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Instant Support

This document assumes some familiarity with the Chrome Instant feature, including the capabilities in Instant Extended. It's written primarily for developers working on the feature.

Instant URL

An Instant URL is a URL that matches the instant_url template of the default search engine. So, given the default Chrome installation, "http://www.google.com/webhp" and "http://www.google.com/webhp?foo=bar#q=quux" are considered Instant URLs, whereas "http://www.google.com/accounts" is not.

Instant Extended allows Instant URLs to match more template fields of the default search engine, with restrictions. So, in the extended mode, "https://www.google.com/?espv=1" and "https://www.google.com/search?espv=1&q=foo" are also Instant URLs, whereas the corresponding URLs without the "espv=1" parameter are not.

Why does this matter?

The Chrome Instant functionality only works with Instant URLs. So, in extended mode, we extract query terms from a URL into the omnibox only if the URL is an Instant URL. Similarly, we create an InstantTab (described below) only if the URL is an Instant URL.

In addition, we try to bucket all Instant URLs (and only Instant URLs) into a dedicated renderer process (the Instant renderer). I say try to because we won't always succeed, as you'll see below. We also install the SearchBox extension only in the Instant renderer (and not other renderers). The SearchBox extension is responsible for implementing Chrome's side of the SearchBox API, so this means that only webpages loaded in the Instant renderer can access the API.

Terminology note: URLs can be classified into Instant URLs or non-Instant URLs. Webpages support Instant or they don't. In other words, to talk about Instant support, you need an actual page (WebContents). Throughout this document, we use the terms URL and page consistently in this manner. Of course pages have URLs, so we also say that "a page has an Instant URL" or "a non-Instant URL page".

Determining Instant Support

What is Instant support?

We want to know whether the page that we've loaded in the hidden Instant overlay actually supports Instant, i.e., the SearchBox API. We start by loading the default search engine's Instant URL into the overlay, but after it goes through redirects, it may end up in a page that may or may not support Instant.

Why do we want to determine Instant support?

Say the page isn't known to support Instant yet. When the user types in the omnibox, we should immediately fallback to the local omnibox popup. Doing otherwise is bad. If the user types, and we send onchange() to the page, hoping that it will eventually respond, we would be making the user wait. Conversely, if we know that the page supports Instant, we can and should send onchange() to it, instead of falling back to the local omnibox popup, since the local popup is an inferior experience.

How do we determine Instant support?

We start by assuming the page doesn't support Instant. At some point, the browser sends an IPC to the renderer. The SearchBox receives it, checks if window.chrome.searchBox.onsubmit() is a JS function defined in the page, and responds. When the response IPC is received by the browser, it thus determines Instant support.

Also, if the browser receives an IPC at any point that's part of the SearchBox API (such as SetSuggestions or ShowInstantPreview), it considers the page to support Instant.

Only pages that are Instant URLs can support Instant. A random non-Instant URL webpage can define the onsubmit() method, but there'll be no SearchBox extension available to receive or send the appropriate IPCs. In other words, a random webpage can't fool the browser into thinking it supports Instant (however, see the caveat in footnote [1]).

When do we determine Instant support?

The browser waits for the page to fully load and then sends the IPC mentioned above. This happens in the Instant implementation of WebContentsObserver::DidFinishLoad().

Why don't we just check to see if the final page loaded in the Instant renderer?

First, even if the page is an Instant URL, it might not actually support Instant. For example, "http://www.google.com/webhp" might be a recognized Instant URL (so it gets assigned to the Instant renderer), but when it loads, the page may disable Instant due to server side experiments or other failures.

Second, the page may go through one or more redirects that cause a cross-process navigation (see the OpenURLFromTab section below). If one of these redirects is renderer-initiated (e.g.: using location.href = "..." or a <meta http-equiv=refresh> tag), we'll still get a DidFinishLoad(). Say "http://www.google.com/webhp" (the Instant URL we initially load) uses a JS redirect to "http://www.google.com/accounts" (a non-Instant URL), which, after verifying your login cookies, redirects you back to the "/webhp" URL, again through a JS redirect. At some point, we'll get a DidFinishLoad() for the "/accounts" URL. If we check the renderer at that time, we will wrongly conclude that the page doesn't support Instant.

In fact, we do actually send the request IPC after "/accounts" loads (because of DidFinishLoad(), as mentioned above). But by the time the response IPC comes back, the browser already knows about the JS redirect and is in the midst of handling it, so it knows that the response is for an older page, and ignores it. This is achieved by checking WebContents::IsActiveEntry() using the page_id contained in the response IPC.

Of course, it's possible for the JS redirect to happen much later through a delayed timer, in which case, the "/accounts" URL is still the active entry when the browser receives the response IPC. In this case, we'll conclude that the page doesn't support Instant. This is okay since we can't possibly handle arbitrarily delayed redirects. Our method works for the common case of an immediate JS redirect.

What happens if the final page isn't an Instant URL? We will never get a response IPC, right?

True, since there's no SearchBox extension in that page's renderer. However, in the absence of a response IPC, the browser will continue to treat the page as not supporting Instant, so it all works out.

OpenURLFromTab

WebContentsDelegate::OpenURLFromTab() is called whenever there's a cross-process navigation. This can happen in a few different ways:

Case 1: The initial page load of the Instant URL in the hidden overlay may go through a series of HTTP redirects, any of which may trip the cross-process bit. Say we start by loading URL A. It redirects to URL B, which is "claimed" by an installed app (i.e., the app has listed B in its list of URL patterns in its manifest.json). Apps are loaded in separate renderer processes, so the redirect from A to B causes a cross-process navigation. HTTP redirects that are not claimed by any app do not trip the cross-process bit, even if they are not Instant URLs. I.e., if URL A is an Instant URL, but URL B is not, B will still be loaded in the same Instant renderer process that we started out with. [1]

Alternatively, we'll hit the cross-process case if any of the redirects are renderer-initiated (as mentioned in the previous section, using location.href or a <meta> tag). Normally, renderer-initiated navigations (including redirects) are considered cross-process only if they actually cross an app or extension boundary (see RenderViewImpl::decidePolicyForNavigation()). For Instant however, we have added some code that makes all renderer-initiated navigations be initially treated as cross-process (see ChromeContentRendererClient::ShouldFork()).

Case 2: Say we are showing the Instant overlay (URL A), and the user does something (such as click on a link) that causes the page to navigate to URL B, tripping a renderer-initiated cross-process navigation (as explained above). Assume that the click by itself doesn't cause the overlay to be committed (because the overlay is showing at less than full height).

Let's look at what happens if B is not considered to be an Instant URL (in both cases above). In Case 2, we want to commit the overlay if possible, since it would be a mistake to try to continue using the overlay (B cannot support the Instant API, so the overlay would just stop working). However, in Case 1, we don't want to commit or discard the overlay just yet, since it's part of the initial series of redirects, and the final Instant page hasn't even been loaded yet.

The way we distinguish these cases is by looking at whether the overlay is already known to support Instant. In Case 1, the Instant support determination hasn't yet been performed. In Case 2, it has, since we can't possibly be showing the overlay if it didn't support Instant. So, our algorithm for OpenURLFromTab() is this:

OpenURLFromTab(url) {
  if (!supports_instant_) {
    // Case 1: Allow (perform) the navigation.
    contents_->GetController().LoadURL(url);
  } else {
    // Case 2: Commit the overlay if possible. Allow or deny the navigation based on whether the commit succeeds or fails.
    if (CommitIfPossible(...)) {
      // The Browser is now the WebContentsDelegate, not us.
      contents_->GetDelegate()->OpenURLFromTab(url);
    } else {
      // Deny (don't perform) the navigation.
    }
  }
}

Note that when we get an OpenURLFromTab() call, it's incumbent upon us to actually perform the navigation. If we don't do anything, the navigation (or redirect) won't happen.

Wait, the above algorithm doesn't check whether url is a non-Instant URL, which is the reasoning given for distinguishing Case 2 above. Why not?

Actually, we want to commit the overlay on any user action, even if the navigation is to an Instant URL. This is because the user could've clicked on a link to say "http://www.google.com/webhp". The user expects the click to result in a committed tab, with the full webpage in it. It would be weird if it was still an overlay. The overlay isn't expected to randomly navigate on its own, so we'll assume that any call to OpenURLFromTab() is due to a user action (thus, committing the overlay is an appropriate action for us to take).

What happens if the overlay tries to update its hash state, i.e., the "#q=..." fragment of its URL, to keep state (i.e., without any user action)?

Thankfully, updating the fragment does not result in a call to OpenURLFromTab(), and thus we don't attempt to erroneously commit the overlay. TODO(sreeram): How about pushState?

If we can't commit, why do we not allow the navigation?

In the else { // Deny } part above, we could've chosen to still perform the navigation, and then do a new round of Instant support determination. Then, if the page ends up supporting Instant, we could keep using it as the overlay. Otherwise, we could discard it. This is needlessly complex and probably would introduce subtle bugs due to the second round of Instant support determination. Practically, this should never be needed. We ought to be able to commit all the time.

The only time we wouldn't be able to commit the overlay is if the current omnibox text is a URL (and not a search). But in that case, the overlay shouldn't be showing any links other than suggestions (in particular, there should be no search results, search tools, Google+ widgets or such). If the user clicks on a suggestion, the page will request for it through the SearchBox API (navigateContentWindow for URLs and show(reason=query) for queries), so the page shouldn't cause an OpenURLFromTab() call. If something slips through the cracks (say because the overlay showed a "Learn more" link that the user clicked), we'll just disallow the navigation, which means the overlay remains showing the Instant page, and continues to work.

InstantTab

In Instant Extended mode, an InstantTab represents a committed page (i.e., an actual tab on the tabstrip, and not an overlay) that's an Instant URL. Typically, this is either the server-provided NTP (New Tab Page) or a search results page. Such a page can also be used to show Instant suggestions and results, so it's appropriate to ask whether an InstantTab supports the Instant API.

An InstantTab is a lightweight wrapper that's deleted and recreated as the user switches tabs (i.e., Instant only has a single InstantTab object, not one per tab). When the user switches to a tab with an Instant URL, we create an InstantTab wrapper around it, starting as usual by assuming that it doesn't support Instant. We then immediately send the request IPC. The rest of the Instant support determination works similar to the overlay. Since we (Instant) are not the WebContentsDelegate for a committed tab, none of the OpenURLFromTab() issues arise here. Note that we reset the InstantTab when the user switches tabs. We don't store the result of the Instant support determination anywhere permanently in the tab's WebContents.

This generally works well, except for the following case: If the tab is a server-provided NTP ("http://www.google.com/webhp"), it's possible that we just created the WebContents and had to immediately commit it, so the page hasn't fully loaded yet. Since the common case is to open a browser with the NTP, we don't want to fall back to the local NTP just because we haven't finished loading the server-provided NTP. But, if the user starts typing into the omnibox before the NTP finishes loading, we don't want to wait for the server page (since that could take an arbitrary amount of time). In such a case (user typing before the NTP finishes loading), we'll fallback to the overlay (local omnibox popup).

Does that mean that we fallback to the overlay whenever the user types, but we haven't yet determined Instant support for an InstantTab?

No, that would mean practically every time the user switches to a tab and immediately starts typing, we'll end up with the overlay. This is obviously bad (because the user is bounced out of whatever search modes/tools they had in the tab).

Perhaps the solution is to store the Instant support bit with the WebContents? So that, when we switch to a tab, we won't have to perform the determination all over again?

This might help somewhat, but it doesn't solve all problems. For example, an Instant URL tab might have been created without Instant (i.e., through a link click or a bookmark navigation). When the user switches to it the first time, we still have to perform Instant support determination. Also, storing this bit with the WebContents means storing it somewhere within the SearchTabHelper, and this introduces unnecessary complexity (what should happen to that bit if the tab navigates in the background?) and leaks Instant concepts to an unrelated part of the codebase.

What's the solution then?

If we are on an InstantTab, and we haven't yet determined its Instant support, switch to the overlay only if the page hasn't finished loading. The reason this works is that, if the page has finished loading , we can go ahead and blindly send the onchange() to it as the user types. Note that we are not waiting for the page to load to determine Instant support. We send the IPC as soon as the user switches to the tab. Waiting for a page to load is the long pole that takes an indeterminate amount of time. Waiting for an IPC is a much smaller, mostly determinate amount of time (a few milliseconds, usually). So, if it turns out that the page doesn't support Instant, we'll quickly discover that and fallback to the overlay anyway.

What happens if the tab is a "sad tab", i.e., the page has crashed?

Right. We need to not wait for Instant support in that case.

What happens if the page isn't an Instant URL? Won't we end up waiting indefinitely for a response IPC that never arrives? So, won't we send onchange() into the void?

No. An InstantTab is only created for pages that are Instant URLs, so they should all have been bucketed into the Instant renderer process, and thus should have the SearchBox extension. So, a response IPC is guaranteed.

Well, not really. Recall that a renderer-initiated navigation normally isn't cross-process unless it crosses an app boundary. So, it's possible that a tab started out with a non-Instant URL (thus, it was not assigned to the Instant renderer), then the user clicked on a link to an Instant URL. Now, this tab is eligible to be treated as an InstantTab. But the page is still in the non-Instant renderer, so we'll never get the response IPC back. This can only happen with InstantTab and not with the overlay, because the overlay always starts out with an Instant URL, and thus always starts out in the Instant renderer.

So, putting all this together, here's our algorithm regarding InstantTab:

ResetInstantTab() {
  WebContents* contents = GetActiveWebContents();
  if (contents->GetURL() is an Instant URL
      AND contents hasn't crashed
      AND contents->GetRenderViewHost()->GetProcess()->GetID() is an Instant renderer) {
    overlay_.reset();  // Discard the overlay, if any.
    instant_tab_.reset(contents);
    instant_tab_->DetermineInstantSupport();  // Send the request IPC.
  } else {
    instant_tab_.reset();  // Don't use InstantTab.
  }
}

Update() {
  if (instant_tab_) {
    if (overlay_) {
      // We previously switched to the overlay because the InstantTab wasn't done loading.
      // It probably has finished loading by now, but no matter. We'll continue using the overlay
      // until it's discarded, to avoid a jarring switch as the user types.
      overlay_->Update(...);
    } else {
      if (instant_tab_->contents()->IsLoading()) {
        // The InstantTab hasn't finished loading. Use the overlay instead.
        overlay_.reset(new InstantOverlay(...));
        overlay_->Update(...);
      } else {
        // Use the InstantTab.
        instant_tab_->Update(...);
      }
    }
  } else {
    // Use the overlay_, creating one if necessary.
  }
}

ActiveTabChanged() {
  overlay_.reset();  // Discard the overlay.
  ResetInstantTab();
}

Questions? Comments? Send them to sreeram@chromium.org.


[1] The astute reader would have observed that thus, it's technically possible for us to end up with a non-Instant URL page in the Instant renderer process, one which may even define the onsubmit() method and thus pass the Instant support determination test. This is fine. It can only happen if the Instant URL that we start with willfully redirects (using HTTP redirects) to such a non-Instant URL.
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