Web developers less concerned about browser-compatibility, more concerned with HTML5

A new study of the questions asked on Stack Exchange reveals what issues are giving web developers headaches

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HTML5: Increasingly causing web developers headaches

Image credit: flickr/slavik_V (license)

Web development is clearly a large and growing subset of software programming these days, as evidenced by the increasing popularity of web-related technologies like Javascript and HTML5. But what are the big technical issues that web developers are discussing amongst themselves? Understanding the questions they're asking each other will lead to a better understanding of what challenges those working with web technologies currently face.

Finding out what questions web developers are asking was the goal of a recent study by researchers from the University of British Columbia titled "Mining Questions Asked by Web Developers". To do so, they examined over 500,000 questions asked on Stack Exchange over a four year period (January, 2009 through December, 2012) tagged with one or more of three major web technologies: JavaScript, HTML5 and CSS. Using natural language processing techniques, and taking into account the reputations of the users answering the questions and the amount of page views the questions got, they were able to identify what topics web developers are most interested in and asking about, and how's that's been changing over time.

Based on their analysis, here are the big take-aways as to what issues web developers are facing:

JavaScript is still king, but use of CSS and HTML5 are gaining

Looking at which of the three big web technologies (JavaScript, HTML5 and CSS) that developers are asking questions about, JavaScript is the most popular topic of the three. But the number of questions related to CSS and HTML5 asked on Stack Exchange are growing and the researchers expect "these topics may gain a larger share of the questions in the future."

Cross-browser compatibility is becoming less of an issue over time

While the researchers found that cross-browser compatibility is still a significant topic of discussion on Stack Exchange related to JavaScript and CSS, the number of questions it has generated has declined significantly since 2009. This suggest that cross-browser compatibility is becoming less of a problem, possibly due to better JavaScript libraries (e.g., jQuery) and browsers doing a better job of following W3C specifications.

Web developers are having trouble with newer HTML5 and JavaScript features

Some of the topics of the most commonly asked and viewed questions about web technologies on Stack Exchange have to do with newer HTML5 and JavaScript elements such as localStorage. Questions about these kinds of issues are also staying steady or rising over time. The researchers say these findings suggest that "even expert programmers are confused by some of the new features added to HTML5 and JavaScript" and that they need better APIs for new features in HTML5 and JavaScript.

Web technologies are becoming more important in mobile development

Finally, the researchers found that since 2009, an increasing number of HTML5 questions have had to do with device detection and local storage, while more and more CSS questions are about the viewport meta tag, which is used to adjust the layout on mobile browsers. These findings, the researchers argue, are strong evidence of the growing importance of web technologies for mobile development.

There are more interesting nuggets of information in the study, if you really want to dig in further and learn more about the questions web developers are asking. Despite being an academic article, it's surprisingly readable. Have at it!

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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