Chrome for Android gets adventurous with WebGL

A new Chrome flags option in the Chrome 25 beta for Android lets people try out new, often experimental features. Let's just hope Google can keep the bloat and sluggishness at bay.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
2 min read
Chrome flags, now in the beta version of the browser for Android, lets people try new options.
Chrome flags, now in the beta version of the browser for Android, lets people try new options. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google has released a new beta of its Chrome browser for Android that gives people the option to try new features such as WebGL and CSS graphics features.

The update, the third since the inaugural version of the Chrome beta for Android, shows not only more of the browser team's ambition but also a faster pace of change.

The unbranded stock browser that shipped with Android for years moved comparatively glacially, but in particular with the new Chrome beta releases for Android, Google is pushing for a broader feature set. And the code base is evidently an offshoot of Chrome for PCs, no longer the separate project that the unbranded browser is.

When Google programmer Jason Kersey announced the Chrome 24 beta update for Android devices yesterday, he mentioned only a single feature: "Support for chrome://flags!" But that flags feature actually is a configuration gateway that unlocks many other features, typically experimental ones.

Some experiments, like HTTP pipelining to speed up the interactions between Web browsers and Web servers, likely won't ever graduate from that experimental status. But it's still one of the options that can be enabled in the new Chrome for Android beta by pointing the browser at chrome://flags. A related technology, version 3 of Google's SPDY technology for faster Web-page loading, also can be enabled, though Chrome developer William Chan said on Google+ his tests show the browser actually uses it.

Another flagged option is CSS Shaders, a technology spawned at Adobe Systems that brings some programmable graphics effects to Web pages.

WebGL, the accelerated 3D graphics interface for Web apps, can be enabled through the chrome://flags page.
WebGL, the accelerated 3D graphics interface for Web apps, can be enabled through the chrome://flags page. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET
Not yet available for Chrome on Android: Native Client.
Not yet available for Chrome on Android: Native Client. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Another flagged option virtually certain to eventually become standard: WebGL, a low-level interface that lets programmers tap into hardware-accelerated graphics. That could offer a significant boost for programmers who want to make Web apps more competitive with native apps that already can use the OpenGL ES interface on which WebGL is based.

Many flagged options are still not available, though. That includes Native Client (NaCl) and Portable Native Client (PNaCl), technologies designed to let programmers who've written native C or C++ bring it to the browser. Google has said that PNaCl will arrive this year.

For now, like many other flagged options, Chrome merely says, "Sorry, this experiment is not available on your platform."

That's not a bad thing. The new Chrome beta can be slow and even unresponsive on my relatively powerful Galaxy Nexus smartphone, and cramming in new features runs a real risk of slowing it down further.

But the trajectory is clear: Google wants mobile browsing to be a rich experience. By letting people test and debug new features, Chrome flags offers those willing to live on the edge an ability to live in a browsing future that goes beyond today's stripped-down mobile Web.

Updated at 10:22 a.m. PT to note that SPDY is already active in Chrome for Android and that SPDY version 3 is the flagged option.