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4 Web technologies that shine in iOS 8

Marco Tabini | June 17, 2014
While pundits have been spending the last few years debating whether native apps are superior to their Web counterparts, Apple has been quietly making improvements to the mobile version of Safari, adding features, increasing performance, and generally ensuring that its devices can deliver a browsing environment that is as close as possible to what is available on the desktop.

While pundits have been spending the last few years debating whether native apps are superior to their Web counterparts, Apple has been quietly making improvements to the mobile version of Safari, adding features, increasing performance, and generally ensuring that its devices can deliver a browsing environment that is as close as possible to what is available on the desktop.

Though the updates have often been on the quiet side, the attention is no surprise: One of the salient selling points of the original iPhone OS — as it was called back in 2007 — was that it shipped with a fully-fledged browser.

This focus on Web technologies continues with iOS 8, which will introduce what are perhaps some of the biggest changes to Safari and its underlying technology since the OS's original introduction.

Speed, speed, speed (and safety)

Among the biggest changes in iOS 8 is a speed bump for apps that feature embedded Web views powered by WebKit, the rendering engine behind Safari. Back in 2008, with the launch of iOS 4.3, WebKit was equipped with a high-performance scripting engine capable of dynamically translating JavaScript — the language that powers many webpages — into machine language.

Named Nitro, this "just-in-time" compiler had one major drawback: It was only available when you opened a webpage inside Safari itself. In order to work, Nitro requires special sandboxing privileges that are normally not available to third-party apps; for one thing, it prevents those apps from running code that hasn't been pre-approved by Apple at the time of an app's submission to the App Store.

In iOS 8, however, the new Extensibility features will allow all apps to enjoy the same level of performance as Safari. As long as they opt in to a new embedding mechanism, third-party developers can embed the browser's rendering engine directly into their code in a way that fully enables all of Nitro's enhancements, alongside a few additional performance tricks.

And it gets even better: In order to get around the sandboxing problems and keep Nitro turned on, this new technology works by essentially running Web views as separate programs that share the rendering canvas of a host app. This means that JavaScript-heavy pages won't cause apps to slow down to a crawl, and that crashes in the rendering engine due to things like low-memory conditions will not take third-party apps down with them, resulting in safer and more stable integration between native and Web content.

Voyage in the third dimension

The second big announcement to come out of this year's WWDC is the fact that Safari for iOS 8 will, for the first time, be able to render 3D graphics using a device's GPU for hardware acceleration.

 

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