Headless Web Workers: Does the web need background apps?
At my last job, I created several web applications designed to replace built-in apps on mobile phones. While modern browsers and HTML5 made this incredibly easy in many ways, we still ended up writing native (i.e. non-web) code for most of our applications. There were a few different areas where the browser alone didn't meet our needs, but one that I found suprisingly common was background processing.
Consider the following mobile applications:
- Calendar or clock with alarms.
- E-book reader that syncs content from a server.
- IM or email client that notifies the user of new messages.
- Shopping list that pops up whenever you are near the store.
Ideally, each of these apps will perform some actions even when the user does not have it open. (Background processing is not strictly necessary for the e-reader, but it would be useful to ensure the library is up-to-date even when opened in a place with no network connection.)
Headless workers could use almost the same API as Web Workers. Instead of responding to messages from a web page, they would listen to events from the host system (browser or OS). These events might include time intervals, power-on/resume, changes in network connection, geographic locations, or "push" notifications from a remote server.
This is almost a return to the old days of cooperative multitasking. Mobile computing is definitely driving everyone towards higher-level process control in the OS, and different assumptions for applications. It's not surprising that my whole proposal resembles Android and iPhone 4.0 multitasking in several ways, since I've been doing development on Android for the last 18 months and encountering many of the same issues.
Headless workers do need some way to interact with the user. They could display standard system notifications (via Growl on the Mac, libnotify on Ubuntu, the status bar in Android, etc.) using W3C Web Notifications, which already have an experimental implementation in Chrome.
Users also needs to know which sites have background tasks installed. Headless workers could be represented by icons in a standard location (perhaps a toolbar in desktop browsers, or the home screen on a mobile device). The icons could display ambient status; clicking one would reveal a menu with options to configure or remove it.
This proposal might be hard to standardize, especially where it's tied to specific OS capabilities. For now I'm just curious: would it be useful? You can write a native app or a browser extension to solve this problem today. But would it be worthwhile to have a standard, cross-platform way to do it? Has anyone else run into problems that this approach could solve?
- Because all web standards should have names that sound like Harry Potter creatures. ↩