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Apple: Yes, Safari outperforms embedded iOS web viewer

iPhone web API lacks optimizations, Apple tells El Reg

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Apple has confirmed that the web viewer embedded with iOS 4.3 does not offer certain optimizations included with the Safari browser bundled with Apple's mobile operating system.

"The embedded web viewer does not take advantage of Safari's web performance optimizations." Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller tells The Register. It would seem that these optimizations include the Nitro JavaScript engine as well as certain Safari caches and the browser's "asynchronous" rendering mode.

The end result is that web-centric applications built for the platform – including third-party browsers that use the embedded web viewer – do not offer the same performance as applications and webpages run within Safari.

On Wednesday, Canadian startup Blaze Software – which says it offers a free service for measuring mobile web performance – published a study claiming that Google's Android browser is 52 per cent faster than Apple's mobile Safari. And the study was widely reported across the web. But Apple soon responded to say that Blaze's testing methodology is inherently flawed.

"They didn't actually test the Safari web browser on the iPhone," Apple spokeswoman Muller tells us. "Instead, they only tested their own proprietary app which uses an embedded web viewer".

Blaze has now publicly acknowledged that its methodology may have been flawed. "Some wonder whether the new Nitro JavaScript engine was used in our measurements. We’re still investigating this issue, as the report was completed before it was made known," the company said in an update to its blog post. "So far we’ve seen indications in both directions, so we can’t say for sure it’s being applied."

Blaze CTO Guy Podjamy told us that the company did indeed use the embedded web viewer for its study, but it has yet to verify whether the optimizations Apple discusses come into play. The company continues to say that its tests are valid at least in part. "The results from measuring Android show that JavaScript only accounts for a small percentage of the total load time, about 15% on average. This implies that even if Nitro is not in use, it likely can only slightly narrow the gap," the company said in its post.

As we reported earlier this week, various mobile developers have said that native iOS applications using the operating system's UIWebView API – as well as web applications saved to the iOS home screen and launched into "fullscreen mode" – do not benefit from certain tools built into Apple's Safari browser. According to developers and tests run by The Register, these apps are between two and two and half times slower on the SunSpider JavaScript test. It also appears that these apps do not benefit from certain Safari caches or the browser's "asynchronous mode", which does multithreaded rendering.

Web applications can also be saved to the iOS home screen and then launched with Safari. The developer – not the user – chooses which way the app is launched.

It's still unclear why the apps that bypass Safari in this way do not get access to all of Apple's web optimizations. iOS 4.3 arrived only last week, however, and the situation could change in future releases – but Apple would not comment on future iOS updates. According to tests from two separate developers, some HTML5 web apps saved to the home screen were able work offline with earlier version of iOS but not on iOS 4.3, apparently because access to certain caches has changed.

Citing a conversation with Apple, one developer told us earlier this week that the company did not intend to add all of Safari's optimizations to the embedded web viewer. "Apple is basically using subtle defects to make web apps appear to be low quality – even when they claim HTML5 is a fully supported platform," the developer said.

As it stands, web applications – tools built with standard web technologies such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript – don't run quite as well if they're moved out of Safari and onto the iOS home screen, alongside true native apps. At least in small ways, the platform is nudging developers to keep web apps inside the browser.

But whatever Apple's original stance on the discrepancy between home screen apps and Safari apps, now that the situation has blown wide open – with Apple publicly acknowledging the disparity – things may change with a future version of the operating system. It's in the company's best interests to add Safari's optimizations to the embedded web viewer as well – at least that's what Apple boss Steve Jobs has led us to believe.

"We strongly believe that all standards pertaining to the web should be open. Rather than use Flash, Apple has adopted HTML5, CSS and JavaScript," Jobs said in his iconic "Thoughts on Flash" open letter.

"Apple’s mobile devices all ship with high performance, low power implementations of these open standards. HTML5, the new web standard that has been adopted by Apple, Google and many others, lets web developers create advanced graphics, typography, animations and transitions without relying on third party browser plug-ins (like Flash). HTML5 is completely open and controlled by a standards committee, of which Apple is a member." ®

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