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Chapter 12. JavaScript in Web Browsers

The first part of this book described the core JavaScript language. Now we move on to JavaScript as used within web browsers, commonly called client-side JavaScript.[43] Most of the examples we've seen so far, while legal JavaScript code, had no particular context; they were JavaScript fragments that ran in no specified environment. This chapter provides that context. It begins with a conceptual introduction to the web browser programming environment and basic client-side JavaScript concepts. Next, it discusses how we actually embed JavaScript code within HTML documents so it can run in a web browser. Finally, the chapter goes into detail about how JavaScript programs are executed in a web browser.

[43]The term "client-side JavaScript" is left over from the days when JavaScript was used in only two places: web browsers (clients) and web servers. As JavaScript is adopted as a scripting language in more and more environments, the term client-side makes less and less sense because it doesn't specify the client side of what. Nevertheless, we'll continue to use the term in this book.

12.1. The Web Browser Environment

To understand client-side JavaScript, you must understand the conceptual framework of the programming environment provided by a web browser. The following sections introduce three important features of that programming environment:

  • The Window object that serves as the global object and global execution context for client-side JavaScript code

  • The client-side object hierarchy and the document object model that forms a part of it

  • The event-driven programming model

12.1.1. The Window as Global Execution Context

The primary task of a web browser is to display HTML documents in a window. In client-side JavaScript, the Document object represents an HTML document, and the Window object represents the window (or frame) that displays the document. While the Document and Window objects are both important to client-side JavaScript, the Window object is more important, for one substantial reason: the Window object is the global object in client-side programming.

Recall from Chapter 4 that in every implementation of JavaScript there is always a global object at the head of the scope chain; the properties of this global object are global variables. In client-side JavaScript, the Window object is the global object. The Window object defines a number of properties and methods that allow us to manipulate the web browser window. It also defines properties that refer to other important objects, such as the document property for the Document object. Finally, the Window object has two self-referential properties, window and self. You can use either of these global variables to refer directly to the Window object.

Since the Window object is the global object in client-side JavaScript, all global variables are defined as properties of the window. For example, the following two lines of code perform essentially the same function:

var answer = 42;     // Declare and initialize a global variable
window.answer = 42;  // Create a new property of the Window object

The Window object represents a web browser window or a frame within a window. To client-side JavaScript, top-level windows and frames are essentially equivalent. It is common to write JavaScript applications that use multiple frames, and it is possible, if less common, to write applications that use multiple windows. Each window or frame involved in an application has a unique Window object and defines a unique execution context for client-side JavaScript code. In other words, a global variable declared by JavaScript code in one frame is not a global variable within a second frame. However, the second frame can access a global variable of the first frame; we'll see how when we consider these issues in more detail in Chapter 13.

12.1.2. The Client-Side Object Hierarchy and the Document Object Model

We've seen that the Window object is the key object in client-side JavaScript. All other client-side objects are connected to this object. For example, every Window object contains a document property that refers to the Document object associated with the window and a location property that refers to the Location object associated with the window. A Window object also contains a frames[] array that refers to the Window objects that represent the frames of the original window. Thus, document represents the Document object of the current window, and frames[1].document refers to the Document object of the second child frame of the current window.

An object referenced through the current window or through some other Window object may itself refer to other objects. For example, every Document object has a forms[] array containing Form objects that represent any HTML forms appearing in the document. To refer to one of these forms, you might write:


To continue with the same example, each Form object has an elements[] array containing objects that represent the various HTML form elements (input fields, buttons, etc.) that appear within the form. In extreme cases, you can write code that refers to an object at the end of a whole chain of objects, ending up with expressions as complex as this one:


We've seen that the Window object is the global object at the head of the scope chain and that all client-side objects in JavaScript are accessible as properties of other objects. This means that there is a hierarchy of JavaScript objects, with the Window object at its root. Figure 12-1 shows this hierarchy. Study this figure carefully; understanding the hierarchy and the objects it contains is crucial to successful client-side JavaScript programming. Most of the remaining chapters of this book are devoted to fleshing out the details of the objects shown in this figure.

Figure 12-1

Figure 12-1. The client-side object hierarchy and Level 0 DOM

Note that Figure 12-1 shows just the object properties that refer to other objects. Most of the objects shown in the diagram have quite a few more properties than those shown.

Many of the objects pictured in Figure 12-1 descend from the Document object. This subtree of the larger client-side object hierarchy is known as the document object model (DOM), which is interesting because it has been the focus of a standardization effort. Figure 12-1 illustrates the Document objects that have become de facto standards because they are consistently implemented by all major browsers. Collectively, they are known as the Level 0 DOM, because they form a base level of document functionality that JavaScript programmers can rely on in all browsers. These basic Document objects are the subject of Chapter 14 and Chapter 15. A more advanced document object model that has been standardized by the W3C is the subject of Chapter 17 and Chapter 18.

12.1.3. The Event-Driven Programming Model

In the old days, computer programs often ran in batch mode -- they read in a batch of data, did some computation on that data, and then wrote out the results. Later, with time-sharing and text-based terminals, limited kinds of interactivity became possible -- the program could ask the user for input, and the user could type in data. The computer could then process the data and display the results on screen.

Nowadays, with graphical displays and pointing devices like mice, the situation is different. Programs are generally event driven; they respond to asynchronous user input in the form of mouse-clicks and keystrokes in a way that depends on the position of the mouse pointer. A web browser is just such a graphical environment. An HTML document contains an embedded graphical user interface (GUI), so client-side JavaScript uses the event-driven programming model.

It is perfectly possible to write a static JavaScript program that does not accept user input and does exactly the same thing every time. Sometimes this sort of program is useful. More often, however, we want to write dynamic programs that interact with the user. To do this, we must be able to respond to user input.

In client-side JavaScript, the web browser notifies programs of user input by generating events. There are various types of events, such as keystroke events, mouse motion events, and so on. When an event occurs, the web browser attempts to invoke an appropriate event handler function to respond to the event. Thus, to write dynamic, interactive client-side JavaScript programs, we must define appropriate event handlers and register them with the system, so that the browser can invoke them at appropriate times.

If you are not already accustomed to the event-driven programming model, it can take a little getting used to. In the old model, you wrote a single, monolithic block of code that followed some well-defined flow of control and ran to completion from beginning to end. Event-driven programming stands this model on its head. In event-driven programming, you write a number of independent (but mutually interacting) event handlers. You do not invoke these handlers directly, but allow the system to invoke them at the appropriate times. Since they are triggered by the user's input, the handlers will be invoked at unpredictable, asynchronous times. Much of the time, your program is not running at all but merely sitting waiting for the system to invoke one of its event handlers.

The next section explains how JavaScript code is embedded within HTML files. It shows how we can define both static blocks of code that run synchronously from start to finish and event handlers that are invoked asynchronously by the system. We'll also discuss events and event handling in much greater detail in Chapter 19.

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