Microsoft, Mozilla, Google Trade Barbs Over Speed Moves

With Microsoft set to launch the first beta of a significantly faster Internet Explorer Wednesday, wrangling for pride of place in hardware acceleration is heating up, and getting some rivals hot under the collar.

Internet Explorer 9 will tap Windows Vista and Windows 7 PCs' graphics processors to speed up rendering, assembling and displaying a browser page. Microsoft has touted the technique, called "hardware acceleration," since it announced IE9 almost a year ago, and has been aggressively promoting the technology since March, when it rolled out the first preview.

Microsoft beat on the acceleration drum even harder last week, when Ted Johnson, the program manager lead responsible for the browser's graphics and rendering, boasted that IE9 was the only browser to use what he called "full hardware acceleration."

In a long post to the IE blog Friday, Johnson argued that only IE9 calls on the GPU for all three major phases of creating a page: rendering the content, assembling the page, or "compositing," and displaying it on the desktop.

Every other browser adding hardware acceleration, Johnson implied, was guilty of a half-baked effort.

"Based on their blog posts, the hardware-accelerated implementations of other browsers generally accelerate [rendering or compositing] but not yet both," Johnson said. "Today, IE9 is the first and only browser to deliver full hardware acceleration of all HTML5 content."

That raised hackles at Mozilla, the open-source developer of Firefox.

"Microsoft is wrong; we accelerate content and compositing," said Mike Shaver , Mozilla's head of engineering, just hours after Johnson's posting.

Mozilla technology evangelist Aza Dotzler was more blunt. "The facts are that Firefox takes advantage of the same Windows 7 APIs that Microsoft does to accelerate both the compositing and the rendering of Web content," Dotzler said in Friday post to his personal blog . "Mozilla provided test builds of Firefox ... with this hardware acceleration well before Microsoft did. We are faster and we were first."

Two days later, Robert O'Callahan, a Mozilla developer who works on the browser's graphics infrastructure, chimed in. "'Full hardware acceleration' is a bogus phrase," O'Callahan maintained. "All browsers pick and choose how to use the GPU, and more use of the GPU isn't necessarily better."

Like IE9, Firefox will rely on hardware acceleration to increase performance on Windows Vista and Windows 7 by using the Windows Direct2D and Direct3D APIs for content rendering and compositing. Mozilla switched on Firefox's content acceleration in the latest Windows beta of Firefox 4 last week.

But Firefox will also have something Microsoft won't: support for the aged, but still widely used Windows XP.

Microsoft has said IE9 won't run on XP, with hardware acceleration one of the reasons. Last year, Microsoft made the decision not to add support for Windows 7's Direct2D API to Windows XP, as it did for Vista. When Microsoft releases the IE9 beta, Windows XP users need not apply.

That got Mozilla crowing.

"Firefox accelerates for Windows XP users too, something Microsoft says they can't do," said Dotzler last week. "If Mozilla can accelerate browsing for the hundreds of millions of PC users on Microsoft's Windows XP, why can't Microsoft?"

According to the most recent statistics from Web metrics company Net Applications, two out of every three computers running Windows is running XP.

Firefox 4 won't accelerate all phases of page construction in Windows XP, only the compositing stage by calling on the Direct3D API, which the old operating system does support.

Google was less specific about its plans for Chrome, but will hardware accelerate its browser, too.

Like Firefox, Chrome on Windows will be accelerated for XP, Vista and Windows 7, but developers have yet to disclose or even finalize all the details. In an interview Tuesday, however, Brian Rakowski, Chrome's director of product management, said Chrome would be competitive.

"When we're done, we'll have just as good performance [using hardware acceleration] as any other browser," said Rakowski. "We're just beginning, and already seeing major improvements."

Google added the opening bits of its hardware acceleration, which relies on the Canvas 2D element of the HTML5 standard, to Chromium just two weeks ago. Chromium is the open-source project that feeds into Chrome.

But while Rakowski acknowledged the Chrome has catching up to do, he promised the technology would be in users' hands in eight weeks. "We'll have something out in a couple of months," he said, referring several times to the faster-paced schedule Google committed to in July.

Google hasn't completely decided how it will accelerate Chrome on Windows, but a few things seem set. Some chores, including 2D rendering, will continue to be done by the computer's primary processor, while 3D and other pixel-intensive content, like video, will be shunted to the GPU. "We think that this approach will yield the greatest performance improvements," Rakowski argued.

"What matters is the performance we can deliver at the end of the day," he added.

Chrome's commitment to the OpenGL standard also makes for more challenges than those facing IE. To access the Direct3D API for page compositing, Google's had to create the ANGLE (Almost Native Graphics Layer Engine) graphics driver that then maps OpenGL to Direct3D.

Johnson criticized the approach last week, calling anything that sat between the code and the API an "abstraction layer."

"When there is a desire to run across multiple platforms, developers introduce abstraction layers and inevitably make tradeoffs which ultimately impact performance and reduce the ability of a browser to achieve 'native' performance," Johnson charged.

"We don't believe that's true," said Rakowski. "It's not going to have a negative impact."

Mozilla also took umbrage at Firefox being cast as a second-class browser because it runs on Mac and Linux as well as Windows.

"For all [Microsoft's] hand-waving about the difficulties of multi-platform acceleration that, according to them, the other browser vendors face, it seems Microsoft are the ones struggling to support even their most popular Windows," said Dotzler.

Yet it wasn't all bickering between browser makers. "We're happy to see some progress in this area, and it's good that there's a lot of competition," said Rakowski.

Mozilla's O'Callahan added his own congratulations. "Kudos to Microsoft for creating Direct2D, backporting it to Vista, and making it awesome," he said.

Microsoft is expected to release the IE9 beta around 1:30 p.m. EDT today.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com .

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