Mozilla, Samsung Team On Android Browser - InformationWeek

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4/3/2013
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Mozilla, Samsung Team On Android Browser

Android hardware will get new browser technology from Mozilla and Samsung. Some call this partnership a slap at Google, but it's not that simple.

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Mozilla on Wednesday said it is working with Samsung to create a new Web browser engine called Servo that's optimized for parallel processing.

Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich characterized Servo as "an attempt to rebuild the Web browser from the ground up on modern hardware, rethinking old assumptions along the way."

One of those assumptions is the inevitability of insecurity. Servo is written in a language called Rust that has been designed to eliminate common memory errors that cause crashes and can be exploited. Rust is intended as a language to create large Web applications that take advantage of multicore processing and are also secure and maintainable. It's a systems language similar to Google's Go programming language.

[ But can Rust tell you where you are? Read Indoor Location Tracking Has Lost Common Sense. ]

Mozilla and Samsung are bringing Servo and Rust to ARM processors and to Android. Servo exists independently from Gecko, Mozilla's rendering engine in Firefox. While Servo has been described as the future of Firefox, no plan to replace Gecko with Servo has been announced.

To some observers, the Mozilla-Samsung partnership is a slap at Google, but it's not quite that simple. Certainly both Mozilla and Samsung seek to avoid dependence on Google as a source of funding and technology. Both companies have already made investments in projects like Firefox OS, Bada and Tizen that don't involve Google.

But Mozilla has a problem: JavaScript, particularly in the context of large commercial applications and performance-dependent 3-D games. Many developers doubt it's up to the task of continuing as the Web's lingua franca, partly due to its sprawling number of libraries. That's certainly not a universal view and the language still has many defenders, its inventor Brendan Eich among them. Yet there's enough discontent that Google and Microsoft each have released languages (Dart and TypeScript) to address some of the perceived problems.

As an example of these issues, Thomas Schrantz, co-founder and CEO of Blossom.io, announced in a blog post Tuesday that his company had switched from JavaScript to Dart. "At Blossom we are huge fans of JavaScript and in many ways it is a wonderful language if you know how to avoid its dark corners," he wrote. "That said, I feel the JavaScript ecosystem is severely lacking in many areas. Especially when it comes to core plumbing."

Perhaps more significantly, dissatisfaction with Web apps at companies like Facebook and the gripes of large game developers about the need for performance have continued. Some of these issues could be resolved if technologies like Google's Native Client framework (NaCL and PNaCL) were adopted by every browser vendor. But Google's competitors haven't shown much interest in the technology, particularly Microsoft.

With the major browser vendors all wary of their competitors' technologies and motives, Mozilla continues its effort to make JavaScript more appealing, in the hope of countering the push toward native apps and finding a technology stack that the other browser vendors can agree on. Toward that end, it recently showed off a subset of JavaScript called ASM.js that runs significantly faster than standard JavaScript in browsers.

ASM.js code can be generated from C/C++ code processed by Mozilla's Emscripten compiler. As such, it's an appealing target for high-end game developers, who have long relied on C/C++ code to maximize performance.

To reinforce its belief that the Web can be a suitable platform for graphically demanding games (and hence any less computationally demanding application), Mozilla recently teamed up with Epic Games to bring Epic's Unreal Engine 3 to the Web.

But there's a hitch. ASM.js-flavored JavaScript will not have the same performance characteristics in browsers that haven't taken steps to support it. Google appears to be interested in supporting ASM.js in its V8 rendering engine.

Whether Apple, Microsoft or Opera will also do so remains to be seen, but ASM.js matters to Mozilla because it connects the present to the company's future, when Servo and Rust come into play.

Mozilla is filling out its vendor-independent technology stack. ASM.js will keep Web apps competitive with native apps and will eventually be enhanced by Servo rendering, with Rust driving back-end applications.

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