Dave Rupert recently made a bit of a stir with his post “If Web Components are so great, why am I not using them?” . I’ve been working with web components for a few years now, so I thought I’d weigh in on this.
At the risk of giving the most senior-engineer-y “It depends” answer ever: I think web components have strengths and weaknesses, and you have to understand the tradeoffs before deciding when to use them. So let’s explore some cases where web components really shine, before moving on to where they might fall flat.
Client-rendered leaf components
To me, this is the most unambiguously slam-dunk use case for web components. You have some component at the leaf of the DOM tree, it doesn’t need to be rendered server-side, and it doesn’t
<slot> any content inside of it. Examples include: a rich text editor, a calendar widget, a color picker, etc.
At this point, you’ve already bypassed a bunch of tricky bits of web components, such as Server-Side Rendering (SSR), hydration, slotting, maybe even shadow DOM. If you’re not using a framework, or you’re using one that supports web components
, you can just plop the
<fancy-component> tag into your template or JSX and call it a day.
For instance, take my emoji-picker-element . It’s one line of HTML to import it:
<script type="module" href="https://cdn.jsdelivr.net/npm/emoji-picker-element@1/index.js"></script>
And one line to use it:
No bundler, no transpiler, no framework integration, just copy-paste. It’s almost like ye olde days of jQuery plugins. And yet, I’ve also seen it used in complex SPA projects – web components can run the gamut.
This is about as close as you can get to the original vision for web components, which is that using
<fancy-element> should be as easy as using built-in HTML elements.
Glue code, or avoiding the big rewrite
Picture this: you’ve got a big React codebase, it’s served you well for a while, but now your team wants to move to Svelte. Time to rewrite the whole thing, right? Including finding new Svelte versions of every third-party component you’re using?
This is the way a lot of frontend devs think about frameworks, with all these huge switching costs when moving from one to the other. The biggest misconception I’ve seen about web components is that they’re just another flavor of the same story.
They’re not. The whole point of web components is to liberate us from this churn. If you decide to switch from Vue to Lit, or from Angular to Stencil (or whatever), and if you’re rewriting all your components in one go, then you’re signing up for a lot of unnecessary pain.
Just let your old code and your new code live side-by-side. Use web components as the interoperability later to glue the two together. You don’t need to rewrite everything all at once:
Web components can pass props/attributes down, and send events back up. (That’s kind of their whole thing.) If your framework supports web components , then this works out of the box. (And if not, you can write some lite glue code .)
Now, some people get squeamish at the idea of two frameworks living on the same page, but I think this is more gut-based than evidence-based . And to be fair, if you’re using a meta-framework to do SSR/hydration, then this partial migration may be easier said than done. But if web components are good at anything, it’s defining a high-level contract for composing two components together, on the client side anyway.
So if you’re tired of rewriting your whole UI every year (or your boss is tired of you doing it), then maybe web components are worth considering.
Design systems and enterprise
If you watch Cassondra Robert’s talk from CSS Day , there’s a nice slide with a lot of corporate logos attesting to web components’ penetration:
What you’ll notice is that a lot of big companies (like the one I work for) are quietly using web components, especially in their design systems and component libraries. If you spend a lot of time on webdev social media, this might surprise you. It might also surprise you to learn that, by some measures , React is used on roughly 8% of page loads , whereas web components are used on 20% .
The thing is, a lot of big companies are not on social media (Twitter/X, Reddit, etc.) trying to sell you on web components or teach you how to use them. On the other hand, there are plenty of tech influencers on Twitter busily keeping up to date with every minor version of React and what’s new in that ecosystem. The reason for this is pretty simple: big companies tend to talk a lot internally, but not so much externally, whereas small companies (agencies, startups, freelancers, etc.) tend to be more active on social media relative to their company size. So if web components are more popular inside the enterprise than outside of it, you’d never know it from browsing Twitter all day.
So why are big enterprises so gaga for web components? For one thing, design systems based on web components work across a variety of environments. A big company might have frontends written in React, Angular, Ember, and static HTML, and they all have to play nicely with the company’s theming and branding. The big rewrite (as described above) may be a fun exercise for your average startup, but it’s just not practical in the enterprise world.
Having a lot of consumers of your codebase, and having to think on longer timescales, just leads to different technical decisions. And to me, this points to the main reason enterprises love web components: stability and longevity.
Think about your average React codebase, and how updating any dependency (React Router, Redux, React itself, etc.) can lead to a weeks-long effort of rewriting your code to accommodate all the breaking changes. Cue the inevitable appearance of Hyrum’s Law at enterprise scale, where even a tiny change can cause a butterfly effect that breaks thousands of components, and even bumping a minor version can lead to weeks of testing, validating, and documenting. In this world, your average React minor version bump is an ordeal – a major version bump is a disaster.
Compare this to the backwards-compatibility guarantees of the web platform, where the venerable Space Jam website from 1996 still works to this day. Web components hook into this stability story, which is a huge plus for any company that doesn’t have the luxury of rewriting their frontend every couple years.
When you use a web component,
connectedCallback is just
connectedCallback – it’s not going to change. And shadow DOM style scoping, with all of its subtleties
, is not going to change either. Whatever code you can delegate to the browser, that’s code you’re not having to maintain or validate over the years; you’ve effectively outsourced that responsibility to Google, Apple, and Mozilla.
Enterprises are slow, cautious, and risk-averse – just like the web platform. No wonder web components have taken the enterprise world by storm.
Downsides of web components
All of the pluses of web components should be weighed against their weaknesses. And web components have their fair share:
- Server-side rendering (SSR). I would argue that this is still not a solved problem in web-components-land. Sure, we have Declarative Shadow DOM , but that’s just one part of the puzzle. There’s no standard for rendering web components on the server, so every framework does it a bit differently. The fact that Lit SSR is still under “Lit Labs” should tell you something. Maybe in the future, when you can render 3 different web component frameworks on the server, and they compose together and hydrate nicely, then I’ll consider this solved. But I think we’re a few years away from that, at least.
- Accessibility. You can’t have ARIA references that easily cross shadow boundaries , and dialogs and focus can be tricky. At the very least, if you don’t want to mess up accessibility, then you have to think really carefully about your component structure from day one. There’s a lot of ongoing work to solve this, but I’d say it’s definitely rough out there in 2023.
Aside from that, there are also problems of lock-in (e.g. meta-frameworks, bundlers, test runners), the ongoing legacy of IE11 (some folks are scarred for life; the last thing they want to do is #useThePlatform), and overall platform exhaustion (“I learned React, it works, I don’t want to learn something else”). Not everyone is going to be sold on web components, and I’m fine with that. The web is a big tent, and everybody is using it for different things; that’s part of what makes it so amazing.
Use web components. Or don’t use them. Or come back and check in again in a few years, when the features and web standards are a bit more fleshed out.
I think web components are cool, but I understand that not everyone feels the same way. I don’t feel like I need to go around evangelizing for their adoption. They’re just another tool in the toolbelt; the trick is leveraging their strengths while avoiding their pitfalls.
The thing I like about web components, and web standards in general, is that I get to outsource a bunch of boring problems to the browser. How do I compose components? How do I scope styles? How do I pass data around? Who cares – just take whatever the browser gives you. That way, I can spend more time on the problems that actually matter to my end-users, like performance, accessibility, security, etc.
Too often, in web development, I feel like I’m wrestling with incidental complexity that has nothing to do with the actual problem at hand. I’m wrangling npm dependencies, or debugging my state manager, or trying to figure out why my test runner isn’t playing nicely with my linter. Some people really enjoy this kind of stuff, and I find myself getting sucked into it sometimes too. But I think ultimately it’s a kind of fake-work that feels good but doesn’t accomplish much, because your end-user doesn’t care if your bundler is up-to-date with your TypeScript transpiler.
That said, in 2023, choosing web components comes with its own baggage of incidental complexity, such as the aforementioned problems of SSR and accessibility. Compromising on either of those things could actively harm your end-users in ways that actually matter to them, so the tradeoff may not be worth it to you.
I think the tradeoff is often worth it, but again, there are nuances here. “Use web components for what they’re good at” isn’t catchy, but it’s a good way to think about it in 2023.
Thanks to Westbrook Johnson for feedback on a draft of this blog post.