HTMX Is So Cool I Rolled My Own!

HTMX is hot right now. HTMX rejects modern JavaScript UI in favour of server-rendered HTML. It’s not a new concept it’s an evolution of old ideas. It builds on how we did things before the front-end got all bloated with React.

Popular HTMX examples are infinite scroll, live search results, etc. I must have implemented those a 100 different ways. I wish I had HTMX ten years ago. HTMX does not solve all of the problems that React et al. try to solve. It even appears rather limiting to me. But within those limits HTMX is gold.

I like how Carson Gross — HTMX author — talks about HTMX on the recent PodRocket podcast episode. He says HTMX is not a “magic bullet” and:

I think some of the ideas behind HTMX are probably more important than HTMX

I think so too.

The Experiment

I wanted to give HTMX a fair try. Reading documentation only goes so far. Actually using code is the real test and I found a good use for HTMX.

I recently refactored the server for my self-hosted podcast web app. The previous iteration used SvelteKit. I’m a big fan of SvelteKit but it can be overwhelming for smaller websites.

I replaced SvelteKit with my own janky DinoSsr project I’ve been hacking away on. I also use it to build my static site and serve my bookmark blog. DinoSsr is primarily server-side. It can serve components as front-end “islands” but they do not provide full page interactivity. This is a problem for my audio player component. It needs to persist as I navigate between pages otherwise the listening experience is swiftly ended.

Let’s take a look:

sauroPod screenshots

The left-hand screenshot about shows the sauroPod design without annotation. The middle screenshot has all the Svelte components highlighted. SvelteKit magically handled all UI updates and front-end routing. It was really nice; maybe I should have kept it.

The right-hand screenshot highlights my new build. Here only the audio player component has front-end JavaScript. DinoSsr purposefully does not attempt client-side routing. Navigation reloads the entire page ending any playback. Not ideal.

I recognised an opportunity to use HTMX here. I have a handful of pages that differ in the <main> section I’ve highlighted orange on the screenshot above. With HTMX I can progressively enhance links and update this section without reloading the page. Thus keeping the audio component intact.

I tried HTMX and it worked great!

Then I immediately removed HTMX and decided to roll my own.

But first:

A Few Thoughts on HTMX

In my case HTMX is a replacement for front-end Svelte. But not a ‘drop-in’ replacement like React would be. It’s a dramatic shift in thinking. I find that refreshing.

Although HTMX ships as a JavaScript library to progressively enhance the front-end, most of the HTMX implementation is done on the back-end. HTMX does not prescribe code for the back-end. You must bring your own server templates and configuration.

HTTP requests that serve HTML are effectively the HTMX API. There’s nuance in configuring HTTP headers to ensure correct caching. It’s all documented but I think server related docs should be introduced earlier for JavaScript addicts like myself.

Minor nitpick but I’m not keen on the hx-* prefixed HTML attributes where data-* should be used (with dataset). Why use non-standard when a standard exists?

Larger nitpick: HTMX documentation has a lot of <div> examples:

<div hx-put="/messages">
    Put To Messages

When a user clicks on this div, issue a PUT request to the URL /messages and load the response into the div

Did I mistake this for a React tutorial? Users should not be clicking <div> elements.

In my opinion some of the more advanced HTMX examples using inline JavaScript get a bit nasty. Those show the limits of declarative attribute templating.

Criticisms aside, I think HTMX offers a limited but useful feature set that can enhance many common web design patterns. If I hated it I wouldn’t take the time to blog about it!

Rolling My Own

So anyway, immediately after successfully adding HTMX I removed it! I had so much fun I decided to write my own mini version using the same ideas.

I used the same last-modified and if-modified-since HTTP headers and 304 response to allow caching fetch requests. I used pushState and popstate for basic history integration. I added a bit of code to extract and replace <title> elements. Inspired by the HTMX preload extension I built in preloading using pointer events. This gives a little performance boost by starting the fetch request before the click event is fired. I suspect as I dogfood my implementation I’ll find stuff I’ve missed. It’s working well so far.

Source code for my experiment is on GitHub. It’s very basic but it demonstrates how little JavaScript is actually needed in the browser. By using HTMX — or “we have HTMX at home” — my codebase has become much smaller and simpler.

Front-end JavaScript

Templates and ‘components’ are practically necessary to organise and reuse code for all but the smallest of websites. That can be done server-side using PHP, Ruby, Go, anything, even JavaScript. Does that need to be replicated in the browser? Or worse, only in the browser? With the popularity of React et al. many of us have stopped asking that question. This project has reminded me the answer is an emphatic No.

Front-end JavaScript fatigue is real. I’m guilty myself of over-engineering JS UI despite preferring good old server templates. I don’t even think HTMX is that good but the philosophy behind it embarrasses the modern JavaScript developer. For that I appreciate it very much.

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