Is Compass to Sass what jQuery is to JavaScript?

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Below is a statement made to me a short time ago by someone on Twitter named David Leuliette (translated from French):

#Compass is to #Sass what #jQuery is to #JavaScript, do you confirm @KittyGiraudel?
— David Leuliette, Twitter

So far I have to say the analogy has some merit. To be honest, it is not something I had previously given any thought to but now that the idea is on the table, let’s try to dig a little deeper into it to see if we can come to a definite conclusion.

Let’s compare the things we’re talking about here:

JavaScript is an interpreted computer programming language (from Wikipedia). Let me take this as an opportunity to remind everyone that there is a world for JavaScript outside of the browser, starting with Unity3D, Node.js — even though we are more accustomed to dealing with it in the browser. But the main point is that JavaScript is a language.

Sass in itself is more like a kind of program that compiles SassScript into actual CSS. So although the language itself is SassScript let’s oversimplify this and postulate that Sass is an interpreted scripting language.

Framework or library?

jQuery is a JavaScript library, according to its homepage. It’s good to point out that jQuery is focused on the client, especially since its main goal is to aid DOM manipulation, Ajax requests, and event handling (among other things of course) through a simple and accessible API.

jQuery is a fast, small, and feature-rich JavaScript library.

Meanwhile, as explained on its homepage, Compass is a framework for Sass projects, or a CSS Authoring Framework (whatever that means!).

Compass is an open-source CSS Authoring Framework.

So on one hand we have a library and on the other hand we have a framework. Before going any further in our comparison, we should probably have a look at the main difference between a library and a framework. Although the terms are often used interchangably, I’ve done some research to help us define them more accurately.

Two quotes I dug up tell us that a framework is more global than a library, whereas a library is something quite specific that you can call whenever you need it.

A library performs specific, well-defined operations. A framework is a skeleton where the application defines the “meat” of the operation by filling out the skeleton. The skeleton still has code to link up the parts but the most important work is done by the application.
— Jason Cohen, Stack Overflow

A library is essentially a set of functions that you can call, these days usually organized into classes. Each call does some work and returns control to the client. A framework embodies some abstract design, with more behavior built in. In order to use it you need to insert your behavior into various places in the framework either by subclassing or by plugging in your own classes. The framework’s code then calls your code at these points.
— Martin Fowler, Inversion of control

Further, here are two moer quotes one from discussing a software design methodology called the Hollywood principle:

I think that the main difference is that frameworks follow the Hollywood principle, i.e. “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”.
— Panos, Stack Overflow

You call Library. Framework calls you.
— Ian Boyd, Stack Overflow

And finally a quote that sums it all up:

A library is a tool. A framework is a way of life. A library you can use whatever tiny part helps you. A Framework you must commit your entire project to.
— James Curran, Stack Overflow

So in the end, jQuery is indeed a library. All it does is provide a collection of methods and other features that you can use to make development life easier. It’s like syntactic-sugar for JavaScript.

Compass on the other hand not only provides a collection of mixins to the user, but also a whole range of other features like images and path manipulation, sprite building, blueprint, and much more.

From there, we could raise the first flag on our comparison: in a way, Compass is more than jQuery.

Do we need them?

Experienced JavaScript developers will probably acknowledge that they don’t need jQuery but that it does come in very handy for large projects that need support in older browsers like IE8.

But if you ask Sass developers if they need Compass, there is a good chance they’ll tell you that there are some things that simply cannot be done without Compass. This is because Compass does things that Sass cannot do by itself while jQuery does absolutely nothing that you can’t do with raw JavaScript (jQuery is, after all, just JavaScript). So this is probably the biggest flaw in the analogy.

Nowadays more and more people are avoiding jQuery for various reasons:

  • Robust vanilla JavaScript is becoming more and more popular thanks to tutorials, blogs, and other open-source libraries (let’s not forget jQuery was first introduced 8 years ago).
  • Standards and browsers are moving forward, making some jQuery features unnecessary.
  • Getting rid of jQuery saves an HTTP request and prevents loading about 100kb of (unused) JavaScript; this is ultimately better for the end user who might be on a slow connection on mobile.

Meanwhile, at this stage, there is nothing to gain from getting rid of Compass because it is not run on the client side; it is a development tool (and so is Sass). While removing JavaScript can make a page faster, removing a Sass library/framework makes no difference at all for the end user.

At best, Sass will compile stylesheets a bit faster without Compass but I’m not sure you can actually perceive any difference. Also, I’m not sure giving up all the tools and shortcuts Compass offers is actually worth a slightly faster compilation. In my opionion, it definitely isn’t worth the sacrifice.

What Can We Conclude?

The question remains: is Compass to Sass what jQuery is to JavaScript?

If you stick to the correct terminology, as discussed above, then the answer is no. jQuery is a function library written in JavaScript, while Compass provides a lot of features beyond just mixins. This is the main reason Compass and Sass are often discussed as a single entity, because each is complementary to the other.

On the other hand, if we disregard the technical definitions of “library” and “framework” then the answer might be: kind of. In a way, using Compass for mixins is very similar to using jQuery for functions. It’s less verbosity, it makes things simpler, and more readable, and thus is easier to maintain. This is quite similar to what jQuery does.

But as discussed, in the end, pragmatism wins: The real difference between Compass and jQuery is that while there are benefits to avoiding jQuery, I don’t see any reason to give up Compass.

Kitty GiraudelKitty Giraudel
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Non-binary trans accessibility & diversity advocate, frontend developer, author. Real life cat. She/they.

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