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Google Chrome: It's all about the Javascript

By   |  October 23, 2008

Chrome, Google’s new browser, was barely out of its wrapping before Internet pundits began writing it off. As the first wave of early-adopter enthusiasts lost interest in their experiments and returned to their original browsers, so analysts began to declare Chrome dead. But there is a far more interesting set of dynamics at work. Google is not after Microsoft’s share of the browser market: it’s after something much bigger.

To understand what’s truly and enduringly interesting about Google Chrome, one needs to understand what is special about V8, its new Javascript engine. And to understand that, it’s useful to go back ten years to look at the position of Javascript’s remote cousin Java.

Ten years ago, Java was so slow it was inconceivable that anybody could use it to build serious systems; its garbage collection process brought entire applications to a shuddering halt. Then a small start-up team led by Lars Bak, a graduate of Denmark’s famous Aarhus University, developed a new virtual machine for Java that enabled code to be compiled on the fly, improving Java’s performance 20 times or more. The start-up was rapidly acquired by Sun and Bak became the technology lead for Java Hotspot, Java’s current virtual machine.

Hotspot changed everything: suddenly Java became a language to take very seriously indeed.

Fast-forward ten years, and Lars Bak is back in Aarhus, leading the team developing V8, the Javascript engine behind Google Chrome.

Speed barrier

Without V8, Javascript suffers from the same problem Java had ten years ago: it’s painfully, unbelievably slow, tens or even hundreds of thousands of times slower than other languages. So despite its flexibility, it’s never been used for any kind of serious development; in fact, it’s been the single biggest hurdle to the development of more interesting applications that can run inside a browser.

It’s not always Telkom’s fault when web pages load at a snail’s pace: Javascript is a big part of the problem. There have been a few attempts to replace it as the main tool for getting functionality into the browser, notably Microsoft’s Silverlight and Adobe’s Flex, both of which are being pushed hard. The goal for everyone is enable as much as possible to be done inside the browser, as efficiently as possible.

Applications like Gmail and Google Maps have done amazingly well so far, but they are way out at the limits of what can be done inside a browser.

Or rather, they WERE out at the limits of what could be done. Just as Hotspot changed everything for Java, so V8 is going to change everything for Javascript. In a below-the-radar blog post at the beginning of September announcing V8, Bak said it “has been designed for performance from the ground up. In particular, we wanted to remove some common bottlenecks that limit the amount and complexity of JavaScript code that can be used in Web applications.”

Bak says there are three cornerstones of the V8 design: Compilation of JavaScript source code directly into native machine code, an efficient memory management system resulting in fast object allocation and small garbage collection pauses, and the Introduction of hidden classes and inline caches that speed up property access and function calls.

That may not make a great deal of sense to those who aren’t programmers, but here’s the key point: V8 is fast. Very, very fast. So fast that it is now possible, for the first time, to develop seriously functionality inside a web browser without relying on obese plugins.

Tighter security

Security is also much tighter with V8. Every tab opened in the browser is a separate process that is well sandboxed, allowing no leakage of malignant code. In other existing browsers, even Firefox, all tabs use a single execution thread and a single process, making the whole vulnerable to security problems. V8 provides a far superior environment for developing applications.

Tellingly, V8 is open source, which will only magnify the huge ripple effect it is going to have. Slow runtime environments have been the biggest stumbling block to moving more functionality off the desktop and into the browser; with that removed, things are really going to take off. Google Docs, for one, will gather enormous strength, possibly making it a real alternative to Microsoft Office for the first time.

Which brings us back to the starting point: Google is not interested in winning browser market share, it’s interested in replacing entire operating systems. A JavaScript engine that enables serious functionality to be offered inside the browser is a huge step in that direction.

Steve Mabbutt is the technology director at KRS.

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Comments

6 Responses to “Google Chrome: It's all about the Javascript”

  1. junihor
    October 23rd, 2008 @ 10:53 pm

    “It’s interested in replacing entire operating systems”

    Even Java, without all the barriers of a browser, cannot replace an OS. What makes Chrome suddenly capable then? It’s too much wishful thinking.

  2. Dwayne Bailey
    October 24th, 2008 @ 8:15 am

    You clearly haven’t met the generation that does gmail, google docs, mailing lists and everything else from their web browser. And that web browser will run on their desktop, Eee PC, cell phone and almost any other OS. I’m not even sure if you’ve met people who use cellphones…

    Nope it won’t replace the OS. Their is still a need for the platform on which the browser runs. But that platform can be anything so who cares about the OS. And to the end-user an OS has always been the things you do on it not the kernel.

    Java dreamed of doing this. Web browser are already doing it. Its not wishful thinking when you see people current behaviour changes. You have standards around the presentation and the language. The various AJAX toolkits abstracting the JavaScript differences that do exist you have a pretty good platform. The web browser presents the first credible platform on which to run truly cross-platform.

    Whether its the best platform for development I’m not sure but I sense that it doesn’t really make a difference as its what people are already doing that does. Witness the massive market on cellphones that have a pretty rustic use of Java that really reminds us of the “Write once, debug everywhere” mantra. What does a solid standard platform mean for a developer of cellphone apps? I’d guess quite a lot. The only thing missing would be performance… Aha.

    You probably also want to watch what Mozilla is doing. Their tracemonkey adaptations resulted in blistering speeds in their JavaScript engine, they rival what we’re seeing in V8. They’ve added native video for Firefox 3.1. You might not think this is important but you need to think that Firefox has 20% of a market that was dominated by some other browser that seems to not care much about leading innovation. Since the release of Firefox the domination has been eroded from around 95% or more to 70%. This has given space for really innovative development to happen in the browser space.

    There is only one group that really doesn’t need the browser to succeed as a platform, there are the companies that derive revenue from a desktop shrink wrapped model.

    I think the bets are out on this one, I think I can agree on that. But I think there is a massive potential that you are underestimating by thinking of the history of Java and not adjusting it for the realities of technology today.

  3. TheGreatGonzo
    October 24th, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

    Well I think things are about to get very interesting in the OS arena. There are a lot of people who do believe that the browser will become the OS and some interesting projects that are attempting it already, http://g.ho.st/?language=en, for instance.

    I think that gOS and hardware such as the Walmart $100 pc and the EEE are showing that for the majority of people they only need a web browser, an email client and an office suite. There are exceptions but most things most people want are browser based or have a browser alternative.

    I hear that a team at Adobe are developing flash so it could run C code natively on the users pc as if it was running external to the browser. Once that is complete things will get really interesting. Linux Kernel running in a browser anyone??

  4. Dominic White
    October 24th, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

    I’m not so sure about the additional security, especially given all the privacy problems Chrome introduced.

    You can read more about the privacy concerns at http://singe.za.net/blog/archives/947-German-Gov-says-Google-is-the-Devil;-SRWare-performs-exorcism.html

    You can read more about the security concerns at http://singe.za.net/blog/archives/941-My-Thoughts-on-Googles-Chrome.html

  5. Boycott Novell » Links 25/10/2008: Adoption Evidence and More Linux Numbers from the LF
    October 25th, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

    […] Google Chrome: It’s all about the Javascript […]

  6. Rob
    November 17th, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

    I’m an IBM mainframe programmer (30 years) and just don’t have the patience for poorly designed, poorly performing tempermental unstable products. And I’m long past the stage of playing with computers like they’re toys.

    To me – they’re mission critical tools that better work – because I don’t want to drive to the datacenter at 3:00 am to fix some nonsense that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

    I also bore easily when confronted with endlessly bloated sub-menus that Micrsoft foisted on us for the past 25 years. 75% of their “features” reek of one thing – to keep us from going to their competitors for the slightest thing.

    Which brings me to the 3-times daily Internet Explorer crashing – and slow performance.

    Its history.

    I installed Chrome & learned all I needed in 30 minutes flat. No wearying Redmond pull-down bloatware. No nonsense.

    And I don’t have to light up a joint just to get into Microsoft’s head – about what they’re doing at every turn.

    Sure – the Chrome beta has teething problems. But it’s still a killing machine compared to that panty-waist Internet Explorer.

    And my Windows operating system is finally where it belongs, way in the background – out of sight, and out of mind.

    Good Riddance Microsoft.

    Rob

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