4 min read

Zero New Syntax to Learn: ZeroScript

Zero New Syntax to Learn: ZeroScript

This is part 1 of a 12-part series called Distilling the Web to Zero. The web is far from done improving - particularly as it pertains to building rich web applications that are, to users, developers, and businesses alike, more desirable than their native-app counterparts. This series is prefaced by defining the biggest challenges on the road towards that goal and the 12 essays that follow explore potential solutions using concrete examples.

Shiny new things

Learning new things and exploring new ideas is something I’ve always enjoyed. Ten years ago my old friend Scott – brilliant engineer – would go to lunch with me every day and we’d geek out together. If we weren’t discussing the latest tech news, I’d bounce crazy ideas off him to see what he thought. He’d always poke thoughtful holes in the corners I hadn’t yet considered. I enjoyed the exercise. He seemed to as well.

Then one day he had a response that set me back on my heels. I thought he was joking at first. We had just spent twenty minutes hammering out some clever solutions to whatever was the problem du jour and I thoughtlessly blurted out, “Well cool. That seems like a very elegant solution. So is that something you'd use on a personal project too?”

He said, “Oh gosh no. Absolutely not.”

I paused waiting for the punchline but soon realized he was being serious. I said, “Wait, why not? This is better right?” His response echoes in my head to this day.

“It's not that I won't learn new things. I’d just rather not waste time on things that won’t last.”

On framework fatigue

Let's talk about web frameworks.

The winds are shifting in the web community. The burden of playing guinea pig has reached a tipping point. While it is known that the price of innovation comes with the burden of frequent change, the ground beneath has become sand – too unstable to build anything upon anymore. Meanwhile the one narrative that served as a flame of hope seems to be all but abandoned – that webapps will inevitably catch up to native apps and humanity can finally remove the training wheels that is the walled garden app store just like the venerable URL did to AOL and their silly “AOL Keywords” back in the 90s.

Now let’s talk numbers. There’s a term in physics called half-life that loosely correlates to death-rate:

Half-life is the time required for a quantity (of substance) to reduce to half of its initial value. The term is commonly used in nuclear physics to describe how quickly unstable atoms undergo radioactive decay or how long stable atoms survive.

This dataset uses Google Trends as an indication of popularity. A few notes:

  • Each framework has been normalized by its own “peak popularity” on a scale of 0-100 and thus cannot be used to compare how much more popular one framework was compared to another.
  • Half-life is calculated by counting the months between its peak popularity of 100 and the next nearest 50.
  • It’s also worth pointing out that search trends more closely correlate to popularity than usage – as we painfully know, the usage of any technology often has a mighty long tail of support, long after its popularity is lost.
  • React is missing because its popularity hasn’t dipped below 50 yet.
  • AngularJS is tricky because of Angular (sans the JS) which replaced it. Measuring search trends on the latter was hard to separate by keyword from the former. Below includes only the predecessor AngularJS since the successor Angular, like React, hasn’t dipped below 50 yet.


Framework Half-life
Ruby on Rails 26 months
GWT 33 months
Adobe Flash 32 months
jQuery 62 months
Knockout 22 months
Ember 18 months
AngularJS 24 months

This suggests that the half-life of a modern web framework is about 2.5 years. If you went to college, expect whatever was king when you entered to be in hospice care before you exit. If you attended a bootcamp, don’t be surprised to emerge 3 months later discovering that you’re no longer versed in the “top” framework.

If you can't beat them, join them

“The busy man is never wise and the wise man is never busy.” ― Lin Yutang

Thus Scott became my litmus test. If I ever were to put any of those ideas to paper, it’d have to be something he’d be willing to use. It needed to somehow be written in stone. It needed to be the web’s “final form.”

This got me thinking about how powerful HTML has proven to be over the past 30 years. It's powerful because it's declarative. This allows the ground beneath it to shift around while it itself remains evergreen and durable by default. There exist websites that were built in the 90s, untouched since, and they still run today. Amazing. This makes HTML like hydrogen – its half-life is effectively infinity.

So what would a declarative-only web framework look like? Mostly like vanilla HTML with some minor embellishments thrown in.

  • Components? Just use smaller .html files.
  • Properties? Just use HTML attributes.
  • Routing? Just use a file-based approach.
  • Control flow? Introduce <if> and <for> tags.
  • State? Try a <state> tag.
  • DOM updates? No imperative code like getElementById or innerHTML. HTML just updates itself when <state> changes.

This covers the overlapping features across all web frameworks. Both event handlers and dynamic expressions can be handled with any escape sequence such as {{ }}. All the business logic can remain in separate files as intended.


Here’s an artifact to explore the concept concretely. It’s called ZeroScript since the goal is to flesh out a complete UI layer using, hopefully, zero JavaScript. (One delicious side effect is that it opens the door to use imperative languages other than JavaScript. But that’s an essay for another month.)