Why Page Weight Still Matters

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The dark and mysterious Internet overlords decreed a commandment at the dawn of the Web. All of us followed the rule: thou shalt not create web pages that exceed 50kB in size.

This was understandable back in those unenlightened times. The majority of Internet users had dial-up modems and broadband was an unobtainable dream. Few developers dared go above 100kB, even when fast connections became a reality.

We rarely worry about page weight today. We may use CSS sprites and compressed JavaScript libraries, but only when they’re practical (indeed, do they really make a difference when we fill our pages with 57 Flash adverts?).

But should we care? I recently had the opportunity to work away without a laptop or reliable wifi coverage. Fortunately, I had my trusty Nokia with E/GPRS to help me stay in touch. It’s not 3G, but I didn’t mind waiting for what I thought would be a few extra seconds for pages to load.

fat-laden web pagesBoy, was I wrong. Although email remained usable, accessing the majority of websites was painful. Many pages approached an obese 1MB in size and took a minute or two to appear. I even began to understand why Apple banned Flash — anything that can slim down pages will improve browsing speeds. Perhaps they even considered blocking CSS and JavaScript.

Approximately 10% of Internet users still use dial-up services in the west. That figure is unlikely to drop rapidly; many will be light users or unwilling to pay for a fast connection. There’s also a percentage of users who are unable to access broadband because they live in a remote area.

There’s little need to worry about that 10%, because it’s unlikely to consist of users who are shopping online or using web applications. However, there are two sectors of the community that will experience exponential growth during the next few years:

  1. Internet users from Asia and Africa. Dial-up access and slow broadband will remain prevalent until telecom infrastructures receive a boost.
  2. Those using mobile devices to access the Internet. Connections are improving, but 3G is typically slower than broadband speeds. Besides, the majority of mobile users are either paying per byte or using devices without 3G.

Internet demographics are changing. Although PC/broadband still dominates, the real growth areas are smaller devices with limited processing power and slower connectivity. In the US, mobile data now exceeds voice traffic and Google is predicting that the days of desktop computing are numbered.

It is possible to create a low-bandwidth or mobile version of your website. It may sometimes be impractical or cost more to do, but there are few excuses for not trimming the excess fat from your pages. Reducing page weight makes your application faster and saves hosting costs.

What do you think? Should developers still be concerned about page weight? Should we strive to save every byte? Or are fast connections so ubiquitous there’s little need to care about it?

Craig BucklerCraig Buckler
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Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.

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