This is a book about building applications using hypermedia systems. Hypermedia systems might seem like a strange phrase: how is hypermedia a system? Isn’t hypermedia just a way to link documents together?
Like with HTML, on the World Wide Web?
What do you mean hypermedia systems?
Well, yes, HTML is a hypermedia. But there is more to the way the web works than just HTML: HTTP, the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, is what transfers HTML from servers to clients, and there are many details and features associated with it: caching, various headers, response codes, and so forth.
And then, of course, there are hypermedia servers, which present hypermedia APIs (yes, APIs) to clients over the network.
And, finally, there is the all-important hypermedia client: a software client that understands how to render a hypermedia response intelligibly to a human, so that a human can interact with the remote system. The most widely known and used hypermedia clients are, of course, web browsers.
In these applications HTML becomes a (somewhat awkward) graphical interface description language that is used because, for historical reasons, that’s what happens to be there, in the browser.
Applications built in this style are not hypermedia-driven: they do not take advantage of the underlying hypermedia system of the web.
To explain what a hypermedia-driven application looks like, and to contrast it with the popular SPA approach of today, we need to first explore the entire hypermedia system of the web, beyond just discussing HTML. We need to look at the network architecture of the web, including how a web server delivers a hypermedia API, and how to effectively use the hypermedia features available in the hypermedia client (e.g., the browser).
Each of these are important aspects of building an effective hypermedia-driven application, and it is the entire hypermedia system that comes together to make hypermedia such a powerful architecture.
What is a Hypermedia System?
To understand what a hypermedia system is we’ll first take an in-depth look at the canonical hypermedia system: the World Wide Web. Roy Fielding, an engineer who helped create specifications and build the implementations of many early pieces of the web, gave us the term REpresentational State Transfer, or REST. In his PhD dissertation he described REST as a network architecture, and he contrasted it with earlier approaches to building distributed software.
We define a hypermedia system as a system that adheres to the RESTful network architecture in Fielding’s original sense of this term.
Unfortunately, today, you probably associate the term “REST” with JSON APIs, since that is where the term is typically used in industry. This is a misapplied use of the term REST because JSON is not a natural hypermedia due to the absence of hypermedia controls. The exchange of hypermedia is an explicit requirement for a system to be considered “RESTful.” It is a long story how we got here, using the term REST so incorrectly, and we will go into the details later in this book. But, for now, if you think REST implies JSON, please try to set that understanding aside while reading this book, and come to the concept with fresh eyes.
It is important to understand that, in his dissertation, Fielding was describing The World Wide Web as it existed in the late 1990s. The web, at that point, was simply web browsers exchanging hypermedia. That system, with its simple links and forms, was what Fielding was calling RESTful.
JSON APIs were a decade away from becoming a common tool in web development: REST was about hypermedia and the 1.0 version of the web.
In this book we are going to take a look at hypermedia as a system architecture and then explore some practical, modern approaches to building web applications using it. We will call applications built in this style Hypermedia-Driven Applications, or HDAs, and we contrast them with a popular style in use today, the Single Page Application.
A Hypermedia-Driven Application is an application built on top of a hypermedia system that respects and utilizes the hypermedia functionality of that underlying system.
The goal of this book is to give you a strong sense of how the RESTful, hypermedia system architecture differs from other client-server systems, and what the strengths (and weaknesses) of the hypermedia approach are. Further, we hope to convince you that the hypermedia architecture is relevant to developers building modern web applications.
We aim to give you the tools to evaluate the requirements for an application and answer the question:
“Could I build this as a Hypermedia-Driven Application?”
We hope that for many applications the answer to that question will be “Yes!”
The book is broken into three parts:
- An introduction (or re-introduction) to hypermedia, with a particular focus on HTML and HTTP. We will finish this review of core hypermedia concepts by creating a simple “Web 1.0”-style application, Contact.app, for managing contacts.
- Finally, we will look at a completely different hypermedia system, Hyperview. Hyperview is a mobile hypermedia system, related to, but distinct from the web and created by one of the authors of this book — Adam Stepinski. It supports mobile specific features by providing not only a mobile specific hypermedia, but also a mobile hypermedia client. These novel components, combined with any HTTP server, make it possible to build mobile Hypermedia-Driven Applications.
Note that each section is somewhat independent of the others. If you already know hypermedia in-depth and how basic Web 1.0 applications function, you may want to skip ahead to the second section on htmx and how to build modern web applications using hypermedia. Similarly, if you are well versed in htmx and want to dive into a novel mobile hypermedia, you can skip ahead to the Hyperview section.
That being said, the book is designed to be read in order and both the htmx and Hyperview sections build on the Web 1.0 application described at the end of the first section. Furthermore, even if you are well versed in all the concepts of hypermedia and details of HTML & HTTP, it is likely worth it to at least skim through the first few chapters for a refresher.
Hypermedia: A New Generation
Hypermedia isn’t a frequent topic of discussion these days. Even many older programmers who grew up with the web in the late 1990s and early 2000s haven’t thought much about these ideas in years. Many younger web developers have grown up knowing nothing but Single Page Applications and the frameworks that are used to build them.
In particular, many young web developers began their careers by building React.js applications that interact with a Node server using a JSON API; they may never have learned about hypermedia as a system at all.
This is a tragedy, and, frankly, a failure on the part of the thought leaders in the web development community to properly communicate and advocate for the hypermedia approach.
Hypermedia was a great idea! It still is!
By the end of this book, you will have the tools and the language to put this great idea to work in your own applications. And, further, you will be able to bring the ideas and concepts of hypermedia systems to the broader web development community.
Hypermedia can compete, hypermedia can win, hypermedia has won as an architectural choice against the Single Page Application approach, but only if smart people (like you) learn about it, build with it and then tell the world about it.
Remember the message? “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”