Why Apple is Investing in WebKit Performance

By on March 24, 2008 10:51 pm

Today, I was eating lunch alone at a restaurant and reading some news via my iPhone’s EDGE connection. Suddenly, Surfin’ Safari – Blog Archive » Optimizing Page Loading in the Web Browser made even more sense.

Apple has been putting actual dollars into making Safari and the underlying open source WebKit really, really fast. Safari 3 is significantly faster than Safari 2. There was another big speed boost after Safari 3.0.

Considering that the iPhone is much, much slower than the computers that Apple sells, squeezing more performance out of the browser will have a far greater visible impact on an iPhone than it would on a Mac (Dylan has an article about how Comet can improve iPhone browser performance, and Jason explained how Dojo Offline helps). Plus, current non-Apple (non-jailbreaked) iPhone applications are all web-based, and you’ll be able to use web techniques to make iPhone apps using the new SDK (just like Dashboard widgets). Boosting WebKit performance will speed up all of these.

As an iPhone user, I find that Safari works great with light, iPhone-optimized pages. Load up a more complex page, like CNN.com, and the page comes up slowly even over wifi. Apple’s handy User Agent Matrix gives us some clues that performance improvements are still on their way to the iPhone:

Platform Version Listed Safari Version WebKit Build
iPhone 1.0 3.0 420+
iPhone 1.1.2 3.0 420.1
MacOS 10.4.10 2.0.4 419.3
MacOS 10.5.1 3.0.4 523.10.3
MacOS 10.5.1 3.1 525.13

From those version numbers, it looks like the iPhone’s Safari sits somewhere between the Safari 2.0 and 3.0 that we know and love on the desktop. The WebKit developers have made significant advances since then, so I can’t wait to see how that translates into the user experience on the phone.

And now we see that blog post that talks about optimizing page loading times with particular attention to the effect of latency. Latency is high on the EDGE network. While the iPhone+EDGE combo has limited bandwidth, I would be surprised if this doesn’t improve the iPhone browsing experience some.

Of course, Apple has also been investing in making WebKit among the most standards-compliant browsers. That just implies that they’re trying to make the best browser they can, maybe because having a browser with millions of users is a decent-sized business. But continuing to try to squeeze even more performance out of an already fast browser seems to benefit the iPhone most of all.