Apple: Not All WebKit Optimizations Available to iOS Apps

Apple has a one-country, two-systems approach to browsing on its iOS developments. The Register reported that Apple has acknowledged that not all of the optimizations the company has built into WebKit — the rendering engine used by Safari and and iOS apps that offer Web browsing features — are actually available to those iOS apps. The result is that Safari offers higher performance than apps when it comes to browsing.

The revelation was sparked by a report from Blaze Software that found Android smartphones render Web pages markedly faster than an iPhone running iOS 4.3, the newest version of Apple’s mobile OS. According to Blaze, Android’s Chrome Web browser can render a Web page 52% faster than Safari on the iPhone (2.1 seconds average load time over 45,000 pages for Android/Chrome vs. 3.2 seconds for iOS/Safari).

Blaze Software Chart
Source: Blaze Software

This raised a hue and cry from partisans in both iOS and Android camps, including a charge from some (including Apple) that Blaze didn’t actually use Safari when testing the iPhone, but rather a custom app that used the rendering engine provided by iOS.

“They didn’t actually test the Safari web browser on the iPhone,” an Apple spokesperson told The Reg. “Instead, they only tested their own proprietary app which uses an embedded web viewer.”

This was confirmed by Blaze, and the problem is that, according to the Apple spokersperson, “The embedded Web viewer [in iOS] does not take advantage of Safari’s web performance optimizations.”

On the surface, of course, this seems a fine defense for having gotten trounced by Android/Chrome, but it doesn’t take much prodding beneath to surface to ask why it is that Apple isn’t making those optimizations available to developers?

If it’s all about the apps, as even the newest batch of Apple’s own commercials claim, why are users being saddled with an inferior experience if the better experience is developed, implemented, and in-use on Apple’s native iOS browser?

Is it a temporary situation due to Apple wanting to releaase iOS 4.3 faster than the company could implment its newest Nitro JavaScript engine in the iOS SDK? (CNet also reported that other improvements include some HTML 5 caching technologies and an asynchronous rendering mode.)

As for the study itself, Blaze Software said in a follow-up blog post that, “To the extent of our knowledge, this is the first time Apple has openly made such a statement. Given the information that various optimizations are not included in the embedded browser, it’s quite possible the iPhone page loads could be faster. We stand behind the statement that Android’s embedded browser is faster than iPhone’s. We hope Apple will help us enable those optimizations and repeat the measurement. Until then, for all we know the missing optimizations may not make a big impact.”

In other words, Blaze acknowledged that Safari itself might perform better, but the company believes its overall performance will still lag behind Android/Chrome, even if the gap is smaller.