Eliminate Irritating JavaScript Errors

ou come home, turn on the computer, pull up a Web site, click on a link and HALT! A JavaScript alert box pops up; telling you there is a runtime error, and asking, “Do you wish to debug?” Well that message is fine for developers, but what about the end-users?your audience? The truth is the audience expects the Internet to be quick, easy and free. When they see errors, they mostly don’t know what to do, so they take the path of least resistance?by closing the Alert box and clicking a different link or, worse, leaving your site altogether.

To avoid this problem, you need to learn how to avoid the typical JavaScript error messages, discuss their common causes, and how to trap and handle them so you don’t lose your audience.

JavaScript can raise object or syntax errors for several reasons: bad user input, bad data types, or simple typos in your code. By default, all JavaScript errors (depending on the browser version and the settings) produce an alert dialog asking users if they wish to debug. The dialog displays the line number and an error message, such as “Object expected” or “Character Expected” and (in some cases) shows additional information?such as the missing character. Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer handle errors differently, so I’ll show you ways to trap and handle errors in both browsers.

Using the Throw, Try, and Catch Statements
Microsoft JScript version 5, which ships with Internet Explorer 5+, introduced the throw, try and catch statements. The try and catch statements give you the ability to handle runtime errors during their execution with little to no performance loss. JScript 5 also introduced the Error object. JScript throws instances of the Error object whenever an error occurs in your code. The try statement lets you invoke and “try” to execute a function or code block. When there are no errors the code executes; otherwise, you can catch the error object in a “catch” block, and handle the error in a more user-friendly manner.

Author Note: With the ECMAScript standards in version 2, you can use either the try/catch or the onerror event to trap and handle your errors. Netscape Navigator 6 and Internet Explorer 5+ support them both. Note that these methods will not work in browsers earlier than version 5; however, for IE-only clients you can use client-side VBScript which has an “On Error Resume Next” statement to prevent automatic error message displays.

The error object has two properties: number and description. The number property contains a two-byte integer. To get the “real” error number, you must mask this integer with 0xffff using the bit manipulation operator (the ampersand & character). The description property returns a string containing a description of the error.Generating an Exception
Listing 1 shows an HTML page containing script that is supposed to display the message “Hello World!” when you click the View Message button; however, there’s a typo in the argument of the onclick event handler. The function name is misspelled. Therefore, the JavaScript engine cannot find the function, considers it missing, creates an exception and throws an error. Try it now.

Figure 1 shows the results of running the HTML page in Internet Explorer. Clicking the View Message button causes an error and forces the browser to display the error message.

Although the dialog is not exactly the same, viewing the HTML page in with Netscape 6 produces a similar error message. (See Figure 2)

Handling Exceptions with Try/Catch
To solve the problem, you can wrap your script inside the try and catch statements so you can take more appropriate action, such as writing the errors to a flat file or database for tracking or monitoring, (requires another round trip to the server or more advanced techniques such as the IE WebService Behavior or XMLHTTPRequest), writing a custom message to the client window with options for the user, or even redirecting to a new page.

Listing 2 contains the Hello World page rewritten to use the try and catch statements. Note that the function name appears after the try statement, which is misspelled again. JavaScript will try to invoke this function, which doesn’t exist; therefore, it throws an instance of the error object. However, this time, rather than letting the script engine display the default error message, the catch block catches the error and executes some custom code to handle it. The code displays a custom error message informing the user what happened and preventing annoyance. Try it now.

The custom message shown in Listing 2 displays the error number and error description for educational purposes (see Figure 3), but in real world situations I recommend not displaying these properties. They are of no use to your audience. Instead, you can use an alternate to the alert method?the confirm method?which not only displays a message, but also lets the user click an OK or a Cancel button, and returns true (for OK) or false (for Cancel). For more customized or complex error pages, the best option is to redirect users to a custom error page.Displaying Custom Error Messages
A more interactive way to handle an error is to give your audience an option to continue viewing the page or return to the preceding page or to some other appropriate location. Listing 3 uses the confirm method to display a custom message telling users they can click OK to continue viewing the page or click Cancel to go somewhere else. If the confirm method returns false, the user clicked Cancel as opposed to OK, and the code redirects the user. If the confirm method returns true, the code does nothing. Try it now.

Trapping Errors with an onerror Event Handler
In JavaScript 1.1 Netscape introduced the error event and the onerror event handler. The error event gives you the ability to handle image and document load errors. To use the onerror event, you must provide a function to handle the errors. Then you simply call your function with the onerror event handler. (See Figure 3)

Unlike other events, the onerror event automatically receives 3 parameters:

  • errorMessage?the error message associated with the current error
  • url?the URL of the page in which the error has occurred
  • line?the line number at which your error has taken place
Author note: onerror works in both Netscape and Internet Explorer, but be aware that Internet Explorer does not handle the onerror attribute of the tag correctly. Also, in Netscape (but not IE) the window object has an onerror property that?if set to null?prevents the display of all runtime errors, but that’s not the best way to handle errors.

The value returned by onerror determines whether the browser displays a standard error message. If you return true, the browser does not display a message. If you return false, the browser displays the standard error message in the JavaScript console.

Another way to catch errors is to use the onerror event. The JavaScript engine raises the onerror event whenever an error occurs, so you can use it to set a global error trap. The code in Listing 4 sets the onerror event handler so it points to a function called handleErrors. With the onerror event handler set, the script engine executes the handleErrors function whenever any error occurs. The function returns true to suppress the standard error message. Try it now.

Figure 4 shows the result of catching the error with the onerror event and handling it in a way that improves the user experience. Again, in a real world situation I do not recommend displaying the technical error information.

Once again, with the ECMAScript standards in version 2, you can use either the try/catch or the onerror event to trap and handle your errors. Netscape Navigator 6 and Internet Explorer 5+ support them both. Whichever method you choose, always trap for errors, and handle them in a non-intrusive manner.

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