Home > Uncategorized > React-ions – Part 1: Mostly Great

React-ions – Part 1: Mostly Great

The first of a two-part series about React:

I’d been planning to leave React well alone until it settled down a lot more. But over the last week I’ve started idly playing with it while travelling and waiting around, and getting more and more into it. It’s been dividing opinions for over a year now – but then, they let just anyone post on the Internet, so it’s full of idiotic opinions, right?

A work in progress

Turns out I’m not that late to the party. React’s version number starts with a zero, which under semantic versioning means “Anything may change at any time. The public API should not be considered stable.” The React team is taking full advantage of this early stage of development. They are not totally ignoring backward compatibility, but they are making trade-offs, e.g. if they can be backward compatible for code that uses JSX, then it’s okay if they break code that doesn’t use JSX. And yet JSX is supposed to be optional… But this is fine. Some parts of the API are necessarily more stable than others. They’re learning as they go, and one thing that’s gradually influencing them is the importance of stating (and controlling) which things need to be immutable. Every version seems to make an advance in that respect.

On the abandonment of external templates

As a heavy user of such templates, no complaints from me on this. In Angular and Knockout we add extra attributes to standard HTML, and the attributes are themselves a kind of embedded DSL in the HTML. The theory is that this means that the view or “presentation layer” is written in a high-level declarative language, so it can be maintained by a non-programmer. In practise this is unworkable. A template with bindings is fragile against modification by a non-programmer. You really have to know what you’re doing before you touch heavily template-ized HTML. It only appears clean and simple in the most unrealistic examples.

An external HTML template may appear superficially to be “separate” from the view model it binds to, but in reality it is intimately connected to it, having a one-to-one dependency between tags and bindings in the HTML and properties in the view model. And this means that the appearance of separation is unhelpful rather than helpful.

So this is all music to my ears. I’ve long thought that technology layers are overused as a way to carve up systems. Accordingly during my first experiments in large-scale JS app development, I rolled my own library that built very formulaic CRUD-like UIs out of what I called “schemas” (these were actually JS arrays). There was no HTML template in this system. Instead there were “types of control”, such as integer, date-time, etc. and you composed them to make a “record editor” that was self-persisting to JSON. It was crude but adequate. I liked that it lent itself to modularity, and let me add new whole capabilities in one vertical slice that cut across several technology layers.

Shortly after that I got enamoured of Knockout, which emphasised having a separate view (HTML+bindings) and view model (JS+observables). But I rapidly realised that what I very often wanted was a way to build UIs out of components, so I wrote my own custom bindings to achieve this, based again around the idea of a “control”, which is a view model with a built-in HTML template. Knockout 3.2 has since added its own support for components. However, it encourages you to register components into a global namespace so they can be referred to by name in HTML templates. This cuts across any module system you’re using to organise your code; your whole app is one big namespace at the component level.

React components don’t have this problem. Everything is JS, and so it can build on JS scoping and modularity. There is no global behind-the-scenes module-ignorant namespace of registered plugins. In your render function you may refer to another component by name, but it’s just the name of a JS variable that has to be in scope, e.g. imported from another module via require.

Seriously, I’m all over this like a weird rash.

Static typing

Types are taking over JS, kick-started by TypeScript, which is growing rapidly in both user base and features, is already solidly mature and effective, and is prompting further research efforts such as Facebook’s Flow and Google’s SoundScript.

This is another area in which React has an advantage by doing everything in JS and not breaking out into external HTML templates. Checking static types inside the binding attributes in an HTML template requires compile-time understanding of how all the kinds of attribute work. Not to mention special tooling to get design-time feedback, auto-completion in the editor. None of this is a problem for React.

Well, almost. The problem is there’s this strange thing called JSX.


Facebook’s own flavour of TypeScript, Flow (also not really ready for production), has built-in support for React’s JSX syntax (also from Facebook). What a fortunate coincidence! I think this is what they call synergy.

There have also been a couple of efforts to graft JSX support into a fork of TypeScript. But is this even necessary?

I find JSX to be a mere gimmick and distraction, with no discernible value. Indeed its existence may harm rather than help React adoption, because it’s so egregiously unjustifiable. Its only purpose is to look eye-catching in code snippets, providing a visual motif for people to mistake for the essence of React.

The story goes like this:

render() {
    return <div className="foo"></div>;

generates (at the moment, anyway):

render() {
    return React.createElement("div", { className: "foo" });

So at first glance JSX appears to be achieving significant boilerplate reduction. The React docs point us to a built-in shorthand for non-JSX users:

render() {
    return React.DOM.div({ className: "progress" });

Better, though still not that short. But if we’re going to be using div and span a lot, we could just import them our namespace:

var div = React.DOM.div,
    span = React.DOM.span;

Now the “verbose” version is:

render() {
    return div({ className: "progress" });

i.e. not at all verbose, almost the same length as the JSX version, with the advantage of being just plain JS.

In any case, these simple examples are misleading. In a realistic example of a component that actually does something useful there will be conditional elements (shown or not depending on this.state) and repeated elements using Array#map, etc. These parts have to be written in JS, and it’s a sensible React principle that there’s no point inventing a second syntax for them.

So often at least half the code in render is not expressible in JSX anyway. I find that staying in one perfectly adequate syntax is actually more helpful than switching back and forth.

And as for succinctness, when you’re rendering to DOM elements it’s quite common to need to throw in some purely structural wrappers that only have a class attribute, which in React has to be written as className. So what if you used factory functions that could optionally take a string and expand it into an object with a className property?

render() {
    return div("foo");

Uh-oh. Way shorter than the JSX version!

So I threw together a library to make this effortless, but as I was using a rough cut of it and finding it super convenient, I naturally wondered: given how handy this is, why doesn’t the React library itself support passing a string instead of a properties object?

I submitted a pull-request to do just that, but they turned it down. I admire their desire to not absorb into the core things that can be added externally, which is a great general principle to adhere to. But I wouldn’t have applied that principle in this case; the simple sweetness of the string-as-className shortcut is undeniable; so much so that now I’ve thought of it, it feels like an accidental omission that the core library doesn’t already support it.

It’s clear that React would be technically stronger without JSX, but it may be weaker from a marketing perspective. JSX is something concrete and weird-looking that people can focus on as the Chemical X in React, even though that is fundamentally misleading. So there’s the classic marketing-vs.-reality tension.

Events, Observables, Dirty checking etc.

A view has to update itself when the data in the view model changes. There are broadly two ways to do this:

  1. Dirty checking
  2. Observables

Angular uses dirty checking: it keeps a snapshot of the model data. After various events likely to coincide with data changes (e.g. button clicks), Angular compares the model data with the snapshot to find out what has changed.

Pretty much everything else uses observables. An observable is the combination of a value and a change event that fires when the value changes. Obviously you have to call a setter function to set the value, so that the change event can be fired. What if the value is a complex object and you tweak a value inside it? That’s no good – you’re bypassing the mechanism that fires the change event. So a good principle to abide by is to only store immutable objects in observables. The whole observable can be mutated, but only by completely replacing its whole value via the setter function.

React is interesting because sort of uses both these ideas, in very limited ways.

On the one hand, it does dirty checking, but not on plain model data; it holds a snapshot of a description of what the state of the DOM should be. This is a fantastic simplification compared with Angular, because React can make minimal updates to the DOM based on a fixed set of rules.

And on the other hand, every component has an associated observable called its state. We know it’s an observable because we have to call setState to change it and the documentation warns us not to mutate it any other way. On the other hand, there’s no public API to subscribe to a change event. The component itself is the only thing that directly subscribes to it.

There are small weaknesses to the React component API. The central one is that the current state is public property of the component class, so the fact that you’re not supposed to modify it directly is not self-documenting: there’s a setState but no getState.

And maybe there shouldn’t be either of them. According to the docs there are situations where you aren’t allowed to update the state. So might be better for each of the component methods to accept parameters providing the current state and – where applicable – a function to update the state. This would make it self-documenting w.r.t. which operations are allowed during a given method.

Tune in next time, wherein I confront the mysteries of Flux! What is it, really? And more to the point, what should it be?

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  1. johnnyreilly
    March 17, 2015 at 11:07 am

    Nice post Daniel. I’d taken a brief look at React but had pretty much been stopped in my tracks by JSX.

    Initial reaction: “My eyes, my eyes, it hurts so bad”
    Subsequent reaction: “Kinda cool. I ‘spose.”
    Current thoughts: “Don’t like it”

    I can see React is powerful but for now at least I’ll probably leave off doing to much with it. I’m interested to see what other peoples experiences are though – maybe I’ll jump aboard later.

    • earwicker
      March 22, 2015 at 10:24 am

      Yep JSX is a totally unnecessary distraction I think. And it seems to be like Marmite in terms of people’s reactions!

  1. March 20, 2015 at 12:15 am

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