Cover by Nicholas C. Zakas

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Web Workers

Since JavaScript was introduced, there has been no way to execute code outside of the browser UI thread. The web workers API changes this by introducing an interface through which code can be executed without taking time on the browser UI thread. Originally part of HTML 5, the web workers API has been split out into its own specification (http://www.w3.org/TR/workers/); web workers have already been implemented natively in Firefox 3.5, Chrome 3, and Safari 4.

Web workers represent a potentially huge performance improvement for web applications because each new worker spawns its own thread in which to execute JavaScript. That means not only will code executing in a worker not affect the browser UI, but it also won’t affect code executing in other workers.

Worker Environment

Since web workers aren’t bound to the UI thread, it also means that they cannot access a lot of browser resources. Part of the reason that JavaScript and UI updates share the same process is because one can affect the other quite frequently, and so executing these tasks out of order results in a bad user experience. Web workers could introduce user interface errors by making changes to the DOM from an outside thread, but each web worker has its own global environment that has only a subset of JavaScript features available. The worker environment is made up of the following:

  • A navigator object, which contains only four properties: appName, appVersion, userAgent, and platform

  • A location object (same as on ...

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