SiliconFilter

For Qualcomm, Making Mobile Browsing Better Starts at the Chip Level

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When it comes to browser performance, we tend to talk a lot about what browser developers like Microsoft, Google and Mozilla can do to render web pages faster and make complex web apps like Gmail run smoother. Especially in the mobile world, though, there is a level of optimization that's happening at the level of the actual chips that are responsible for making your phone or tablet tick. That optimization is happening both in the design of the chips, as well as how the operating system talks to them. Yesterday, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I had a chance to sit down with Sy Choudhury, who leads Qualcomm’s Web Technologies initiative. For the most part, our chat focused on what chip makers can do to improve the mobile browsing experience, as well as the increasing importance of HTML5 in the mobile world (HTML5, at its core, is a set of technologies that allow developers to create highly-interactive web applications that look and feel just like regular desktop software).

Qualcomm, which is mostly known for producing the processors and chipsets that run a larger percentage of the world's mobile phone, is working together closely with both the Android and Chrome teams at Google to make your browsing experience on your mobile phone or tablet better. The company, of course, is also working together with other vendors, including Microsoft, but most of the optimization work is currently being done on the Android platform.

The difference between an optimized version of Android and the reference version from Google can often be quite dramatic. In Qualcomm's tests, for example, web pages render 20-30% faster in the optimized version and JavaScript programs are executed 70% faster. Qualcomm also optimized its processors to decode pictures faster, which leads to about a 25% improvement in rendering speed for JPEG images.

As Choudhury told me, this optimization happens at virtually all of the levels of the experience, most of which most users never think about. This ranges from how the browser talks to the network, to how it uses your phone's graphics hardware to make sure video plays without stuttering and all the way up to how your browser interprets JavaScript, the language most complex web pages today are written in.

Qualcomm browser web speed html5

Qualcomm is showing a number of impressive demos at the Mobile World Congress this week to demonstrate this work, including an Instagram-like photo-sharing application that lives in the browser. In another demo, the company is showing the difference between an HTML5-based game that has access to the graphics card and one that doesn't. Unsurprisingly, the one that doesn't use the tablet's graphics hardware directly features mediocre performance while the other runs just as smooth as a native app.

With Great Power Comes Worse Power Consumption

All this power, though, always comes with a trade-off – and more often than not, that trade-off is power consumption. For companies like Qualcomm and its partners, finding the right balance between those two poles isn't always easy. According to Choudhury, though, small tweaks can often make a big difference. Qualcomm, for example, changed how often the network chip shuts down when it is not in use and just a small change like this can lead to power savings of close to 7% under some circumstances.

Who Needs Apps When The Browser Can Do All Of This?

Qualcomm, of course, is also a member of the Core Mobile Web Platform Group Facebook announced at the Mobile World Congress earlier this week. In Choudhury's view, now that websites can access your phone's camera, display videos and render even games without the need for Flash and do so smoothly and without the user ever really having to think about what technology an app uses, there is almost no need for native apps anymore.

Qualcomm’s Web Technologies initiative
 


7:30 am


Report: Web Pages are Getting More Bloated, Average Size is Up 25% From Last Year

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Our browsers are getting faster and so are our Internet connections, but in parallel to this, the web pages we access are actually getting bigger, too. According to uptime monitoring service Pingdom, the average website grew an astonishing 25% over the last year. The main culprits here are images and JavaScript. Images now weigh in at 451 kB on the average web page, an increase of 21% compared to the 372 kB Pingdom recorded 12 months ago. While they are smaller on average than images, the size of the average JavaScript files on a web page is now 149 kB, up 45% from last year.

The average web page now clocks in at 980 KB and it takes about 87 requests to load those pages.

the size of the average web page in 2010 and 2011

As developers now focus more on adding interactive elements to their sites with the help of HTML5 and JavaScript, the size of these files will likely continue to increase. For most broadband users, these increases won’t really make any practical difference. On slower 3G connections, though, and for those who still use dial-up connections, these increases are meaningful.

Pingdom notes that “size optimization seems to have gone out the window pretty much across the board.” Given how easy it is to at least compress images more effectively and maybe minify the JavaScript and CSS on a site, it’s a shame that so many developers and publishers don’t seem to do so (and yes, looking at our site here, we could definitely do some more of that as well).



5:49 pm


Dart: Google’s New Programming Language is Coming Next Month

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Next month, at the Goto software development conference in Aarhus Denmark, Google is scheduled to reveal Dart, its new programming language for “structured web programming.” Just a few days ago, Google registered a number of Dart-related domain names, so it was already clear that the company had something in the works for this. The announcement of a Dart-focused keynote at Goto marks the first public announcement of this new language.

“Structured Web Programming”

Obviously, we don’t know a lot about Dart yet. Given that Google already launched another language – Go – that is very C-like, we can safely assume that Dart will be something different. We can get some clues from the biographies of the keynote presenters: the two people who are giving the keynote are Gilad Bracha, who worked on Smalltalk in the middle of the 1990s and then on the specs and implementation of Java at Sun, and Lars Bak, who works on Google’s V8 JavaScript engine today, but also worked on Smalltalk and Java.

As ExtremeTech’s Sebastian Anthony rightly notes, given the two presenters’ background and the idea that this will be a language for “structured web programming,” chances are that the two will present a “Smalltalkesque” in-browser language similar to JavaScript or Python.

So far, Google’s attempt at launching new programming languages hasn’t been met with a huge success. Go, while stirring some interesting among some programmers, has remained a niche product and Dart – if it is indeed the kind of language I expect it to be – will go up against incumbents that are supported by massive ecosystems already. The same, however, could have been said about those languages when they first appeared, so it will definitely be worth keeping an eye on this next month.

Image credit: Jake Sutton

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7:10 pm


Mozilla Officially Launches Firefox 6

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Mozilla today officially launched Firefox 6, the latest stable version of its popular browser. Since its switch to a more frequent release schedule, Mozilla has already pushed out a number of releases, so version numbers themselves are becoming significantly less useful at this point and most of the updates are rather small. Indeed, users who expect this to be a major update will be sorely disappointed as Mozilla only made minor tweaks to the user interface and didn’t add any major new features in this new version besides a new permissions tool for site-specific permissions.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a plethora of bug fixes and new features for developers in Firefox 6. Regular users, however, won’t notice much of a difference if they were already using Firefox 5 before. Most of your addons should also continue to work just fine. While earlier updates often broke many of the most popular updates, this has become less and less of an issue over the last few releases.

What’s New

Here is Mozilla’s official list of what’s new in Firefox 6: [list]

  • The address bar now highlights the domain of the website you’re visiting
  • Streamlined the look of the site identity block
  • Added support for the latest draft version of WebSockets with a prefixed API
  • Added support for EventSource / server-sent events
  • Added support for window.matchMedia
  • Added Scratchpad, an interactive JavaScript prototyping environment
  • Added a new Web Developer menu item and moved development-related items into it
  • Improved usability of the Web Console
  • Improved the discoverability of Firefox Sync
  • Reduced browser startup time when using Panorama
  • Fixed several stability issues
  • Fixed several security issues [/list]

Firefox 6 for Mobile

In addition to the desktop version, Mozilla also launched a new version of Firefox for Android. This new version features a slightly updated user interface and was tweaked to work better on tablets.

Get New Versions Earlier with the Beta and Aurora Channel

Intrepid users who want an early look at new Firefox builds can also switch to the Beta and Aurora channel (or even the Nightly channel if you feel really adventurous). This way, you can get new features even earlier and help Mozilla by reporting issues with these test builds.



3:51 pm


Google Gets a Musical Doodle in Honor of Les Paul

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Google tends to feature a few different of its trademark doodles on its homepage every week, but every now and then, the company goes all out and does interactive doodles. This week, the honor to be featured in one of these goes to Les Paul, the legendary musician and inventor Les Paul who passed away in 2009. The Les Paul doodle is an interactive guitar that – if you look closely – somewhat resembles the Google logo. What makes today’s doodle special is that it’s not just interactive but that you can also record your own songs with it.

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4:28 am


Firefox 6 Now in Alpha: Introduces New Developer and Privacy Tools

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Mozilla’s new rapid release schedule remains on track. Firefox 5 is now in beta and, right on schedule, Firefox 6 is now entering its development cycle. The next version of Firefox will introduce a number of new tools for both regular users and developers. The alpha version of Firefox 6 Mozilla launched today introduces a new experimental privacy feature called the Data Management Window, an enhanced add-ons manager and some new features for Panorama. For developers, Mozilla is introducing a new feature for quickly building and testing JavaScript snippets in the browser, as well as enhancements to the Web Console and a new Web Developer menu that makes it easier to access these tools from the Firefox menu button. (more…)



8:32 pm


CloudFlare Wants to Make Your Site Faster and Safer

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Eight months ago, CloudFlare launched its free content delivery network service, which I’ve been using on all of my sites since the day it became available. Today, at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, the company announced its newest product: CloudFlare Apps. This new service allows CloudFlare users to install popular web apps like Apture, Typekit, Pingdom or web analytics software Clicky with just one click from their CloudFlare dashboard. The service will be available starting June 1.

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5:42 pm


Microsoft Wants to Make Emails More Interactive: Partners with LivingSocial, Netflix, Posterous and Others

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Microsoft wants to make emails more interactive and turn them into something akin to small web apps. Today’s emails mostly consist of static text or HTML and, for the most part, this has not changed much since the advent of the modern Internet. Theoretically, you could run interactive elements inside an HTML email with the help of JavaScript and other web technologies, but for security reasons, virtually every online and offline email client does not allow this. Because of this, when you open your daily LivingSocial email, the message can’t include an interactive widget that tells you how much time you have left to buy or if a deal is already sold out.

Microsoft wants to change this, however, and is partnering with LivingSocial, Netflix, LinkedIn, Orbitz, Monster and Posterous to bring interactive elements to their emails when they appear in Microsoft’s Windows Live Hotmail service.

Dharmesh Mehta, the director for Windows Live product management, will officially unveil this new functionality at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco today.

Microsoft first piloted this project with Monster, starting in December 2010. LinkedIn is currently also piloting these enhanced emails, while Posterous and LivingSocial are in the process of finalizing their implementations. Netflix’s support is still a bit further out.

Making Email More Productive

I talked to Dan Lewis, a senior product manager on the Hotmail team, earlier last week, and he explained that Microsoft’s reasoning behind this project is to make email more productive. Active Views in Hotmail were among the first steps in this direction (active views allow you to see videos, Flickr galleries and package tracking information right inside of Hotmail’s web interface).

Today, 90% of emails that arrive in Hotmail inboxes include links (though some are surely just links to privacy notices and similar content in the footer of a message and aren’t likely clicked upon by the service’s users). Hotmail’s Active Views feature addresses some of these, but to interact with most of the content in today’s email messages, users still have to go to another website.

netflix_before

hotmail_active_after

“The message is the application”

As Lewis told me, “it’s time for a new kind of email that allows you to do more from the message itself.” The idea here is to turn emails into something akin to web apps themselves (“the message is the application,” as Lewis put it when I talked to him).

In practice, this means that when you open up an enhanced email from Posterous about a comment on your blog, for example, the message can display all the current comments (including those that arrived after the email was sent!) and provide you with a dialog that allows you to reply to the comment.

For Netflix, this system would allow you to see the most recent recommendations for your Instant Queue, for example, no matter how old the email is – and add movies to your queue right from the message without ever leaving Hotmail.

Security

In the long run, Microsoft hopes to open this system up for any email sender, but for the time being, it’s working with the small number of partners to pilot this system. A little piece of information that these partners add to the message header tells Hotmail that a special version of the email is available for display in Hotmail.

As I mentioned above, the main reason for banning these features from virtually all modern email systems today is security. To ensure that the emails that arrive in Hotmail are safe, Microsoft actually sandboxes the code and isolates it, so that it can’t harm a user’s machine. In addition, it checks who the sender is and will only display these messages when they come directly from the source. Because of this, these interactive elements won’t show up if you forward a message to a friend, for example. Hotmail’s servers also inspect the message to ensure that there is no malicious code in there and users will have to enter their security credentials for the respective service the first time they open one of these messages.

Standards?

For the time being, this is obviously a Hotmail-only feature. There is currently no standard for displaying this kind of information within emails yet. While Lewis acknowledged that “there is definitely an interest to turn this into a standard,” he also admitted that different services will likely take different approaches to add these kinds of features to their clients.



9:00 am


Firefox 4 has Arrived: 5 Reasons Why You Should Install it Now

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Mozilla just released Firefox 4, the next generation of its popular Internet browser. This new version is not just significantly faster than Firefox 3, but it also features a new, highly streamlined interface and a number of new tools that should make Firefox 4 even more popular among power users.

There are lots of new features in the new version of Mozilla’s browser (plugin isolation on all platforms, support for modern web standards like HTML5, new security and privacy features, etc.), but here are the key new features of Firefox 4:

Streamlined Interface:

Interface ff4

In Firefox 4, Mozilla’s designers worked to keep distractions to a minimum and reduce the interface clutter in favor of providing more screen estate for the Web itself.

Gone, for example, is the menu bar in the Windows version. Instead, similar to Chrome and Internet Explorer, all the options are now available in one menu and the tabs have moved up to the top of the window. Bookmarking, too, has become easier and faster and just takes one click now.

This doesn’t mean that Firefox 4 was dumbed down, though. A lot of cool functionality for power users is just a bit hidden but easily available. You can use the URL bar to switch between tabs, for example.

Speed:

According to Mozilla, Firefox 4 is six times faster than version 3. To a large degree, this is due to JaegerMonkey, the optimized JavaScript engine that allows web apps like Gmail to run much faster than ever before.

As Mozilla’s director of Firefox Jonathan Nightingale told me last week, the traditional SunSpider benchmark, which was long the gold standard for measuring JavaScript performance, is slowly coming to the end of its usefulness. The difference between browsers in this benchmark is now often measured in milliseconds and, as Nightingale put it, “to do better, you now have to play to the test.” Other benchmarks like Mozilla’s own Kraken project or Facebook’s JSGameBench now provide better real-world guidance for how well browsers are performing.

That said, though, I ran both the SunSpider and Kraken benchmark on Firefox 4 and compared it to the latest developer version of Chrome (11.0.696.16). On average (after three test runs on a Mac) Firefox 4 easily beat Chrome. (Kraken: 4211.7ms vs. 4963.5ms; SunSpider: 189.2ms vs. 212.5ms).

Benchmarks can only convey so much about how fast the browser feels, and most users won’t notice any significant differences between most modern browsers. Firefox 4 does feel significantly faster than any earlier version, though, and I can’t help but think that it also feels faster than Chrome now.

Firefox Sync:

Most of us now work on multiple computers and Internet-connected devices every day, but it’s still surprisingly hard to keep bookmarks between these machines in sync. With Firefox Sync (formerly known as Weave), you can now easily keep all these machines in sync. All you have to do is type in your password (generated by Firefox) and Mozilla will keep your bookmarks in sync. Syncing to mobile versions of Firefox is coming soon, too.

It’s worth noting that Google Chrome offers a similar feature, too.

App Tabs:

App tabs ff4

App tabs allow you to, as Mozilla puts it, “give a permanent home to frequently visited sites like Web mail, Twitter, Pandora or Flickr.” Your apps then live in small tabs on the left side of your tab bar.

These app tabs will also alert you when something has changed in the web app (like a newly arrived email). This doesn’t work perfectly for all apps, though. Firefox watched for the site’s title to change, which most web mail providers do, but most other sites don’t.

I prefer Mozilla’s implementation of this feature over Chrome’s, because it defaults to loading all the links you click on in the app tab in a new tab.

If you become a regular user of app tabs, also consider installing the Easy App Tabs plugin, which allows you to turn a regular tab into an app tab by simply double-clicking on any tab.

Installing Plugins Without Restart

Yes, other browser developers already offer this (and didn’t spend close to two years developing their software), but for Firefox’s power users, this is a major update. Developers have to support this feature, so not every add-on will install without restarts just yet, but there are already quite a few out there that do.

As Nightingale told me, 40% of Firefox users today have installed add-ons. Today, close to 80% of these add-ons are compatible with Firefox 4 and more compatible versions are coming online every day. The new built-in add-on manager also makes finding and installing interesting extensions a lot faster and easier.

Bonus: Panorama

Ff4 panorama

Here is another feature mainly geared towards power users that stays out of the way if you don’t want to use it. Panorama allows you to visually organize your tabs into groups. You can, for example, open up a new group for the research you are doing and another one for your web mail. The two stay separate from each other. I know many people who love this feature, which made me include it here, but it’s not ideal for how I use the browser. Give it a try, though – it might just save you a lot of trouble and enhance your browsing experience.



9:25 am