shell, but programming your browser is as easy as opening the web inspector, and while JavaScript isn’t perfect, it’s fairly easy to get started with.

With the web almost everyone has a machine that has a programmable environment by default again. I feel this is a very important and powerful advantage that’s often overlooked. I appreciate that a lot of people have zero interest in programming their machines – just like many don’t have any interest in modifying their cars – but many do have this interest, and I think there’s value in empowering that.

Footnotes
  1. Are there problems too? Yeah, of course. But everyone else is already complaining about them, so I’ll omit them here 😅 

  2. I’m really too young to have grown up on BASIC; our MSX2 was from 1985, my birthyear. I remember programming on it when some of my friends already had a Pentium III.