Opera Fights Back: Announces Next Gen JavaScript Engine

By Josh Catone
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One of the most important fronts in the fight for web browser supremacy is the battle for JavaScript engine speed. The game of one-upmanship has been going on for awhile now, and it’s not easy to stay on top of who has the current fastest JavaScript engine — especially since different benchmarks often yield vastly different results. However whether the current fastest engine is Google’s V8, Mozilla’s TraceMonkey, Apple’s SquirrelFish, Microsoft’s JScript, or Opera’s Futhark the battle is an important one.

The reason has to do with the slow transition to cloud-based web applications. We reported last month that over half the world’s developers will be working on software as a service projects in 2009, so the trend is definitely moving in that direction. In order to simulate a more “desktop-like” user experience, many web applications utilize a lot of JavaScript. So the speed at which the browser can render JavaScript (or ECMAScript) is becoming more and more important.

In September, when Google first released Chrome, jQuery creator John Resig put up a good rundown of JavaScript engine performance on his blog. Though his benchmarking is probably outdated by now, one theme was clear then: Opera’s Futhark engine ran near the bottom of the pack, with Internet Explorer’s JScript engine as company.

This week Opera announced their next generation JavaScript and ECMAScript engine, called Carakan. According to Opera, when they first released Futhark, it was the fastest ECMAScript engine on the market. That is clearly no longer the case, and Opera is now intending to raise the bar again.

“The Web is a changing environment however, and tomorrow’s advanced web applications will require faster ECMAScript execution, so we have now taken on the challenge to once again develop the fastest ECMAScript engine on the market,” says Opera core team member Jens Lindström.

Carakan makes improvements in three areas. First, a switch to a register-based bytecode instruction set rather than a stack-based one, which Lindström says speeds things up because “fewer instructions need to be executed, and less data needs to be copied.” Second, Carakan will include native code generation for some ECMAScript programs and functions. Finally, the new engine will do automatic object classification.

Though Opera isn’t ready to release any benchmarks showing Carakan’s performance against the competition, Lindström says that without any generated native code, Carakan is about two and a half times faster than the current engine in the Opera 10 Alpha according to the SunSpider benchmark. The native code generation isn’t ready for broad benchmarking, but in some individual tests, it is between 5 and 50 times faster. Not too shabby.

Of course, one also has to wonder if it is too little, too late for Opera. According to Net Applications, Opera only has 0.71% of the browser market — a number that has more or less stayed flat over the past year. And while Opera has seen virtually zero growth, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome have each experienced significant growth (IE has lost considerable share points, as we recently noted). Then again, Opera’s numbers are far higher on mobile devices, where speedy JavaScript performance might be even more important.

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  • graphicmist

    It don’t think will be fight back even with its new javascript engine. They should focus on their market strategy along with all this stuff.

  • Myo

    Opera’s market share is a lot higher than the 0,71% you refer to. Sadly some stats companies are sending out heavily biased data as objective. These stats are very US centric, while Opera has a much bigger market share in most other places. Market share varies from the 0,71% to over 25% in some countries. Opera’s user base has increased a lot during the last couple of years. 55% in 2007 and while the numbers for 2008 are not ready as yet, they were looking good at the last count. This means Opera is growing faster than most, just not in the US so far.

  • I really like Opera for how clean and simple it is. I know it’s not used by a massive amount of people but that’s more down to the lack of marketing than anything else.

    Firefox has the army of people marketing their product, so its share will grow.

    Safari comes preinstalled on all mac, so as the number of mac being sold rises (like it is), the number of safari users grows.

    Chrome is being promoted on google which in itself is massivly important (plus it’s a really nice browser), so its share will grow.

    Opera is doing nothing like this really. There are a few die hard fans that will support it but nothing like the numbers that firefox has.

    One of the major problems with Opera is that it doesn’t look like IE (which is where the majority of switchers are coming from). If I’m going to reccommend a friend of family member a new browser it will always be Firfox because it handels more like the browser they’re used to (IE). The buttons are in roughly the same place, it looks (sorta) similar and handels a bit like it. I’ll very rarely say to them that opera is the best for them, even though I love it so much.

    In the end the faster Javascript is a great thing, but really, no one except web developers will ever really look into how quick it is to make the decision on which to switch to; however it does improve the user experiance if they do choose to use your browser.

    Sorry that was a long post, went into rant mode for some reason

  • sokoloff

    I dont see any problem. Opera has 20% to 30% share in countries like Russia and Ukraine (and many others) And i dont believe statistics that says it has 0.7% because on my own site i have 35% Opera users and 25% Firefox. People here tend to choose software that simply works without any problems. I hope rest of world will realize that Opera is the best browser soon enough =)

  • If Opera are pushing this out with v.10 then it will be one heck of an upgrade on 9.6.

    New Rendering engine, new Javascript engine, new UI …

    I also read somewhere that Opera are about to embark on their most far reaching advertising programme yet… buses and billboards were the words if I remember correctly, although that was in relation to the Mobile browser — perhaps Opera are hoping to gain desktop users via osmosis?

  • whisky

    I’m starting to think that the browser market share is flawed/wrong. Doesn’t Opera generate less traffic with the cache?
    Internet explorer generates traffic when going back and forward on a site, the same with firefox
    I would think this have some inpact on the market share statestic
    Or am i wrong?
    BTW, Opera is simply the best :)

  • Anonymous

    Opera is always an innovator, but a laggard when it comes to marketing.
    Firefox took the oomph from Opera when it came to tabbed browsing.
    Apple took the oomph from Opera when it came to the mobile browser.
    Opera has constantly missed many opportunities.
    Hopefully, they will spend as much importance on marketing strategy as they will
    on speeding up their browser to compete with the likes of Chrome.

  • Anonymous

    opera is a fantastic browser but it doesn’t like badly written html / css. thats the reason IE has such a strangle hold.

  • ace

    Whats the use of 1001 javascript engine? Wouldnt be better if all browsers would use the same one?

  • nachenko

    I don’t think Opera is so “out” of the market. What about the Nintendo – Opera agreement? These consoles having a standards compliant browser such as Opera that also exists in computers is good news to me.

  • Either only Opera users are commenting on this post or there are more Opera users than I thought :P

  • graphicmist

    Either only Opera users are commenting on this post or there are more Opera users than I thought :P

    I don’t think so. i m a big Firefox fan. i have used opera only once but either i didn’t discover it properly or there was nothing special about it which can make me switch to it from Firefox.

    I recently heard about opera’s campus representative programme. this means opera is putting it efforts in right direction. where Firefox seems to be more close to open source community opera stands where in front of it. Opera seems to be lacking a proper market strategy.

    But i can say that in mid and low range mobiles opera mini browser rocks.

  • Opera should also maybe just concentrate on the Mobile Browser market and not repeat their past mistakes from the desktop days like attempting to charge for a browser. That action alone probably would have led to a similar market share that firefox enjoys in many markets.

  • picohax

    Opera is a browser – client side, no server side
    Aptana jaxer is a cloud app – server side, no client side

    just wondering … any possibilities?

  • As a business, they should just focus on what makes them money – embedding a browser into non-pc devices, like mobile or the Wii.

    The battle for third-place browser is lost, because of the arrival of chrome.

    I agree with above Anonymous’ post regarding Opera to being an innovator and a laggard.

    Maybe the next time they show-off, they should look to protecting their IP.

  • Just as graphicmist suggests, it doesn’t matter how awesome Opera is, unless they market their browser better, it will never gain a significant share of users.

  • mikefarrow

    If people are serious about standards they would use Opera, there would not be so much bad HTML if coders tested their pages on Opera.

    Having the following of the standard bearers will pay dividends after the fallout from the next browser wars.

    But as someone mentioned above, Opera’s best chance is in the Mobile Browser market, there are potentially 10 times the number of mobile Web users as desktop users.

    10 billion is a lot of people, can Opera get it right?

    Warm regards, Mike

  • HappyNightmares

    I thought the title said… “Oprah fights back…”

    LOL :)

  • To be honest, I have never understood what Opera brings to the party.
    IE, Gecko and WebKit hold the top three spots in terms of usage, so Opera needs to have a nice big ‘unique selling point’ if it is ever going to make it big, and neither WebKit nor Gecko are ever going to allow it to claim to be the best at anything for long, and it has no chance of ever beating them both in more than one area at a time. Since all of the top browsers are free to desktop users, Opera is never going to be a commercial success except on mobiles, and even there I don’t see them surviving long against a free browser.