rmurphey Adventures in JavaScript

Thoughts on a (very) small project with Backbone and Backbone Boilerplate

11 Mar 2012 edit

I worked with Backbone and the Backbone Boilerplate for the first time last weekend, putting together a small demo app for a presentation I gave last week at BazaarVoice. I realize I'm about 18 months late to the Backbone party, here, but I wanted to write down my thoughts, mostly because I'm pretty sure they'll change as I get a chance to work with both tools more.

Backbone

Backbone describes itself as a tool that "gives structure to web applications," but, at the risk of sounding pedantic, I think it would be more accurate to say that it gives you tools that can help you structure your applications. There's incredibly little prescription about how to use the tools that Backbone provides, and I have a feeling that the code I wrote to build my simple app looks a lot different than what someone else might come up with.

This lack of prescription feels good and bad -- good, because I was able to use Backbone to pretty quickly set up an infrastructure that mirrored ones I've built in the past; bad, because it leaves open the possibility of lots of people inventing lots of wheels. To its credit, it packs a lot of power in a very small package -- 5.3k in production -- but a real app is going to require layering a lot more functionality on top of it. Ultimately, the best way to think of Backbone is as the client-side app boilerplate you'd otherwise have to write yourself.

My biggest complaint about Backbone is probably how unopinionated it is about the view layer. Its focus seems to be entirely on the data layer, but the view is still where we spend the vast majority of our time. Specifically, I think Backbone could take a page from Dojo, and embrace the concept of "templated widgets", because that's what people seem to be doing with Backbone views anyway: mixing data with a template to create a DOM fragment, placing that fragment on the page, listening for user interaction with the fragment, and updating it as required. Backbone provides for some of this, specifically the event stuff, but it leaves you to write your own functionality when it comes to templating, placing, and updating. I think this is a solveable problem without a whole lot of code, and want to spend some time trying to prove it, but I know I need to look into the Backbone Layout Manager before I get too carried away.

Backbone Boilerplate

This project from Tim Branyen was a life-saver -- it gave me an absolutely enormous head start when it came to incorporating RequireJS, setting up my application directories, and setting up a development server. It also included some great inline docs that helped me get my bearings with Backbone.

There are a couple of ways I think the boilerplate could be improved, and I'd be curious for others' opinions:

  • The sample app includes the concept of "modules," which seem to be a single file that include the models, collections, views, and routes for a ... module. I don't love the idea of combining all of this into a single file, because it seems to discourage smart reuse and unit testing of each piece of functionality. In the app I created, I abandoned the concept of modules, and instead broke my app into "components", "controllers", and "services". I explain this breakdown in a bit more depth in the presentation I gave at BazaarVoice. I'm not sure this is the right answer for all apps, but I think modules oversimplify things.
  • The boilerplate includes a namespace.js file. It defines a namespace object, and that object includes a fetchTemplate method. It seems this method should only be used by views, and so I'd rather see something along the lines of an enhanced View that provides this functionality. That's what I did with the base component module in my sample app.
  • I'm super-glad to see Jasmine included in the test directory, but unfortunately the examples show how to write Jasmine tests, not Jasmine tests for a Backbone app. As a community, we definitely need to be showing more examples of how to test things, and this seems like a good opportunity to distribute that knowledge.

Overall

I feel a little silly that I'm just now getting around to spending any time with Backbone, and I know that I only scratched the surface, but I like what I saw. I think it's important to take it for what it is: an uber-tiny library that gets you pointed in the right direction. What I really want to see are fuller-fledged frameworks that build on top of Backbone, because I think there's a lot more that can be standardized beyond what Backbone offers. I'm hoping to have a bit more time in April to dig in, and hopefully I can flesh out some of these ideas into something useful.

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