WKWebView Communication Latency #

One of the many exciting things about the modern WebKit API is that it has an officially sanctioned communication mechanism for doing JavaScript-to-native communication. Hacks should no longer be necessary to get data back out of the WKWebView. It is a simple matter of registering a WKScriptMessageHandler on the native side and then invoking it with window.webkit.messageHandlers.<handler name>.postMessage on the JS side.

After a heads-up from Jordan that messaging latency with the new web view was not that great, I extended the test bed I had developed to measure UIWebView communication mechanisms to also measure this setup. I got results that mirrored Jordan's experiences — on an iPad mini 2 (A7), UIWebView's best officially supported communication mechanism (changing location.hash¹) took 0.44ms, while the same round trip on a WKWebView took 3.63ms. I was expecting somewhat higher latency, since there is a cross-process IPC involved now, but not this much higher.

Curious as to what was going on, I pointed a profiler at the test harness, and got the following results.

Running Time         Symbol Name
4147.0ms   94.1%     Main Thread
                         10 stack frames elided
2165.0ms   49.1%             IPC::Connection::dispatchOneMessage()
2164.0ms   49.1%              IPC::Connection::dispatchMessage(…)
2161.0ms   49.0%               WebKit::WebProcessProxy::didReceiveMessage(…)
2160.0ms   49.0%                IPC::MessageReceiverMap::dispatchMessage(…)
2137.0ms   48.4%                 void IPC::handleMessage<…>
2137.0ms   48.4%                  WebKit::WebUserContentControllerProxy::didPostMessage(…)
2132.0ms   48.3%                   ScriptMessageHandlerDelegate::didPostMessage(…)
1274.0ms   28.9%                    -[JSContext initWithVirtualMachine:]
 769.0ms   17.4%                    -[JSContext init]
 30.0ms     0.6%                 -[BenchmarkViewController userContentController:didReceiveScriptMessage:]
 16.0ms     0.3%                 -[JSValue toObject]

It looks like nearly half the time is spent in JSContext² initializers. As previously mentioned, the WKWebView API is open source, so it's actually possible to read the source and see what's going on. If we look at the ScriptMessageHandlerDelegate::didPostMessage source we can see that indeed for every postMessage() call on the JS side a new JSContext is initialized to own the deserialized value.

Even when not doing any postMessage calls on the JS side, and just measuring WKWebView's evaluateJavaScript:completionHandler: latency, there was still lots of time spent in JSContext initialization. This turned out to be because the completion handler also results in a JSContext being created in order to own the deserialized value. Thankfully this only happens if a completion handler is specified and there is a result, in other cases the function exits early.

After thinking about this some more, it occurred to me that the old location.hash mechanism could still work with a WKWebView. By adding a WKNavigationDelegate to the web view, it's possible to observe location changes on the native side. I implemented this approach and was pleasantly surprised to see that it took 0.95ms. This was almost 4x faster than the officially sanctioned mechanism (albeit still about twice as slow as the equivalent on a UIWebView, but that is presumably explained by the IPC overhead).

I then wondered if using location.hash to communicate in both directions (changing the location on the native side, listening for hashchange events on the JS side) would be be even better (to bypass more of the JS execution machinery), but that approach ended up being slower (for both UIWebView and WKWebView) since it involved more delegate invocations.

Putting all this together, here are the results (in milliseconds, averaged over 100 round trips) using these mechanisms on various devices (all running iOS 8.1) using my test bed.

Method/Device iPhone 5 (A6) iPad mini 2 (A7) iPhone 6 (A8) Simulator (Core i7)
UIWebView
location.hash 0.63 0.44 0.37 0.15
WKWebView
WKScriptMessageHandler 6.97 3.63 3.03 2.75
location.hash 1.3 0.95 0.77 0.32

I reported this performance problem to Apple last summer (while iOS 8 was still in beta), but I haven't seen activity in this area. Ideally there would be a way to skip over JS value deserialization altogether, for cases where the client doesn't actually benefit from the built-in parsing that is done. Specifically, Quip uses Protocol Buffer-encoded messages to have richer (and typed) data passed back and forth between the native and JS side, and so, as far as the JS runtime is concerned, they're all strings anyway.

Separately, it is a good question as to why I'm making such a big fuss over the overhead of one millisecond (or three) per call. Quip continues to be a “hybrid” app, with the editing experience implemented in a web view (a UIWebView for now). With the launch of spreadsheets we now have even more native ↔ web communication, and in some cases we notify the web view of touch events continuously while UIScrollViews are scrolled (for custom behavior³). When trying to hit 60 frames per second, spending 3 milliseconds of your 16 millisecond budget on pure overhead feels wasteful.

  1. Astute observers will remark that my blog post used to recommend either changing location.hash or using the click() method on an anchor node. I have since discovered that click() results in a forced layout recalculation (via hit testing) as part of dispatching the event. I have since updated the post to recommend location.hash.
  2. I find it a bit odd that JavaScriptCore is not part of Apple's web-accessible documentation set. Even their own release notes announcing the framework say “for information about the classes of this framework, see the header files.”
  3. This involved yet more spelunking into UIWebView internals, something I will hopefully be posting about soon.

RetroGit #

tl;dr: RetroGit is a simple tool that sends you a daily (or weekly) digest of your GitHub commits from years past. Use it as a nostalgia trip or to remind you of TODOs that you never quite got around to cleaning up. Think of it as Timehop for your codebase.

It's now been a bit more than two years since I've joined Quip. I recall a sense of liberation the first few months as we were working in a very small, very new codebase. Compared with the much older and larger projects at Google, experimentation was expected, technical debt was non-existent, and in any case it seemed quite likely that almost everything would be rewritten before any real users saw it¹. It was also possible to skim every commit and generally have a sense that you could keep the whole project in your head.

As time passed, more and more code was written, prototypes were replaced with “productionized” systems and whole new areas that I was less familiar with (e.g. Android) were added. After about a year, I started to have the experience, familiar to any developer working on a large codebase for a while, of running blame on a file and being surprised by seeing my own name next to foreign-looking lines of code.

Generally, it seemed like the codebase was still manageable when working in a single area. Problems with keeping it all in my head appeared when doing context switches: working on tables for a month, switching to annotations for a couple of months, and then trying to get back into tables. By that point tables had been “swapped out” and it all felt a bit alien. Extrapolating from that, it seemed like coming back to a module a year later would effectively mean starting from scratch.

I wondered if I could build a tool to help me keep more of the codebase “paged in”. I've been a fan of Timehop for a while, back to the days when they were known as 4SquareAnd7YearsAgo. Besides the nostalgia factor, it did seem like periodic reminders of places I've gone to helped to keep those memories fresher. Since Quip uses GitHub for our codebase (and I had also migrated all my projects there a couple of years ago), it seemed like it would be possible to build a Timehop-like service for my past commits via their API.

I had also wanted to try building something with Go², and this seemed like a good fit. Between go-github and goauth2, the “boring” bits would be taken care of. App Engine's Go runtime also made it easy to deploy my code, and it didn't seem like this would be a very resource-intensive app (famous last words).

I started experimenting over Fourth of July weekend, and by working on it for a few hours a week I had it emailing me my daily digests by the end of the month. At this point I ran into what Akshay described as the “eh, it works well enough” trough, where it was harder to find the motivation to clean up the site so that others could use it too. But eventually it did reach a “1.0” state, including a name change, ending up with RetroGit.

The code ended up being quite straightforward, though I'm sure I have quite a ways to go before writing idiomatic Go. The site employs a design similar to Tweet Digest, where it doesn't store any data beyond an OAuth token, and instead just makes the necessary API calls on the fly to get the commits from years past. The GitHub API behaved as advertised — the only tricky bit was how to handle the my aforementioned migrated repositories. Their creation dates were 2011-2012, but they had commits going back much further. I didn't want to “probe” the interval going back indefinitely, just in case there were commits from that year — in theory someone could import some very old repositories into GitHub³. I ended up using the statistics endpoint to determine when the first commit for a user was in a repository, and persisting that as a “vintage” timestamp.

I'm not entirely happy with the visual design — I like the general “retro” theme, but I think executing it well is a bit beyond my Photoshop abilities. The punch card graphic is based on this “Fortran statement” card from this collection. WhatTheFont! identified the header font as ITC Blair Medium. Hopefully the styling within the emails is restrained enough that it won't affect readability. Relatedly, this was my first project where I had to generate HTML email, and I escaped with most of my sanity intact, though some things were still annoying. I found the CSS compatibility tables from MailChimp and Campaign Monitor, though I'm happy that I don't have care too much about more “mass market” clients (sorry Outlook users).

As to whether or not RetroGit is achieving its intended goal of helping me keep more of the Quip codebase in my head, it's hard to say for sure. One definite effect is that I pay more attention to commit messages, since I know I'll be seeing them a year from now. They're not quite link bait, but I do think that going beyond things like “Fixes #787” to also include a one-line summary in the message is helpful. In theory the issue has more details as to what was broken, but they can end up being re-opened, fixes re-attempted, etc. so it's nice to capture the context of a commit better. I've also been reminded of some old TODOs and done some commenting cleanups when it became apparent a year later that things could have been explained better.

If you'd like to try it yourself, all the site needs is for you to sign in with your GitHub account. There is an FAQ for the security conscious, and for the paranoid running your own instance on App Engine should be quite easy — the README covers the minimal setup necessary.

  1. It took me a while to stop having hangups about not choosing the most optimal/scalable solution for all problems. I didn't skew towards “over-engineered” solutions at Google, but somehow enough of the “will it scale” sentiment did seep in.
  2. My last attempt was pre-Go 1.0, and was too small to really “stick”.
  3. Now that Go itself has migrated to GitHub, the Gophers could use this to get reminders of where they started.

HTML Munging My Way To a React.js Conf Ticket #

Like many others, I was excited to see that Facebook is putting on a conference for the React community. Tickets were being released in three waves, and so for the last three Fridays I have been trying to get one. The first Friday I did not even manage to see an order form. The next week I got as far as choosing a quantity, before being told that tickets were sold out when pushing the “Submit” button.

Today was going to be my last chance, so I enlisted some coworkers to the cause — if any of them managed to get an order form the plan was that I would come by their desk and fill it out with my details. At 12 o'clock I struck out, but Bret and Casey both managed to run the gauntlet and make it to the order screen. However, once I tried to submit I was greeted with:

React.js Conf Order Failure

Based on Twitter, I was not the only one. Looking at the Dev Tools console showed that a bunch of URLs were failing to load from CloudFront, with pathnames like custom-tickets.js and custom-tickets.css. I assumed that some supporting resources were missing, hence the form was not entirely populated¹. After checking that those URL didn't load while tethered to my phone (in case our office network was banned for DDoS-like behavior), I decided to spelunk through the code and see if I could inject the missing form fields by hand. I found some promising-looking JavaScript of the form:

submitPaymentForm({
    number: $('.card-number').val(),
    cvc: $('.card-cvc').val(),
    exp_month: $('.card-expiry-month').val(),
    exp_year: $('.card-expiry-year').val(),
    name: $('.cardholder-name').val(),
    address_zip: $('.card-zipcode').val()
});

I therefore injected some DOM nodes with the appropriate class names and values and tried resubmitting. Unfortunately, I got the same error message. When I looked at the submitPaymentForm implementation, I could see that the input parameter was not actually used:

function submitPaymentForm(fields) {
    var $form = $("#billing-info-form");
    warnLeave = false;
    $form.get(0).submit();
}

I looked at the form fields that had loaded, and they had complex names like order[TicketOrder][email]. It seemed like it would be difficult to guess the names of the missing ones (I checked the network request and they were not being submitted at all). I then had the idea of finding another Splash event order form, and seeing if I could get the valid form fields from there. I eventually ended up on the ticket page for a music video release party that had a working credit card form. Excited, I copied the form fields into the React order page that I still had up, filled them out, and pressed “Submit”. There was a small bump where it thought that the expiration date field was required and not provided, but I bypassed that client-side check and got a promising-looking spinner that indicated that the order was being processed.

I was all set to be done, when the confirmation page finally loaded, and instead of being for the React conference, it was for the video release party. Evidently starting the order in a second tab had clobbered the some kind of cookie or other client-side state from the React tab. I had thus burned the order page on Bret's computer. However, Case had been dutifully keeping the session on his computer alive, so I switched to that one. There I went through the same process, but opened the “donor” order page in a Chrome incognito window. With bated breath I pressed the order button, and was relieved to see a confirmation page for React, and this email to arrive shortly after:

React.js Conf Order Success?

Possibly not quite as epic was my last attempt at working around broken service providers, but it still made for an exciting excuse to be late for lunch. And if anyone wants to go a music video release party tonight in Brooklyn, I have a ticket².

  1. I now see that other Splash order forms have the same network error, so it may have been a red herring.
  2. Amusingly enough, I appeared to have bought the last pre-sale ticket there — they are sold out too.

Two Hard Things #

Inspired by Phil Karlton's (possibly apocryphal) Two Hard Things, here's what I struggle with on a regular basis:

  1. Getting information X from system A to system B without violating the N layers of abstraction in between.
  2. Naming X such that the name is concise, unique (i.e. greppable) and has the right connotations to someone new to the codebase (or myself, a year later).

Gmail's HTML Tag Whitelist #

I couldn't find a comprehensive list of the HTML tags that Gmail's sanitizer allows through, so I wrote one up.

The Modern WebKit API is Open Source #

When doing web development (or really any development on a complex enough platform), sometimes the best course of action for understanding puzzling behavior is to read the source. It's therefore been fortunate that Chrome/Blink, WebKit (though not Safari) and Firefox/Gecko are all open source (and often the source is easily searchable too).

One of exceptions has been mobile WebKit when accessed via a UIWebView on iOS. Though it's based on the same components (WebCore, JavaScriptCore, WebKit API layer) as its desktop counterpart, there is enough mobile-specific behavior (e.g. interaction with auto-complete and the on-screen keyboard) that source access would come in handy. Apple would periodically do code dumps on opensource.apple.com, but those only included the WebCore and JavaScriptCore components¹ and in any case there hasn't been one since iOS 6.1.

At WWDC, as part of iOS 8, Apple announced a modern WebKit API that would be unified between the Mac and iOS. Much of the (positive) reaction has been about the new API giving third-party apps access to faster, JITed, JavaScript execution. However, just as important to me is the fact that implementation of the new API is open source.

Besides browsing around the source tree, it's also possible to track its development more closely, via an RSS feed of commits. However, there are no guarantees that just because something is available in the trunk repository that it will also be available on the (presumed) branch that iOS 8 is being worked on. For example, [WKWebView evaluateJavaScript:completionHandler:] was added on June 10, but it didn't show up in iOS 8 until beta 3, released on July 7 (beta 2 was released on June 17). More recent changes, such as the ability to control selection granularity (added on June 26) have yet to show up. There don't seem to be any (header) changes² that live purely in the iOS 8 SDK, so I'm inclined to believe that (at least at this stage) there's not much on-branch development, which is encouraging.

Many thanks to Anders, Benjamin, Mitz and all the other Apple engineers for doing all in the open.

Update on July 21, 2014: The selection granularity API has shown up in beta 4, which was released today.

  1. IANAL, but my understanding is that WebCore and JavaScriptCore are LGPL-licensed (due to its KHTML heritage) and so modifications in shipping software have to distributed as source, while WebKit is BSD-licensed, and therefore doesn't have that requirement.
  2. Modulo some munging done as part of the release process.

Using ASan with iOS Applications #

I've written up a quick guide for getting ASan (Address Sanitizer) working with iOS apps. This is the kind of thing I would have put directly into this blog in the past, but:

  1. Blogger's editor is not pleasant to use — I usually end up editing the HTML directly, especially for posts with code blocks. Not that Quip doesn't have bugs, but at least they're our bugs.
  2. Quip has public sharing now, so in theory that doc should be just as accessible (and indexable) as a regular post.

However, I still like the idea of this blog being a centralized repository of everything that I've written, hence this "stub" post.