iOS 8 brings big boost for Web programmers

Apple's newest operating system supports WebGL and IndexedDB, two standards that'll make websites much more capable on its mobile devices. Also new: a faster Web with SPDY.

iOS 8
iOS 8's tweaks aren't simply cosmetic. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Web programmers rejoice: Apple's new iOS 8 has added support for standards that will let you build better games and more productive websites.

Safari, the browser built into Apple's mobile operating system, now can run Web software written to use the WebGL standard for hardware-accelerated 3D graphics and the IndexedDB standard for storing data that can be used even without a network connection. The first is good for Web-based games -- it can speed up 2D graphics, too -- and the second is good for tools like e-mail, word processors, or blog-posting tools for when people don't want to lose work when network access disappears on a plane or in a tunnel.

iOS, though trailing Google's Android in market share, remains widely used and is a favorite among programmers. Because of that, the moves Apple makes are important. That's doubly true for Web standards: the more widely supported a new standard becomes, the freer programmers are to use it rather than worry their software won't work on one browser or another.

With iOS 8 having arrived Wednesday, Apple is catching up to Google here. Chrome for Android supports WebGL and IndexedDB already.

WebGL and IndexedDB are important for the gradual transformation of the Web from a repository of static documents into a foundation for dynamic software like apps. Curiously, that was the only way third-party programmers could get apps onto the initial iPhone: before the App Store arrived, the Web was the only door open. But since those early days, Apple has had tremendous success attracting programmers to build native apps that run on iOS itself, not the browser.

But not everyone uses iOS. Plenty of programmers want something that works on Android, Windows Phone, Firefox OS, BlackBerry OS and any other mobile operating system that turns up. It's those programmers who will benefit most from the new Web standards support in iOS 8.

They'll benefit in another way, too: in addition to loading Web apps directly within the browser, native iOS apps running outside the browser can draw upon Web standards. Many programmers use this approach for building user interfaces; they get many of the cross-platform advantages of the Web packaged to work more like a native app.

For this approach, Apple previously offered a tool called UIWebView, but iOS 8 introduces a new tool called WKWebView. Not only does it support the new standards, but it lifts a restriction in UIWebView that had in effect throttled the JavaScript programming language that's at the heart of interactive Web apps.

Apple also added support for some other Web standards, according to a tally of iOS 8 Web improvements by Sencha, a company that offers programming tools to developers using Web interfaces to build apps.

Among the other standards arriving with iOS 8:

  • SPDY, a technology developed by Google that can speed Web page loading. It's not strictly speaking an industry standard, but it's widely used and some of its technology is being built into the HTTP standard that governs communications between Web browsers and Web servers that host Web pages.
  • The srcset attribute, part of the solution to letting programmers better handle graphics on high-resolution displays.
  • CSS Shapes Level 1, which permits more advanced layouts that combine text and graphic elements.
  • SVG Fragment IDs, which will help programmers use vector art for game elements like spaceships or avatars.
  • Promises, which helps browsers run multiple tasks at the same time.
  • And high-resolution timers, which let programmers carefully test Web page performance.
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