In the cloud

The biggest buzz phrase doing the rounds seems to be “cloud computing” – which means different things to different people. But, basically, “life in the cloud” is all about using web applications to do things that you would traditionally have accomplished using a desktop application.

In the cloud

The underlying operating system is – at least according to the theory – going to become less and less important as we do more and more work via web applications. From an end-user’s point of view that’s great: I can borrow someone else’s computer, visit a cybercafé (do they have them any more?), use my work PC or my home Mac and from any of these still access all my documents, my calendar, my email, and so on.

Of course, for this to actually work, all the applications I want to use – calendar, email, word processor – need to be available as usable web applications, and more and more of them now are. Google Apps, for example, provides good word processing and spreadsheet programs, Apple’s MobileMe gives me image viewing and editing and a calendar that syncs with my Mac, plus web-based email and more.

The challenge from a developer’s point of view is to build these web applications in such a way that we can persuade users to actually migrate from their familiar desktop programs to web-based offerings, and that really is a major task: in many ways, we’re trying to ram a square peg into a round hole by using web browsers to do things they weren’t originally designed for. But some recent developments have taken us some way along the road to making life a little easier in that respect. In this month’s column I’ll be taking a look at just some of what’s out there to improve life for web-based software developers.

Faster JavaScript

Ultimately much (if not all) of the functionality of present-day web applications comes through the use of JavaScript. In the distant past JavaScript was decried by real developers (C++ programmers, for example) as a “toy” language, but those days are long gone and JavaScript is now accepted as a real, relatively heavyweight language for producing commercial websites. Sadly, many who now code in JavaScript are not real, heavyweight programmers, which is why so many websites are riddled with egregious JavaScript errors, rarely work properly and provide a truly horrible user experience. But things are, very slowly, improving…

The problem is that JavaScript’s performance when executed inside many web browsers is far from impressive. Sure it works, but it’s slow, and for a web application to be truly compelling it needs to exhibit the same level of responsiveness as a standard desktop application. Luckily, some big improvements have been made in many of the key browsers. The next release of Safari should include a brand-new JavaScript interpreter known as SquirrelFish, which is currently available in the nightly builds of WebKit, the engine on which Safari is based: this promises to dramatically speed up JavaScript performance on that browser. Meanwhile, the team behind Firefox has also radically improved JavaScript performance in version 3 of the browser, with a new interpreter called Silvermonkey (strange animalistic names are, it seems, de rigueur) and there are more speed increases promised in version 3.1, due out quite soon.

Then there’s Google’s brand-new browser, Chrome, which was released just as I was finishing this column. Chrome has its own new, open-source JavaScript interpreter known as V8, which, according to initial tests, provides some of the fastest JavaScript performance seen so far, and because it’s open-source other developers can see how well it’s doing things and borrow the techniques for their own products. Indeed, you can even embed V8 in your own C++ application, so any application that needs a JavaScript interpreter can now include a very high-performance one with very little effort.

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