Google’s new software language Dart aims to speed up the web

25 May 2012

Lars Bak, software engineer with Google's Dart team

Google is on a mission to speed up the web. Flush from the success of its Chrome browser passing out Internet Explorer in recent weeks, it is now focusing on a new Javascript language called Dart to speed up the apps within web browsers, software engineer Lars Bak told

If you study the charts, the constant crisscrossing of Google’s Chrome browser versus Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to be the world’s most-used browser reminds me of the vapour trails that must have been commonplace from dogfights in the skies over wartime Europe.

But this is 2012 and if I shut my imagination off for a little while and focus on what seems like a battle for the hearts and minds of the internet, I realise Google currently wins no matter what browser people use.

When I put this to Lars Bak, an engineer who worked on the evolution of Chrome from the beginning and who now works on Google’s Dart team, he doesn’t disagree but politely points out that the Chrome browser’s arrival on the world stage in 2008 was more about speeding up innovation in browser and web technology.

Since Chrome arrived it has led to the introduction of a Chrome OS which can power netbooks and laptops and more recently a new programming language called Dart that potentially could speed up the deployment of large-scale apps within browsers.

“I was pretty much there from the start. There were a few things we’d noticed in the marketplace. Firstly the rate of innovation within browsers had gone down. It looked like the speed of browsers had stabilised on them all. Also the user interface was not ideal so we believed that innovation was important in order to change the game and for whatever reason suddenly the browser world has exploded.

“It’s amazing how much progress and innovation has come out of Chrome.”

What Bak is driving at is how clean and minimalistic today’s generation of browsers are with their sluggish predecessors in terms of user experience.

“On the user interface front, the goal from day one was to make sure that the browser gets out of the way and you can see from Chrome there are no dialogue boxes.”

He makes another interesting point. One of my frustrations with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is the dialogue box which asks me if I’m sure I want to do this or that.

“If you’re using a hammer to drive a nail, do you expect the hammer to start asking questions like are you sure you want to hit that nail?” Bak points out.

Bak says the ethos of Chrome and the evolution of the Chromebook, a class of computer in which the browser is the operating system, is really about making the technology invisible enough to let people tune directly into the web.

“My kids have laptops and everything they do – games and social – happens within the browser so it kind of doesn’t matter what kind of computer they are using, it’s all there,” Bak explains.

Why browser innovation cannot slow … not even for a split second

“More advanced apps are arriving within browsers all the time and so as long as you can access the browser users are happy with simple devices – there’s no data stored on these devices because everything is stored in the cloud.

“People have asked me what cloud computing means to me and I just say it’s right there, I do most of my stuff through the browser.”

Bak says the point isn’t who is using Chrome, or IE, or Firefox, the point is Chrome has set the standards and the result is all browsers are now faster, flexible and have clean user interfaces.

“If you look at the top browsers today, there’s a handful of them, they are all in the game of becoming better and supporting the standards of the web and HTML 5 and I think you will have a very healthy competitive space.

“If one browser is slacking off people will move because they will know.”

As he said, the key was to spark innovation and still the mission is to drive a new class of apps. “We don’t do this to have a dominant browser, we do it because the browser is the web’s window to the user and the less painful it is for the user to use apps and browse the web the better it is for Google.

“But once you have the speed you can’t go back again. All this competition in the market just benefits the user.”

A new code for next-generation web apps

One of the biggest game-changers in the browser space and which will no doubt make the mobile web’s impact even greater is the evolution of HTML 5, which is affording app creators greater flexibility and ultimately the end user is the winner in terms of video, games and a host of different apps and web experiences.

To ensure that the emphasis on speedier browsing and fluid processing of complex apps – imagine console-quality gaming in the average browser window – Google has created its own programming language called Dart.

As Bak explains, Dart code is a structured, yet flexible language for web programming. It can be executed in two ways: either on a native virtual machine or on top of a JavaScript engine by using a compiler that translates Dart code into JavaScript.

“It’s an enabler for a sort of chicken-and-egg problem. If we don’t fix the format then you’ll never get the better applications. We see this as a cornerstone in our strategy in making sure everyone continues to innovate on the web by making it easier and faster to build complicated applications on the web.

The new language with its set of libraries for writing, checking, compiling and running Dart code, Bak explains, is currently in a state of constant motion.

“We are updating it nearly every minute and we’re working towards a robust version for people to take advantage of it.

“Right now there are a number of problems we want to solve – we want to speed up the start-up of apps to less than 50 milliseconds and the next is to make apps run faster within a browser.”

Bak describes creating a new software language as something of an uphill battle but the reward will be the end results most users of the web will soon take for granted.

“We are trying to make a programming language that is easier to use for web application developers. A language that lets programmers write complex applications faster in smaller teams than Java currently permits,” Bak says.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years