Monday 27 February 2023

Stepping up, and back, with the new Next.js "app" directory

I'm toying around with a new web-based side project and I thought it was time to give the latest Next.js version a spin. Although I've used Create-React-App (generally hosted on Netlify) more recently, I've dabbled with Next.js in one capacity or another since 2018, and this time some server-side requirements made it a better choice.

The killer feature of the 2023 "beta version" of Next.js (which I assume will eventually be named Next.js 14) is the app directory, which takes Next's already-excellent filesystem-based routing (i.e. if you create a file called bar.tsx in a directory called foo, you'll find it served up at /foo/bar without writing a line of code) and amps it up. A lot.

I won't try and reiterate their excellent documentation, but their nested layouts feature is looking like an absolute winner from where I'm sitting, and I'd like to explain why by taking you back in time. I've done this before when talking about React-related stuff when I joked that the HTML <img> tag was like a proto-React component. And I still stand by that comparison; I think this instant familiarity is one of the fundamental reasons why React has "won" the webapp developer mindshare battle.

Let me take you back to 1998. The Web is pretty raw, pretty wild, and mostly static pages. My Dad's website is absolutely no exception. I've meticulously hand-coded it in vi as a series of stand-alone HTML pages which get FTP'ed into position on his ISP's web server. Although I'm dimly aware of CSS, it's mainly still used for small hacks like removing the underlines from links (I still remember being shown the way to do this with an inline style tag and thinking it would never take off) - and I'm certainly not writing a separate .css file to be included by every HTML file. As a result, everything is styled "inline" so-to-speak, but not even in the CSS way; just mountains of widths and heights and font faces all over the place. It sucked, but HTML was getting better all the time so we just put up with it, used all that it offered, and automated what we could. Which was exactly what I did. If you dare to inspect the source of the above Wayback Machine page, you'll see that it uses HTML frames (ugh), which was a primitive way of maintaining a certain amount of UI consistency while navigating around the site.

The other thing I did to improve UI consistency, was a primitive form of templating. Probably more akin to concatenation, but I definitely had a header.htm which was crammed together with (for-example) order-body.htm to end up with order.htm using a DOS batch file that I ran to "pre-process" everything prior to doing an FTP upload - a monthly occurrence as my Dad liked to keep his "new arrivals" page genuinely fresh. Now header.htm definitely wasn't valid HTML as it would have had unclosed tags galore, but it was re-used for several pages that needed to look the same, and that made me feel efficient.

And this brings me to Next.js and the nesting layouts functionality I mentioned before. To achieve what took me a pile of HTML frames, some malformed HTML documents and a hacky batch file, all I have to do is add a layout.tsx and put all the pages that should use that UI alongside it. I can add a layout.tsx in any subdirectory and it will apply from there "down". Consistency via convention over configuration, while still nodding to the hierarchical filesystem structures we've been using since Before The Web. It's just really well thought-out, and a telling example of how much thought is going into Next.js right now. I am on board, and will be digging deeper this year for sure.