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Google's retreat on Pointer Events makes life harder for web developers

Mary Branscombe | Aug. 21, 2014
For the next ten years, touch is all that matters, says Google. It's reversing its decision to add the Pointer Events standard to Chrome, meaning web developers lose what could be their best chance to get a single API for handling touch, mouse and pen input.

For the next ten years, touch is all that matters, says Google. It's reversing its decision to add the Pointer Events standard to Chrome, meaning web developers lose what could be their best chance to get a single API for handling touch, mouse and pen input.

In January the Blink team said Pointer Events — a technology originally built by Microsoft and now a W3C standard — was a priority for 2014. Now it's off the agenda. Dropping support for it isn't an attack on Microsoft; Google is, as always, just being expedient and pragmatic. But its choice to stick with Apple's model for touch input development is going to cause problems for web developers, who will now be faced with writing far more code to deal with mouse, pen and other inputs. And it highlights the drawbacks in Google's approach to performance.

The origins and promise of Pointer Events

Just last month Microsoft announced that so many mobile web pages are written so they only work properly on iPhones, that the Windows Phone version of IE 11 will pretend to be Safari. That includes supporting the elderly Touch Events model for scrolling, clicking, and zooming with your fingers — a model that Apple first came up with in 2007 when the iPhone came out.

But there are problems with Touch Events: It doesn't always work well when you have a trackpad as well as a touch screen, and it has a checkered history of standardization. When the W3C starting building a standard based on it, Apple not only declined to join in, but in 2011 it also claimed it had patents covering those touch principles. Although that's since been resolved, building a standard on top of Touch Events (which Apple wasn't involved with) didn't deal with the biggest problem — that it only covers touch, not any of the other ways you might interact with a web page.

In 2012, Microsoft teamed up with Mozilla to take the Pointer Events technology it built for IE10 to the W3C. This is single API for handling mouse, touch and pen input (and maybe more) so developers would only have to write code once, instead of for all the different ways users might interact with a page.

Pointer Events was initially popular: It might hold the record for fastest-approved API. In January, the Google Chrome team who created Blink — Google's fork of the the widely used WebKit rendering engine — said Pointer Events were a priority for 2014. The Blink team even got as far as checking in code for a key CSS property that Pointer Events relies on, which has also been in the Firefox Nightly builds since version 28.

 

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