Firefox for Android in 2013

Lucas Rocha and I gave a talk at FOSDEM over the weekend on Firefox for Android. It went ok, I think we could have rehearsed it a bit better, but it was generally well-received and surprisingly well-attended! I’m sure Lucas will have the slides up soon too. If you were unfortunate enough not to have attended FOSDEM, and doubly unfortunate that you missed our talk (guffaw), we’ll be reiterating it with a bit more detail in the London Mozilla space on February 22nd. We’ll do our best to answer any questions you have about Firefox for Android, but also anything Mozilla-related. If you’re interested in FirefoxOS, there may be a couple of phones knocking about too. Do come along, we’re looking forward to seeing you :)

p.s. I’ll be talking on a performance panel at EdgeConf this Saturday. Though it’s fully booked, I think tickets occasionally become available again, so might be worth keeping an eye on. They’ll be much cleverer people than me knocking about, but I’ll be doing my best to answer your platform performance related questions.

Progressive Tile Rendering

So back from layout into graphics again! For the last few weeks, I’ve been working with Benoit Girard on getting progressive tile rendering finished and turned on by default in Firefox for Android. The results so far are very promising! First, a bit of background (feel free to skip to the end if you just want the results).

You may be aware that we use a multi-threaded application model for Firefox for Android. The UI runs in one thread and Gecko, which does the downloading and rendering of the page, runs in another. This is a bit of a simplification, but for all intents and purposes, that’s how it works. We do this so that we can maintain interactive performance – something of paramount important with a touch-screen. We render a larger area than you see on the screen, so that when you scroll, we can respond immediately without having to wait for Gecko to render more. We try to tell Gecko to render the most relevant area next and we hope that it returns in time so that the appearance is seamless.

There are two problems with this as it stands, though. If the work takes too long, you’ll be staring at a blank area (well, this isn’t quite true either, we do a low-resolution render of the entire page and use that as a backing in this worst-case scenario – but that often doesn’t work quite right and is a performance issue in and of itself…) The second problem is that if a page is made up of many layers, or updates large parts of itself as you scroll, uploading that work to the graphics unit can take a significant amount of time. During this time, the page will appear to ‘hang’, as unfortunately, you can’t upload data to the GPU and continue to use it to draw things (this isn’t true in every single case, but again, for our purposes, it is).

Progressive rendering tries to spread this load by breaking up that work into several smaller tiles, and processing them one-by-one, where appropriate. This helps us mitigate those pauses that may happen for particularly complex/animated pages. Alongside this work, we also add the ability for a render to be cancelled. This is good for the situation that a page takes so long to render that by the time it’s finished, what it rendered is no longer useful. Currently, because a render is done all at once, if it takes too long, we can waste precious cycles on irrelevant data. As well as splitting up this work, and allowing it to be cancelled, we also try to do it in the most intelligent order – render areas that the user can see that were previously blank first, and if that area intersects with more than one tile, make sure to do it in the order that maintains visual coherence the best.

A cherry on the top (which is still very much work-in-progress, but I hope to complete it soon), is that splitting this work up into tiles makes it easy to apply nice transitions to make the pathological cases not look so bad. With that said, how’s about some video evidence? Here’s an almost-Nightly (an extra patch or two that haven’t quite hit central), with the screenshot layer disabled so you can see what can happen in a pathological case:

And here’s the same code, with progressive tile rendering turned on and a work-in-progress fading patch applied.

This page is a particularly slow page to render due to the large radial gradient in the background (another issue which will eventually be fixed), so it helps to highlight how this work can help. For a fast-to-render page that we have no problems with, this work doesn’t have such an obvious effect (though scrolling will still be smoother). I hope the results speak for themselves :)

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Eurogamer Expo 2012

One of the perks of being a Virgin Media customer (beyond getting my name wrong and constant up-sell harassment) is that I got cheap, early-access Eurogamer Expo tickets! This was my first Eurogamer Expo, though I’m no stranager to ECTS or ATEI/EAG. The setup was quite good – perhaps a bit smaller than I expected, but nice to see a games show that’s actually aimed at gamers. I was always amused at the hoops you had to jump through to get tickets for ECTS and ATEI; more so when you actually visit the events and realise the majority of people there are gamers who have jumped through those same hoops. Good to see that the games industry, finally, after several years, got wise.

There was a fair amount on show. Lots of soon and not-so-soon to be released games, the WiiU, a surprising and pleasing amount of indie content and various bits and bobs. The WiiU was certainly the main attraction, but was managed terribly and was extremely disappointing. While most of the company reps were great and very helpful, a couple of Nintendo’s were oddly aggressive and patronising. I don’t think anyone at Eurogamer needs to be told how to play WiiU mini-games, or have buttons on their controllers pressed for them. The decision to dedicate three entire kiosks in the WiiU section to a video panorama viewer was baffling too. It’s almost as if no one at Nintendo has picked up a smart-phone in the last 5 years or so – this isn’t astounding stuff. Wonderful 101 seemed quite fun, but not as fun as I was expecting. The rest of the WiiU content was very disappointing. Pikmin 3 looking bland and boring was especially upsetting. It’s ironic that playing on the console has secured my decision not to buy it on release. I could easily write about how disappointing the WiiU was for a lot longer, but I just don’t care enough.

What was pleasantly surprising was how good Sony’s presence and content was. Reps were polite and helpful, not getting in the way where they weren’t needed and turning up when they were. Much like a good waiter. They had plenty of kiosks and space, and queues were minimal (not due to lack of interest, mind). Playstation All-stars Battle Royale, though clearly a Smash Bros. rip-off, is actually a very good one. We spent quite a while on it, and it was very enjoyable (possibly more so than Smash Bros. Brawl, but it doesn’t even approach the heights of Melee). The cross-play was especially impressive too, mirroring almost the exact same game frame-for-frame with only minor graphical omissions. Stand-out game of the show had to be When Vikings Attack, though. Incredibly simple concept, but perfect execution and impressive cross-play again. The only disappointment was that it doesn’t have a confirmed release date, but Clever Beans say it will be on PSN before the end of the year. This is definitely day-one purchase material.

Carmageddon definitely deserves a mention. It’s just as much fun as it was all those years ago, and the tablet/smartphone port has been handled perfectly. A shame that there was no demo or footage for the Carmageddon Reincarnation project, but hopefully it made a few more people aware. Also worth mentioning was God of War: Ascension, which although is more of the same, it’s a brilliant same that it’s more of. The multiplayer worked surprisingly well too, though a LAN setup is always going to be more fun than online. There were a few things that I’d have liked to have tried, but queues prevented me – nothing I would deem queue-worthy though. Hitman looked quite impressive, but the whole misogyny thing has put me off. Same goes for Tomb Raider. Dishonoured looked interesting, but not so interesting to queue for. Halo 4 looked like more of the same, though the considerable graphical upgrade certainly doesn’t hurt. Dead or Alive 5 was quite fun, and pleasing to see that they’ve returned to the mechanics of Dead or Alive 2 (clearly the series high). Disappointing amount of guys picking bikini-clad women to fight and leaving the camera aimed at crotch/chest areas; we evened the score a bit by playing as ridiculous-looking guys and aiming at the groin. Yes, I am 12. Disappointed to see that they’ve not included Zack’s weird sports-bra costume. The indie games arcade section is probably worth mentioning in that almost everything in it was terrible and just trading on a quirky look with zero gameplay to back it up. I conclude that there’s still plenty of room for ideas and innovation in the British indie games community.

All in all, a pretty fun event. Slightly disappointing that the industry still hasn’t moved on from the whole booth-babe thing, but it’s definitely far less prevalent than it used to be, so that leaves me with some hope. The graphical standard of console games is astounding, especially given there hasn’t been a hardware refresh in over 5 years. I’ll definitely be returning next year.

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position:fixed in Firefox Mobile

It seems, somehow, for the last few months, I’ve been working on layout. I’m not quite sure how it happened, as anyone who’s spoken to me or follows me on Twitter would know that I have a very healthy fear of the Gecko layout code. I still have that fear, but I’d like to think now that it’s coupled with a tiny amount of understanding; understanding that has, dare I say it, even let me have fun while working on this code!

Those of you that have used browsers on mobile phones (all of you?), especially not the very latest phones, may be familiar with an annoying problem. That is, elements that have position:fixed in their style tend to jump around the place like they’ve had too much coffee. You commonly see this on sites that have a persistent bar at the top or bottom of the page, or floating confirmation notifications, things like this. Brad Frost wrote about this far more eloquently than I could here. This has always annoyed me, especially after learning more about how browsers work. Certainly in Gecko, we have all of the context we need for this not to happen. It also ended up that this problem had been worked on long before I even joined Mozilla last year, so that made it doubly surprising that we suffered from this problem in all releases of Firefox Mobile.

When I first came across this last year, I discovered that the support was already there in the old Firefox Mobile, but disabled by default due to it causing test failures. I was working on other things then, and wasn’t at all acquainted with layout code, so I let it be. Revisiting it for the new, native Firefox Mobile though, these test failures didn’t exist anymore. Enabling this basic support that would let position:fixed elements move and zoom with user input correctly was not too big a deal – just flip an environment variable and write a small amount of support code. This landed in Firefox 15 and is tracked in Bug 607417. Just this is enough for a lot of mobile sites to start using position:fixed (I’m looking at you, Twitter and Facebook!).

This wasn’t enough for me though. Around this time, Android 3.x (Honeycomb) tablets had been around for quite a while and the Galaxy Nexus with Android 4.0 (Ice-cream Sandwich) had just come out, both with even better support for position:fixed. Not to mention the iPhone, which has excellent support. A problem with our implementation in Firefox 15, is that anything fixed to the bottom or right of the screen, or anything that doesn’t anchor to the top-left in any way, may become inaccessible after zooming in. In recent versions of the Android stock browser, not only do these remain accessible, but they zoom very smoothly too. Not wanting to be one-upped by what could be considered our main competition, I started to work on more comprehensive position:fixed support. This work was tracked in Bug 758620.

When zooming in our browser, we don’t change how the page is laid out, but fixed position elements are still rendered relative to the viewport. What we want (at least, for now) is for fixed position elements to lay out with respect to this viewport so that they always remain visible, and to transition smoothly between these states. To achieve this, I changed layout so that fixed position elements are laid out to what we call the scroll-port. When we zoom in, we change the scroll-port, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to scroll to the bottom-right of the page, but this only changes scrolling behaviour and nothing else. This change also made it so that fixed-position children of the document would be relayed out when this scrollport was changed. This fixed the inaccessibility problem, but left nasty-looking transitions when zooming in.

To fix the transitions was quite a bit more comprehensive and lead me down a long path of causing and fixing various layout bugs. When a page is rendered, the DOM tree is parsed into a frame tree, which better represents the layout of the page. This frame tree is then parsed into a display-list, which represents how to draw the page. This display-list is then optimised and parsed/drawn into a layer tree, which is the final representation before we composite it. There’s cleverness to make sure that layers aren’t recreated unnecessarily, but that’s another subject for another time. We wanted to be able to annotate the layer tree so that when compositing, we have enough information to determine how to place fixed-position layers when zooming. This involved creating a new display-list item with the information about how the element is fixed (to the top? left? right? bottom?), and also that would guarantee that the items representing this element would end up on their own layer. Once this was done, code in the compositor was added to leverage this information and draw layers in the right place.

This is an area that a lot of browsers have difficulty with, so it was a fun problem to work on. Try out a couple of my test-cases if you’re interested, they expose how different browsers handle this situation, and in the case of a few of them, some bugs :) We’re still not perfect, but we’re better than we were before – and to my feeling, we’re adequate now. This work landed in Firefox 16.

So is there work left to do? Well, unfortunately, yes. I’ve just finished off support for fixed backgrounds and backgrounds with multiple fixed/non-fixed layers, and this will arrive in Firefox 18. This is tracked in Bug 786502. I also think that the best behaviour would be for fixed position elements to layout to whichever is largest of the CSS viewport or the scroll-port, and for scrolling to be within the CSS viewport and push the edges when you reach them. I’m told this is what happens in IE10 on Windows 8, and is similar (but slightly better) to what gets done in Safari on iOS. I think it’s about time for a break from this particular feature for me, though.

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