While pundits have been spending the last few years debating whether native apps are superior to their Web counterparts, Apple has been quietly making improvements to the mobile version of Safari, adding features, increasing performance, and generally ensuring that its devices can deliver a browsing environment that is as close as possible to what is available on the desktop.
Though the updates have often been on the quiet side, the attention is no surprise: One of the salient selling points of the original iPhone OS--as it was called back in 2007--was that it shipped with a fully-fledged browser.
This focus on Web technologies continues with iOS 8, which will introduce what are perhaps some of the biggest changes to Safari and its underlying technology since the OS's original introduction.
Speed, speed, speed (and safety)
Named Nitro, this "just-in-time" compiler had one major drawback: It was only available when you opened a webpage inside Safari itself. In order to work, Nitro requires special sandboxing privileges that are normally not available to third-party apps; for one thing, it prevents those apps from running code that hasn't been pre-approved by Apple at the time of an app's submission to the App Store.
In iOS 8, however, the new Extensibility features will allow all apps to enjoy the same level of performance as Safari. As long as they opt in to a new embedding mechanism, third-party developers can embed the browser's rendering engine directly into their code in a way that fully enables all of Nitro's enhancements, alongside a few additional performance tricks.
Voyage in the third dimension
The second big announcement to come out of this year's WWDC is the fact that Safari for iOS 8 will, for the first time, be able to render 3D graphics using a device's GPU for hardware acceleration.
To be fair, this feature is not exactly new.WebGL, the technology that makes 3D programming possible on the web, was released in 2011, and has been present in Safari for several versions of iOS. However, Apple chose to disable it by default, and effectively made the technology impossible for third-party apps to use by hiding the software switch that turns it on behind a private API. (The company did make an exception for its own iAd service, however--presumably because it had added control over what would be displayed.)
When iOS 8 finally sees the light later this year, WebGL will be turned on by default, giving users full access to any website that provides content through that technology. This will open the door to new applications that range from virtual showrooms to full-fledged 3D games right in a browser or in an embedded Web view.
One fish, two fish, video fish
The iOS 8 version of Safari comes with a number of video playback enhancements that primarily fall in two categories: power saving and media management.
On the power-saving side of things, Apple has implemented a number of tricks that allow media playback to use less of your battery, particularly when it comes to mixing it with other Web content. Among the most notable features, video is now composited directly in hardware, and technologies like HTTP Live Streaming have been extended to provide fully adaptive video streams that use less bandwidth and load faster.
These new features could usher in all sorts of new applications that make use of video on the Web, including time-shifting live streams, interactive multi-angle playback, and more.
Keep calm and continue on
A final set of improvements coming to iOS 8 enhance Safari with support for the operating system's overall Continuity framework, which allows apps to better communicate across devices and even across distribution media.
For example, new APIs in iOS 8 allow apps and websites to share credentials. At the most basic level, this means that you won't have to re-enter your username and password as you switch between the native and Web-based versions of Web-based services like Feedly or Dropbox. On newer devices equipped with Touch ID sensors, which can now be used to unlock credentials held by third-party apps, this could mean that you will never have to type a username and password again, resulting in better security and improved usability.
Speaking of Continuity, Safari and HTML will also be able to participate in other technologies, like Handoff, which allow users to effortlessly juggle data and documents between Web-based and native software, taking advantage of the strengths of each as appropriate.
So much for native
These improvements, coupled with smaller items like support for advanced CSS directives, prove that Apple is as serious as ever when it comes to providing iOS users with a superior Web platform, and that the company sees technologies like HTML as valuable companions to its native frameworks, rather than competitors to it.
It's also worth noting that a number of the enhancements I listed above, like WebGL and video playback, are based on standards that are openly available on other platforms--including Windows and Android--which makes it easier than ever for Web developers to build apps that work across a wide range of devices.
Ultimately, this should translate into broader integration between Web content and native apps on iOS, bringing us all the kind of rich user experience we've come to expect from Apple's mobile devices.