Apple, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla close in on making web run as fast as native apps

Rival browser vendors move one step closer to introducing the new WebAssembly runtime to bring near native performance to the web.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Backed by Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla, the new standard, dubbed WebAssembly or wasm, has now moved to the 'browser preview' phase.

Image: ZDNet

Browser makers have agreed to move forward with a new web standard that aims to bring "near native" performance to the web for online games, music streaming, VR and AR, cryptography, and other applications.

The new standard, dubbed WebAssembly or wasm, has now moved to the 'browser preview' phase following its first public airing in June and early experimental implementations this March.

It is expected to remain in preview until the first quarter 2017, after which the group will write a draft specification of WebAssembly, and browser makers can begin introducing it in browsers.

WebAssembly, a new runtime, can be thought of as a "virtual CPU for the web" that enables more powerful web applications to run in a sandboxed environment. The standardized binary format is meant to take the web beyond the limits of JavaScript, but still integrate with the language.

WebAssembly is being implemented in the respective JavaScript engines of each browser, including Chrome's V8, Firefox's SpiderMonkey, Microsoft's Chakra, and Apple's WebKit JavaScriptCore. They're currently implemented behind a flag in Chrome and Firefox, while Microsoft has developed an internal build of Edge with WebAssembly.

If all goes to plan, by the first quarter of 2017 it will be shipped by all browsers as on by default. Mozilla is targeting version 52 of Firefox, due out in March 2017. Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla have implemented experimental support since March.

WebAssembly is being developed alongside asm.js, which has, for example, helped Microsoft make Edge much faster than Internet Explorer and bring near-native performance. However, asm.js caused mobile devices to run too hot because of the JavaScript parser, former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich noted at the launch of WebAssembly.

Limin Zhu, a program manager on Microsoft's Chakra team, said his team had been hard at work developing support for WebAssembly in Microsoft Edge at the open-source ChakraCore project repo.

"Microsoft Edge and ChakraCore are close to shipping the browser preview, which we expect to come when the full JavaScript APIs are implemented," he said.

Google's V8 team is also introducing tools in its implementation for Chrome that automatically convert asm.js sites to WebAssembly to make use of work already done to support the former.

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