The problems with feature detection

The principle of feature detection is really simple. Before you use a particular API you test if it is actually available. If it is not, you can provide an alternative or fail gracefully. Why is this necessary? Well, unlike HTML and CSS, JavaScript can be very unforgiving. If you would use an API without actually testing for its existence and assume it just works you risk that your script will simply throw an error and die when it tries to call the API.

Take the following example:

Code language: JavaScript

if (navigator.geolocation) {
    navigator.geolocation.getCurrentPosition(function(pos) {
        alert('You are at: ' + pos.coords.latitude + ', ' + pos.coords.longitude);
    });
}

Before we call the getCurrentPosition() function, we actually check if the Geolocation API is available. This is a pattern we see again and again with feature detection.

If you look carefully you will notice that we don’t actually test if the getCurrentPosition() function is available. We assume it is, because navigator.geolocation exists. But is there actually a guarantee? No.

[…]

Cutting the mustard

There is another principle that has gotten very popular lately. By using some very specific feature tests you can make a distinction between old legacy browsers and modern browsers.

Code language: JavaScript

if ('querySelector' in document
    && 'localStorage' in window
    && 'addEventListener' in window) 
{
    // bootstrap the javascript application
}

In itself it is a perfectly valid way make sure the browser has a certain level of standards support. But at the same time also dangerous, because supporting querySelector, localStorage and addEventListener doesn’t say anything about supporting other standards.

Even if the browser passes the test, you really still need to do proper feature detection for each and every API you are depending on.

[…]

There are features where the whole premise of feature detection just fails horribly. Some browsers ship features that are so broken that they do not work at all. Sometimes it is a bug, and sometimes it is just pure laziness or incompetence. That may sound harsh, but I’m sure you agree with me at the end of this article.

The most benign variants are simply bugs. Everybody ships bugs. And the good browsers quickly fix them. Take for example Opera 18 which did have the API for Web Notifications, but crashed when you tried to use it. Blink, the rendering engine, actually supported the API, but Opera did not have a proper back-end implementation. And unfortunately this feature got enabled by mistake. I reported it and it was fixed in Opera 19. These things happen.