New Caching Change Could Dramatically Accelerate Google Chrome

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Google is exploring a new method of improving site performance in Google Chrome, this time by adding a new back-caching feature that would keep certain data in memory, even after you’ve left a site. The company writes:

A back/forward cache (bfcache) caches whole pages (including the JavaScript heap) when navigating away from a page, so that the full state of the page can be restored when the user navigates back. Think of it as pausing a page when you leave it and playing it when you return.

The company states that this feature could improve performance by up to 19 percent in mobile Chrome, and by 10 percent on desktop PC based on the number of site interactions that represent a back/forward usage pattern. This type of caching wouldn’t accelerate sites you visit on a regular basis or improve performance overall. It’s a specific change that would make it easier to surf when moving forward and back on the same site after having accessed it the first time.

According to Google, Chrome isn’t using the default WebKit implementation of a bfcache, due to incompatibilities with Google’s multi-process architecture. Google also has work to do on the browser, ensuring that JavaScript actually freezes on the page to be cached, rather than continuing to run in the background. Allowing background JavaScript to run from cached pages would be a significant privacy and security issue.

This is a feature that Firefox and Safari already use, albeit apparently in a somewhat different way. I tried comparing Chrome and Firefox in an ordinary desktop comparison, checking the load times on several sites in succession in the same manner as the videos on Google’s developer blog. Firefox may have outperformed Chrome slightly in these tests, but not enough for me to feel comfortable declaring it a winner, and it didn’t produce the same behavior as the Chrome test did for Google. The instant load of the previous page due to bfcache doesn’t seem to happen the same way. Then again, the video is supposed to show how the feature could work in the future, not serve as a final illustration of implementation.

These changes could increase RAM usage in Chrome, but Google plans to minimize this with smarter rules about when and how to keep data in RAM while pages are suspended. The goal is to implement the feature throughout 2019 and roll it into shipping Chrome in 2020.

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Google’s Proposed Chrome Changes Would Cripple Ad Blockers, Other Extensions

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Google has proposed a series of changes to Chrome that, if adopted in their current form, could cripple how ad blocking works within Chromium-based browsers. The impact of the changes wouldn’t be limited to ad blocking — other projects like NoScript and a wide range of other extensions would, according to their authors, also be impacted.

Google’s proposed changes, detailed in its Manifest V3 document, would make significant changes to how extensions fundamentally work within Chrome. Extensions, for example, will no longer be permitted to load code from remote servers or to automatically apply to all sites (users will have an option to choose to run extensions on specific sites or on every site). But the biggest problems appear to be with Google’s plans to deprecate or limit the use of its webRequest API. As Ars Technica details, webRequest allows extensions to evaluate each network request that the extension is intended to monitor and to make decisions about what happens to it. Requests can be modified in-flight to change how the browser behaves in a wide variety of scenarios. Ad blockers, script blockers, and a number of various privacy-oriented extensions rely on this capability.

Google wants to replace webRequest with a new API, declarativeNetRequest. Using the old webRequest API requires that the browser ask the extension how content should be handled. The new API instead requires that the extension declare to the browser what it can do and how it does it. The problem is, the new API has a fraction of the capability of the old one. Extensions are also currently hard-limited to a constraint of 30,000 items to be filtered. As Ars notes, the current version of uBlock Origin ships with 90,000 filters by default and supports up to 500,000.

uBlock-Screenshot

The advanced functionality of extensions like uBlock isn’t possible under the new rules.

Thus far, feedback from actual extension developers has been unilaterally negative. The hard-coded limit on blocked or redirected URLs has been criticized by almost everyone in the Google Chromium development thread. Anti-phishing and anti-malware extension developers are also concerned because the new rules require that extension data be stored in plaintext, whereas some security-related extensions store information in hashed form.

While there have been reports that AdBlock Plus will have an easier time functioning under these rules than extensions like uBlock Origin, one of the authors of that extension argues that even ABP will be harmed, noting that the declarativeNetRequest API “only covers the same limited subset of filter capabilities implemented in Adblock Plus that it does in uBlock Origin.” Instead of being able to implement powerful, custom rulesets, he argues that extensions would now be limited to “providing filter rules.” This would fundamentally limit the ability of extension developers to respond quickly to website efforts to bypass their work. Security extension developers also raised these concerns, noting that the new API disallows updating content-blocking lists in real time. This alone makes it impossible for security extensions to provide fast updates.

Google’s responses, thus far, have been fairly limited. The company has been stressing that the webRequest API will be sticking around in some capacity since declarativeNetRequest can’t handle everything. It’s still evaluating the contexts in which webRequest will be allowed to function, however.

Google’s claim that these changes will improve security and performance have been met with a gimlet eye overall. Several developers have pointed out that the performance impact of running uBlock or other ad blockers on websites is so large, any performance gains Google gets from adopting a faster API will be completely subsumed by the sharp limits on the amount of content those extensions are actually able to block. Speeding up page loads by 20 percent may not mean much if you’re loading 3-5x more data relative to using an ad blocker. Security extension authors have also argued that the security risk to breaking their own products is larger than the sum total of the improvements Google is hoping to gain.

For now, Manifest V3 remains a draft document. If Google decides to implement the current version of the standard, Firefox may see a sudden uptick in adoption. It’s now the only major cross-platform browser in active development that isn’t based on Chromium.

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Ex-Microsoft Intern: Google Deliberately Crippled Edge Browser

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Allowing any one company too much control over the internet and the long-term development of web standards has always been a bad idea. It didn’t work well in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was the de facto standard, and it isn’t likely to be a particularly great outcome in 2018, either, now that Chromium has emerged as the single dominant player in browsing. According to a former Edge intern/developer, Microsoft has given up on its own EdgeHTML engine because it couldn’t keep up with the ways Google kept breaking major websites to disadvantage it.

In a post at Hacker News, JoshuaJB (identified via Neowin as Joshua Bakita), in response to a post theorizing that Google could exploit its dominance by integrating preferential support to boost Google app performance at the expense of other platforms or products, writes:

This is already happening. I very recently worked on the Edge team, and one of the reasons we decided to end EdgeHTML was because Google kept making changes to its sites that broke other browsers, and we couldn’t keep up. For example, they recently added a hidden empty div over YouTube videos that causes our hardware acceleration fast-path to bail (should now be fixed in Win10 Oct update). Prior to that, our fairly state-of-the-art video acceleration put us well ahead of Chrome on video playback time on battery, but almost the instant they broke things on YouTube, they started advertising Chrome’s dominance over Edge on video-watching battery life. What makes it so sad, is that their claimed dominance was not due to ingenious optimization work by Chrome, but due to a failure of YouTube. On the whole, they only made the web slower.

Now while I’m not sure I’m convinced that YouTube was changed intentionally to slow Edge, many of my co-workers are quite convinced — and they’re the ones who looked into it personally. To add to this all, when we asked, YouTube turned down our request to remove the hidden empty div and did not elaborate further.

And this is only one case.

The irony of defending Edge and Microsoft after years of decrying the way Redmond has shoved everyone towards using Edge at every opportunity is not lost on me. Neither is the irony of defending Microsoft in general. The company’s hostility towards open source development and its fondness for monopoly may have faded somewhat in recent years, but they’ve scarcely been forgotten.

stupid-ad-2

What we needed was a happy medium between “One browser rules the Earth” and “Your browser is malware.” Image by Thurrot.com

But I don’t need to stick up for the way Microsoft pushed people to use Edge to see the danger in giving any single company too much control over standards and practices. We don’t know if the story above is actually true — as of this writing, it hasn’t been independently confirmed. But it’s not hard to believe, and we’ve seen historical examples of how this kind of monopoly can work against companies that attempt to create alternatives. IE6 dominated the internet to such a degree that websites were often programmed to perform well in Internet Explorer, even when this broke standards or failed to conform to best practices. Competing browsers that attempted to implement standards correctly would then fail to work with IE6 pages.

Ars Technica gives another example of how Google has designed sites like YouTube to favor its own approach, to the detriment of other browsers.

As another example, YouTube uses a feature called HTML imports to load scripts. HTML imports haven’t been widely adopted, either by developers or browsers alike, and ECMAScript modules are expected to serve the same role. But they’re available in Chrome and used by YouTube. For Firefox and Edge, YouTube sends a JavaScript implementation of HTML imports which carries significant performance overheads. The result? YouTube pages that load in a second in Chrome take many seconds to load in other browsers.

The fact that Chromium is open source won’t ultimately matter much if one company still represents the overwhelming force behind its development and the associated development of future web standards. In mobile, Apple still has some sway, thanks to Safari on the iPhone. But Mozilla Firefox, with its 9 percent market share, is now the only bulwark against Chrome’s total domination of the desktop browser market.

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Firefox Focus – Mozilla’s very own minimalist private browser

Browsing the internet privately is made easy these days as many internet browsers come with their own version of “Incognito” mode. However, enabling this private browsing session requires one to dig through the browser’s settings. In an attempt to provide a private browsing appearance right from the get go, Mozilla has brought its Firefox Focus browser online.

How to Optimize Firefox for Better Performance

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How to Optimize Firefox for Better Performance

Your web browser of choice is truly the gateway into accessing the global Internet. The web has been…Read more

Currently available only on iOS devices, Firefox Focus is a browser that is built around privacy. From the moment you boot up the browser on your device, Firefox Focus is set to block ads, analytics and social trackers by default. All of these settings can be toggled on and off via a slider found in the menus.

firefox focus block ads

If that isn’t enough for you, you can set Firefox Focus to block additional content trackers and even disable a website’s custom web fonts, so you get to browse the website faster. The trade off for doing so is that you might risk breaking site compatibility.

To take the whole privacy shtick a step further, Firefox Focus comes with an “Erase” button located at the upper right hand corner of the browser. Tap it and Firefox Focus will immediately erase your current browsing history, leaving other people none the wiser about your browsing habits.

firefo focus

While Firefox Focus’ dedication to privacy is admirable, the browser itself is rather rough around the edges. Features that are standard on other browsers such as multiple tab browsing isn’t available on the current build of Firefox Focus.

Despite the general “early-build” feel that the browser has, Firefox Focus is an interesting browser to have when privacy is of utmost importance. While the browser itself won’t be competing against the likes of Safari or Chrome just yet, if Mozilla decides to properly support Firefox Focus, the browser may prove to be a worthwhile addition to your iOS device in the long run.

10 Coolest Hidden Firefox Settings You Should Know

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Browser Trends November 2016: Rise of the Underdog

browser trends rise of underdog

In October, we discussed reasons why Edge has struggled to gain momentum. Are November’s StatCounter browser statistics better for Microsoft’s flagship browser? …

Worldwide Desktop & Tablet Browser Statistics, September to October 2016

The following table shows browser usage movements during the past month.

Browser September October change relative
Chrome 58.89% 59.39% +0.50% +0.80%
Firefox 13.66% 13.28% -0.38% -2.80%
IE11 7.68% 6.95% -0.73% -9.50%
oldIE 2.13% 1.94% -0.19% -8.90%
Edge 2.78% 2.82% +0.04% +1.40%
Safari 4.30% 4.79% +0.49% +11.40%
iPad Safari 5.30% 5.42% +0.12% +2.30%
Opera 1.72% 1.91% +0.19% +11.00%
Others 3.54% 3.50% -0.04% -1.10%

Worldwide Desktop & Tablet Browser Statistics, October 2015 to October 2016

The following table shows browser usage movements during the past twelve months:

Browser October 2015 October 2016 change relative
Chrome 53.78% 59.39% +5.61% +10.40%
Firefox 15.52% 13.28% -2.24% -14.40%
IE11 10.00% 6.95% -3.05% -30.50%
oldIE 5.28% 1.94% -3.34% -63.30%
Edge 1.10% 2.82% +1.72% +156.40%
Safari 9.12% 10.21% +1.09% +12.00%
Opera 1.78% 1.91% +0.13% +7.30%
Others 3.42% 3.50% +0.08% +2.30%

(The tables show market share estimates for desktop browsers. The ‘change’ column is the absolute increase or decrease in market share. The ‘relative’ column indicates the proportional change, i.e. 9.5% of oldIE users migrated elsewhere last month. There are several caveats so I recommend you read How Browser Market Share is Calculated and StatCounter vs NetMarketShare.)

Chrome continued upward at the expense of Firefox and IE, but it was also a good month for underdog browsers:

  • Edge increased. Not by much, admittedly, but at least it was the right direction.
  • Opera experienced its highest jump for several years. The browser is increasingly impressive and fast when compared with Chrome, despite using the same Blink rendering engine.
  • Safari had the best month of all, despite continued venom from the development community about Apple’s lackluster attitude to the web. It’s possible this was achieved following new OS and device releases, but the mobile chart did not record similar gains?

While it’s tempting to think there are only five main browsers, the situation is considerably more diverse. More than one in thirty web users surf with one of the ‘others’. Alternative applications have been rising steadily since early 2014 and can have a strong impact in specific countries or markets. Here is a shortlist of new and existing options you may want to consider.

Ghost

Ghost logo Ghost is a new Blink-based browser which has a unique selling point: multi-session browsing. The application allows you to set up colored tab groups which have their own set of private cookies. This allows you to log into a single website with more than one account in the same browser window. The option could be especially useful for developers.

Ghost is still in beta, but you can register for an invite.

Min

If you think browsers provide too much cruft, Min strips the web back to absolute basics. Features include tab management, ad-blocking and little else. Currently available for MacOS and Ubuntu, Min is an Electron application developed in HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

Project Maelstrom

Modestly titled “the future of the web is here”, Project Maelstrom renders standard HTTP-served pages as well as those packaged as torrents. Files can then be downloaded from multiple peers rather than a single server, which increases network bandwidth and reliability. The beta Blink-based browser can be downloaded today.

UC Browser

UC Browser logoUC Browser has overtaken the iPhone to reach second place in the mobile chart, but is available for a range of desktop, tablet, smartphone and feature phone devices. The application is owned by the Chinese Alibaba Group (a cross between Amazon and eBay but considerably bigger than both). It uses its own U3 rendering engine.

Other popular Chinese applications include Qihoo 360 Secure, Sogou Explorer and QQ Browser.

Maxthon

Maxthon browserPerhaps the only Chinese browser to achieve western appeal, Maxthon offers both the Trident (IE) and WebKit rendering engine. This was useful in the early years of the century when many sites were “best viewed in IE”.

Lunascape

Lunascape browserIf two rendering engines isn’t enough, Lunascape provides three in a single browser: Trident, Gecko and WebKit. Developers can view the same page in a three-way cascade view to ensure pixel-perfect alignment. The application is available for Windows and Android, with Mac OS coming soon. There is also an iOS edition, but it’s a Safari clone owing to Apple’s restrictions.

Pale Moon Browser

Pale Moon browserPale Moon is open-source browser fork of Firefox which uses its own Goanna rendering engine. It is available for Windows, Linux and Android (MacOS in development). The browser will continue to support XUL and XPCOM add-ons despite Mozilla’s future intentions for the technologies.

Yandex

Yandex browserYandex is the first alternative browser to appear in the StatCounter figures. The free desktop, tablet and smartphone Blink-based browser is provided by Russian web search corporation Yandex. The application currently holds 9% of the Russian market, despite strong competition from Google.

Coc Coc

Coc Coc browserAnother Blink-based option, Coc Coc is aimed at the Vietnamese market but also provides an English translation. The browser is the second most popular browser in Vietnam with a 24% market share.

Would you prefer something a little more mainstream? Why not consider the Blisk development browser or see How Do Chrome’s Rivals Stack Up?

Worldwide Mobile Browser Statistics, October 2016

Mobile browser use increased by a significant 1.66% during October. It now accounts for 48.84% of all web activity. The long-promised mobile/desktop parity could be upon us shortly.

The top mobile browsing applications for the month were:

Mobile Browser September October change relative
Chrome 39.09% 40.64% +1.55% +4.00%
UC Browser 17.04% 17.90% +0.86% +5.00%
iPhone 17.90% 16.69% -1.21% -6.80%
Opera Mini/Mobile 9.77% 8.64% -1.13% -11.60%
Samsung Internet 6.86% 6.52% -0.34% -5.00%
Android 6.33% 5.83% -0.50% -7.90%
IEMobile 1.26% 1.13% -0.13% -10.30%
Others 1.75% 2.65% +0.90% +51.40%

Chrome continues to grow rapidly, but the main news is that UC Browser knocked the iPhone from the #2 spot. UC has been in that position before, but its five-month stint ended in May 2016. Strangely, the iPhone dropped considerably compared to the increases for Safari on the iPad and Mac OS? Perhaps the situation will settle next month.