Quetzal: an experimental translation of the QuickUI component model to HTML custom elements

I’ve started an experiment called Quetzal that considers translating the core concepts from QuickUI to the proposed web component standards currently embodied by Polymer.

[Update June 13, 2014: The Quetzal project has grown into an open source project called Basic Web Components. Please take a look!]

While continuing working on QuickUI, I’ve been tracking the progress of the Google-led efforts on web components: custom elements, Shadow DOM, and related advances in the web platform. Those technologies address many of the same issues QuickUI addresses, so I’ve been trying to chart a path by which QuickUI and web components could co-evolve.

Until recently, those web component technologies were generally available only on Google Chrome, which means QuickUI can’t rely on them. However, since the start of the year I’ve been watching Google’s Polymer project which, among other things, offers a suite of polyfills that allows one to create and use components in the other “modern” browsers, including recent versions of Safari, Firefox, and Internet Explorer 10+. Polymer offers a fairly compelling story for using those future browser technologies today.

I’ve spent a bit of time looking at how to retrofit support for Shadow DOM and other aspects of web components into QuickUI. While that’s led to some progress, I’m not entirely sure that that’s the best approach. To ensure this is being done the best way, I’d like to try an alternative approach build from scratch directly on top of a custom element substrate. That experiment is Quetzal.

There are a number of aspects of QuickUI that I believe are quite compelling, and which are either not easily supported in the proposed web standards, or appear under-represented in the current body of web components work. My goal in Quetzal is to explore whether those aspects of QuickUI have meaning in the world of web components, and what’s the best way to bring those benefits forward. Some of those aspects of QuickUI I would very much like to see carried forward to the world of custom elements are:

  • A focus on subclassing as a means to achieve well-factored code, including a good separation of concerns. This includes an approach to populating the DOM in which an element class can fill in properties and content slots defined by their base classes.
  • The ability to concisely define component appearance and behavior in script instead of markup. While the <element> syntax is part of the standard, and therefore a useful baseline, markup feels limiting compared to what’s possible in script. A compact JavaScript object format can be at least as expressive, and possibly more expressive, than HTML.
  • A convention for multiple, named, DOM-valued properties.
  • The ability to run code when an element’s contents change.
  • Syntactic sugar for quickly defining common types of component properties.
  • Helper functions for tasks that come up often in UI component design. This includes, for example, a lightweight model by which an element can respond to changes in its size in order to perform custom layout.
  • A significant library of well-designed web user interface components, including a large number of useful base classes that people can use directly as the starting point for their own work.

The Quetzal experiment seeks to preserve the above features, while still allowing a designer or developer to create new custom elements which can interoperate with custom elements created by any other means (e.g., as Polymer elements).

Some early technical decisions for Quetzal:

  • I’m leaving jQuery out of Quetzal. I’ll go into that decision in more detail later, but the bottom line is that jQuery no longer seems absolutely necessary for web development. When QuickUI began back in 2007, jQuery was a vital cross-browser abstraction layer, but browsers have become a lot more consistent in the intervening years. If you look at the browsers currently supported by Polymer, the core DOM API appears consistent enough that it’s not overly cumbersome to use directly. And while any custom element library should support jQuery use, it would be nice if jQuery weren’t a requirement.
  • For the time being, Quetzal is written in CoffeeScript rather than plain JavaScript. I find CoffeeScript much more expressive, more productive, and easier to think in than plain JavaScript. As with QuickUI (which is also written in CoffeeScript), Quetzal elements can of course be created and extended in plain JavaScript. Still, I recognize that using CoffeeScript limits one’s audience. If Quetzal were to evolve to be a real open source project, I might feel the need to back-port it to JavaScript.
  • Quetzal only relies on the lower-level platform.js library created by the Polymer project, rather than the higher-level polymer.js library or the (higher still) library of Polymer elements. The Polymer home page currently includes an architectural diagram illustrating the relationship between these two libraries. Quetzal builds on the lowest, red-colored platform.js level, not the higher yellow or green levels. In this regard, Quetzal is comparable to Polymer elements. Because both rely on web standards, the results should be easily interoperable. As a side effect, Quetzal should also help prove out the ability of someone other than Google to build a UI component framework on top of platform.js.
  • I’m currently working and testing primarily in Chrome. At various points, I check to make sure Polymer is polyfilling everything correctly under other browsers, but at this early stage, it’s likely stuff will appear wonky in other browsers.

Quetzal isn’t ready for real use yet: it does just a few things at this stage, it’s not document, it’s buggy, it doesn’t work cross-browser (even with polyfilled custom elements), etc. But I wanted to announce the experiment now so that I can follow up here with additional posts as I go along. Work on Quetzal is generating questions I want to ask others, and to provide context for those things it’s going to be helpful to be able to reference Quetzal posts here and source code on GitHub. After exploring some ideas, Quetzal’s useful life may come to an end, or its lessons might get folded back into QuickUI, or it may evolve into a library of Polymer elements.

If you’re interested in following along, subscribe to this blog, and/or follow me on Twitter and Google+.

Cheers,
Jan Miksovsky

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3 thoughts on “Quetzal: an experimental translation of the QuickUI component model to HTML custom elements

  1. Avoiding JQuery is a good idea, but I’ll unfortunately not contribute to a project coded in Coffescript.

  2. Me Too! Coffescript is a no go! Avoiding JQuery is the right path.

    If you need a more expressive language, what about Typescript?

  3. Jokester/MikeH: Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. As much as I prefer using CoffeeScript, I think plain JavaScript is probably a requirement for a library intended for broad community participation. (Even something like TypeScript, with a claim to JavaScript compatibility, entails a learning curve and toolchain that surely raises the barrier to participation.) I’ve written more about my decision to try going back to plain JavaScript in a follow-up post: https://blog.quickui.org/2013/07/17/quetzal-take-2-creating-general-purpose-ui-components-as-polymer-elements/.

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