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Service Workers

Hi everyone,

One of the toughest things we do as front-end engineers is try to keep up with the onslaught of new standards and features that browsers are implementing. It's difficult to know what you should know about what you shouldn't. Periodically, I'll give you a heads up on some technology you should be looking into, and this time it's service workers.

It's likely you've heard of service workers due to a masterful marketing campaign by the Chrome team, but most of the discussions I see center around creating "offline-first" applications using service workers. While that's a definite possibility, limiting the thinking around service workers to just offline capabilities is missing the larger picture of what service workers do.

In short, service workers are a proxy that ships with the browser. They intercept requests as they come out from the browser and allow you to change what happens as a result of a request. Yes, you could decide to avoid making the request altogether and return content to create an offline experience. But you could also implement your own caching algorithm, only periodically going back to your server; you could disallow certain requests during certain periods of time; you could purposefully bypass the cache based on some heuristic. The possibilities are tremendous.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that service workers could have an impact similar in magnitude to XMLHttpRequest, the feature that began the Ajax revolution in web applications. Both service workers and XMLHttpRequest share the same basic nature: fairly low-level APIs that give developers more control over network requests. It's conceivable that in another couple of years, you won't even think of writing a web application without using service workers to monitor and manage requests between the browser and your server.

I think service workers are still not quite ready to use. There are compatibility issues and lack of browser support to worry about. However, service workers will progress and I think by this time next year we'll all be talking about how to better leverage them in our web applications. Experiment and prototype now if you're interested, but definitely keep an eye on service workers going forward.

Be well.

-N
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