JavaScript - Feature detection

Duck typing - Robust Client-Side JavaScript

As a weakly typed language, JavaScript performs implicit type conversion so developers do not need to think much about types. The concept behind this is called duck typing: “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.”

typeof and instanceof check what a value is and where it comes from. As we have seen, both operators have serious limitations.

In contrast, duck typing checks what a value does and provides. After all, you are not interested in the type of a value, you are interested in what you can do with the value.

[…]

Duck typing would ask instead: What does the function do with the value? Then check whether the value fulfills the needs, and be done with it.

[…]

This check is not as strict as instanceof, and that is an advantage. A function that does not assert types but object capabilities is more flexible.

For example, JavaScript has several types that do not inherit from Array.prototype but walk and talk like arrays: Arguments, HTMLCollection and NodeList. A function that uses duck typing is able to support all array-like types.

Quoted content by Mathias Schäfer is licensed under CC BY-SA. See the other snippets from Robust Client-Side JavaScript.

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Conditional statements and truthy values - Robust Client-Side JavaScript

The key to robust JavaScript is asking “if” a lot. During the concept phase, ask “what if”. In the code, ask if to handle different cases differently.

The if statement, or conditional statement, consists of a condition, a code block and an optional second code block.

Javascript

if (condition) {
	// …
} else {
	// …
}

When an if statement is evaluated, first the condition expression is evaluated. The result of the expression is then converted into a boolean value, true or false. If this result is true, the first code block is executed, otherwise the second block, if given.

Most likely, this is not new to you. The reason we are revisiting it is the conversion into boolean. It means you can use a condition expression that does not necessarily evaluate to a boolean value. Other types, like Undefined, Null, String or Object are possible. For example, it is possible to write if ("Hello!") {…}.

If you rely on the implicit conversion, you should learn the conversion rules. ECMAScript defines an internal function ToBoolean for this purpose. In our code, we can use the public Boolean() function to convert a value into boolean. This delegates to the internal ToBoolean function.

To illustrate the conversion, imagine that

Javascript

if (condition) {
	// …
} else {
	// …
}

is a short version of

Javascript

if (Boolean(condition) === true) {
	// …
} else {
	// …
}

Values are called truthy when ToBoolean converts them into true. Values are called falsy when ToBoolean converts them into false.

The way ToBoolean works is simple, but with a twist. Let us quote the ECMAScript specification which is quite readable for once:

ToBoolean Conversions
Argument Type Result
Undefined Return false.
Null Return false.
Boolean Return argument.
Number If argument is +0, -0, or NaN, return false; otherwise return true.
String If argument is the empty String (its length is zero), return false; otherwise return true.
Symbol Return true.
Object Return true.

As you can see, most types have a clear boolean counterpart. All objects, including functions, dates, regular expressions and errors, are truthy. The two types denoting emptiness, undefined and null, are falsy.

For numbers and strings though, it is complicated. Numbers are truthy except for zeros and NaN. Strings are truthy except for empty strings.

Quoted content by Mathias Schäfer is licensed under CC BY-SA. See the other snippets from Robust Client-Side JavaScript.

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Robust Client-Side JavaScript - A Developer's Guide

The limits of @supports

@supports may be very useful, but it can only tell you so much, especially in the case of browsers that will return true, technically supporting the feature, but having a buggy implementation. This is a case where we can often assume too much about a browser based on a reductive test that isn’t guaranteed to tell us what we think it does. PPK explains:

If a mobile browser doesn’t support background-attachment: fixed in practice, what happens when you do this?

CSS

@supports(background-attachment: fixed) {
	// CSS
}

Does it return false because the mobile browser doesn’t support it? Or does it return true because its desktop version supports it? With my background-attachment test data in hand I could now answer this question.

All mobile browsers return true for both fixed and local. Only 3 out of 23 browsers speak the truth here. See the test case and the inevitable table for more details.

[…]

What’s clear from these tests is that @supports is only useful when you’re detecting entire CSS modules such as flexbox. So the check below makes sense.

CSS

@supports (display: flex) {
	// flexbox layout
}
 
@supports not(display: flex) {
	// float layout
}

This example is likely safe. If a browser decides to support flexbox, display: flex is the first item on the agenda, so detecting it makes perfect sense. (It’s theoretically possible, though, that a browser fakes display: flex support in order to end up on the right side of some support detects. But as far as I know this is not the case today.)

On the other hand, if a browser has flaky support for, I don’t know, justify-content, a more precise check like this may or may not work, depending on how the CSS parser is written:

CSS

@supports (justify-content: space-around) {
	// may or may not fire correctly in case
	// of a browser bug
}

So this example is unsafe. Don’t use @supports for such detailed compatibility questions.

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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:

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.

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.

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