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Chrome, Firefox rein in memory-hogging websites

Because even 16GB of RAM can feel cramped on a laptop these days.

Good news: Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome are working to reduce the amount of memory and other resources their browsers use.

You might have noticed that browsers impose an increasingly onerous burden on your phone or laptop. Websites are getting bigger and browsers are getting features that make them more like full-fledged operating systems than mere document viewers.

One example, this Google Doc I'm typing in right now is using 218MB of my memory. No wonder even 16GB of memory on a laptop a starting to feel cramped.

So what is changing? Chrome 68, which arrived a few days ago, adds a new feature called the Page Lifecycle interface that will let the browser more gracefully pause websites that aren't active and reconstitute them when you need them again. "It allows browsers to more aggressively optimize system resources, ultimately benefiting all web users," said Chrome programmer Philip Walton.

Google's Chrome logo

Google's Chrome browser logo

Stephen Shankland/CNET

And Firefox has a project called Fission MemShrink designed to shave 7MB off of each of potentially a hundred or more computing processes the browser uses to draw a website on your screen. It's part of the broader high-profile Fission program to give websites a snappier response in the browser.

Computer memory, processing power and data storage space have been a scarce resources since the birth of the industry. So every little step to liberate them is important. For one thing, it lets you run more apps or get more performance out of an important one. For another, it can mean your personal computer, tablet or phone doesn't use as much battery power.

Fission Memshrink is designed to reduce memory usage, but it might be a wash since Firefox will use more processes. But those processes deliver performance and security improvements that otherwise would gobble up more memory, so it's not unfair to see the glass as half full here.

"Project Fission ... will result in more responsiveness. We also expect security benefits from more isolation of different web content," Mozilla said in a statement.

Page Lifecycle adopts a strategy from mobile phones, whose underlying operating systems are aggressive about clamping down on apps to preserve resources and protect battery life. If an app isn't being actively used, it might be paused for the good of the system.

But Page Lifecycle won't mean an instant fix. For it to work best, web developers will need to support it so browsers can work better to dial resources up or down.

Page Lifecycle will apply also to progressive web apps (PWAs), which look more like native apps on smartphones but run atop a browser foundation. That should mean better integration with mobile phones and better performance.

"PWAs can use the new page lifecycle APIs [application programming interfaces] to store state and rehydrate like native apps," tweeted Alex Russell, a senior Chrome programmer. "Exciting!"

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