Front-end development is defined, by Wikipedia, as the “practice of producing HTML, CSS and JavaScript for a website or web application so that a user can see and interact with them directly.” Most people can make sense of basic HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (and that used to be enough). But in the last 5-10 years, front-end development has evolved and splintered into a miscellany of frameworks, libraries, build-tools, command line tools, and new languages.

This plethora of technologies makes it challenging for developers and next to impossible for lay people to follow this field. This post will attempt to explain the landscape of front-end development technologies (as of mid-2015) for a non-developer audience.

Part 1 will cover Libraries and Frameworks. Part 2 will cover build tools, command line tools, and new languages. Part 3 will provide 3 pieces of recommended reading.

Libraries

There’s an organization in Denver, Colorado called the Denver Tool Library. For a subscription fee, they let members borrow some of their 2000 different tools. People can come in to chisel wood, test circuits, or maybe take a tool out to use in their garden. The library offers specific tools with specific functionality that can be used as many times as members need.

Programming libraries work very much in the same way as a physical tool library. Libraries like jQuery, Handlebars, Underscore or Backbone give developers specific functions, methods, and objects they can use to achieve a particular task in their code. With one command or <script> tag, developers can bring a library in and have immediate access to its tools.

The library that has had the largest impact on web development in the last 10 years is jQuery. Among other things, jQuery simplifies creating JavaScript across browsers.

Handlebars is a “semantic web template system”. Template systems make it easy for developers to put dynamic content into a static page a user sees. {{ Curly Brackets }} (aka sideways mustaches) are put into the HTML for dynamic content. Handlebars swaps out values between the curly brackets with content from the program. An example of this in action:

This HTML table…

…will become this table with the help of Handlebars. The brackets get filled in with dynamic content:

Underscore takes a different spin on the tool library metaphor. Underscore used to call itself ‘a utility-belt library’ for JavaScript. Underscore gives developers shorter, faster ways of doing common tasks like looping over an array or object (which are collections of data in JavaScript). Normal JavaScript provides a way of doing this but a library like Underscore (or Lodash) provides a shorter/simpler way of doing so.

Backbone is a library that makes it easier to better organize applications. Backbone is usually used with Underscore and jQuery, and sometimes with Handlebars to form a complete application framework. An application framework usually handles a lot of the common tasks in web development like handling HTTP requests, routing, organizing business logic, and views the clients will interact with. We’ll go over frameworks in the next section in more detail.

React is the hot library of 2015. React came out of Facebook’s struggle to get the Like Button count to work well. When people would push it, it was hard to get the like count right. React offers a new (and faster way) to create data-driven interactive user interfaces. It is actually used in production for hundreds of millions of users (Instagram/Facebook) so even though it’s new, it has been thoroughly ‘battle tested’.

Photo, Phone, Android, Instagram, User, Smartphone

React in action

The Frameworks

A framework is typically something that provides a structure or way of organizing something. A web application framework, like Ember or Angular, saves developers from having to set up common web development structures/tasks on their own.

Think of a framework like a prefab home. Prefab homes come with the most of the ground plan laid out. The electrical wiring, framing, drywall, and plumbing are generally installed and ready to go. The homeowner then customizes the home’s interior suit their tastes (colors, textures, floors, appliances). The homeowner still could tear down the walls and rework the structure but generally they will go with the defaults.

Source: https://www.bluhomes.com/breezehouse

This metaphor has its limitations but think of a web framework as providing a starting structure and set of defaults within which the developer can make an application.

Angular has become, by far, the most popular JavaScript framework in use (as of 2015). Angular handles tasks like connecting to a database, allowing the user to interact with information on the page, and handling the URL routing (in the address bar). Angular makes it simple to create what are called Single Page Applications (SPAs). If you’ve used Google Maps or Gmail, you’re used to a using a page that updates without refreshing the entire page. It does this by using a technology called Ajax.

Ember is another JavaScript framework that gives developers a scaffolding and structure to develop applications. Ember has a number of ‘opinions’ (conventions) that are meant to increase developer productivity. In theory, this should make it easier for developers to join an Ember project than an Angular project. The tradeoff of this is that some feel restricted by it’s enforced structure.

Bootstrap and Foundation are front-end frameworks that focus on the look and feel of a site. Both can be utilized to easily develop good looking sites that work well across different screen sizes. Each gives you pre-defined CSS and HTML components. A Bootstrap component would be a something like this piece of HTML:

This allows a developer to quickly get a navigation menu that looks like this:

By using Bootstrap/Foundation, developers can avoid having to reinvent the wheel when they need something common like a navigation menu, progress bar, or drop-down menu.

Bootstrap is now used on nearly 10% of internet sites. You can see a variety of sites that use Bootstrap at their showcase site.

Google Trends Proxy on Framework Popularity

Summary

This post gave a high level explanation on libraries and frameworks. Hopefully, you have a better sense of how each work now. Part 2 of this blog series will explore and explain how build tools, command line tools, and new languages work in front-end development.

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Kyle Pennell

Kyle is the community/content manager at DevelopIntelligence. He spends his time reading, coding, biking, and exploring live music in Oakland. He enjoys trying to make technical concepts more approachable and likes tinkering with music and mapping APIs.