TL;DR: The biggest difference in everyday use isn't nested dependencies... it's the difference between modules and globals.
I think the previous posters have covered well some of the basic distinctions. (npm's use of nested dependencies is indeed very helpful in managing large, complex applications, though I don't think it's the most important distinction.)
I'm surprised, however, that nobody has explicitly explained one of the most fundamental distinctions between Bower and npm. If you read the answers above, you'll see the word 'modules' used often in the context of npm. But it's mentioned casually, as if it might even just be a syntax difference.
The Bower Approach: Global Resources, Like
At root, Bower is about loading plain-old script files. Whatever those script files contain, Bower will load them. Which basically means that Bower is just like including all your scripts in plain-old
<script>'s in the
<head> of your HTML.
So, same basic approach you're used to, but you get some nice automation conveniences:
- You used to need to include JS dependencies in your project repo (while developing), or get them via CDN. Now, you can skip that extra download weight in the repo, and somebody can do a quick
bower install and instantly have what they need, locally.
- If a Bower dependency then specifies its own dependencies in its
bower.json, those'll be downloaded for you as well.
The npm Approach: Common JS Modules, Explicit Dependency Injection
All code in Node land (and thus all code loaded via npm) is structured as modules (specifically, as an implementation of the CommonJS module format, or now, as an ES6 module). So, if you use NPM to handle browser-side dependencies (via Browserify or something else that does the same job), you'll structure your code the same way Node does.
Smarter people than I have tackled the question of 'Why modules?', but here's a capsule summary:
- Anything inside a module is effectively namespaced, meaning it's not a global variable any more, and you can't accidentally reference it without intending to.
- Anything inside a module must be intentionally injected into a particular context (usually another module) in order to make use of it
- This means you can have multiple versions of the same external dependency (lodash, let's say) in various parts of your application, and they won't collide/conflict. (This happens surprisingly often, because your own code wants to use one version of a dependency, but one of your external dependencies specifies another that conflicts. Or you've got two external dependencies that each want a different version.)
- Because all dependencies are manually injected into a particular module, it's very easy to reason about them. You know for a fact: "The only code I need to consider when working on this is what I have intentionally chosen to inject here".
- Because even the content of injected modules is encapsulated behind the variable you assign it to, and all code executes inside a limited scope, surprises and collisions become very improbable. It's much, much less likely that something from one of your dependencies will accidentally redefine a global variable without you realizing it, or that you will do so. (It can happen, but you usually have to go out of your way to do it, with something like
window.variable. The one accident that still tends to occur is assigning
this.variable, not realizing that
this is actually
window in the current context.)
- When you want to test an individual module, you're able to very easily know: exactly what else (dependencies) is affecting the code that runs inside the module? And, because you're explicitly injecting everything, you can easily mock those dependencies.
To me, the use of modules for front-end code boils down to: working in a much narrower context that's easier to reason about and test, and having greater certainty about what's going on.
It only takes about 30 seconds to learn how to use the CommonJS/Node module syntax. Inside a given JS file, which is going to be a module, you first declare any outside dependencies you want to use, like this:
var React = require('react');
Inside the file/module, you do whatever you normally would, and create some object or function that you'll want to expose to outside users, calling it perhaps
At the end of a file, you export whatever you want to share with the world, like this:
module.exports = myModule;
Then, to use a CommonJS-based workflow in the browser, you'll use tools like Browserify to grab all those individual module files, encapsulate their contents at runtime, and inject them into each other as needed.
AND, since ES6 modules (which you'll likely transpile to ES5 with Babel or similar) are gaining wide acceptance, and work both in the browser or in Node 4.0, we should mention a good overview of those as well.
More about patterns for working with modules in this deck.
EDIT (Feb 2017): Facebook's Yarn is a very important potential replacement/supplement for npm these days: fast, deterministic, offline package-management that builds on what npm gives you. It's worth a look for any JS project, particularly since it's so easy to swap it in/out.