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By Scott Mattocks

When I was in school, passing notes took some effort. First, you needed to find a piece of paper that was large enough for your message, but small enough that it could be folded into the requisite football shape. Next, you had to write something. Anything smaller than several sentences just wasn’t worth the overhead, so you had to write about half a page’s worth of stuff, or draw a picture large and detailed enough to make it worth it. After that, you set about the process of folding your note into the aforementioned form. Finally, you had to negotiate with your neighbour to get the note from your desk to its final destination. All of that was just to send the message. On the receiving side, the note was unfolded and read. Then your counterpart would go about constructing a response, refolding the note, and negotiating the return trip.

Passing notes in class was a task that required effort, skill and time. You sent a message and you waited for a response. If you thought of something new that you really needed to say, you had to wait until the response came back. At that point, you could alter your original message or add new content. While your note was in transit or being read and replied to on the other end, you had no control. You were at the mercy of the medium over which you were forced to communicate. Note passing simply isn’t designed to allow for short, quick, asynchronous communication.

Nowadays, kids just text each other on their smartphones. They send messages quickly and easily without having to invest in all that overhead. After a bit of upfront work to get someone’s phone number, the back channel classroom chatter flows freely. That is, until someone forgets to silence their phone and the teacher confiscates everything with a battery.

Just as the methods of slacking off in school have evolved, so have methods of communicating over the Web. HTTP is the note passing of the Internet. It works well enough for most communications, and when the message is large enough, the overhead is minimal. However, it is less efficient for smaller messages. The headers included by browsers these days can easily outweigh the message body.

Also, just like note passing, HTTP is synchronous. The client sends a request and waits until the server responds. If there is something new to be said, a new request is initiated. If the server has something to add, it has to wait until it is asked. It can’t simply send a message when it is ready. WebSockets  are the smartphone to HTTP’s notes. They let you send information quickly and easily. Why go through all that folding when you can simply send a text to say “idk, wut do u think we should do?” Why use 1K of headers when all you want to know is, “Did someone else kill my rat?” Better yet, why ask at all? Why not have the server tell you when the rat has been killed by someone else?

WebSockets are made for small messages. They are made for asynchronous communications. They are made for the types of applications users expect these days. That’s why I like WebSockets so much. They let me communicate without overhead or rigorous process. I can write an application that is free from request/response pairs. I can write an application that responds as quickly as my users can act. I can write the applications that I like to write.

About the Author

Scott Mattocks is the Director of Development at GSN Digital. He leads a team of highly skilled developers, driving growth and scale of GSN’s on-line games platforms. Scott lives in Massachusetts with his wife and four kids. He is also the author of the ebook, WebSockets published by Developer.Press.

This article was reprinted with permission from Developer.Press.

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