Chrome gets sharp after dumping 30-year-old Windows technology

Chrome 37 for Windows, now in beta, switches from GDI to DirectWrite to render text

Google last week said that it was finally ditching a 30-year-old technology to display fonts on Web pages in its Chrome browser for Windows.

In an announcement Thursday about some of the notable changes in Chrome for version 37, which reached Google's Beta build channel earlier that day, a software engineer said the preview relied on Microsoft's DirectWrite technology.

"Chrome 37 adds support for DirectWrite, an API on Windows for clear, high-quality text rendering even on high-DPI displays," said Emil Eklund in a July 17 blog post.

Microsoft introduced the DirectWrite API with Windows 7, which shipped in the fall of 2009, and back-ported the technology to Windows Vista Service Pack 2 (SP2) at the same time with what it called a Platform Update. Windows XP, the now-retired operating system -- but one that still powers one-in-four personal computers worldwide -- does not support DirectWrite.

Prior to the switch to DisplayWrite, Chrome used Microsoft's Graphics Device Interface (GDI), which was a core component of Windows since the graphical user interface's (GUI) debut in late 1985. Microsoft had been working on GDI for at least two years before that.

Chrome 36, the current version out of Google's Stable build channel, continues to use GDI to render text on Windows.

Eklund said that DirectWrite had been a top user request for years: An entry in Chromium's bug tracker -- Chromium is the open-source project that feeds code to Chrome proper -- about adding DirectWrite support to the browser was penned Oct. 22, 2009, the same day Windows 7 launched.

As far as a reason for the long stretch between that entry and DirectWrite support making it into Chrome, Eklund said, "The switch to DirectWrite ... required extensive re-architecting and streamlining of Chrome's font rendering engine."

Much of that difficulty stemmed from the sandboxing -- an anti-exploit and anti-crash technology -- of Chrome's rendering engine; it wasn't until February of this year that developers reported on the bug tracker that they'd managed to get DirectWrite to work inside the sandbox.

Other browsers have long since adopted DirectWrite. Mozilla's Firefox, for example, switched from GDI to DirectWrite with version 4, which debuted in March 2011. Microsoft's own Internet Explorer (IE9) began using DirectWrite with IE9, which also shipped in March 2011.

DirectWrite was one of the reasons why Microsoft declined to add the then-powerhouse Windows XP to the list of supported editions for IE9, a move that made the company the first major browser developer to drop support for XP.

If all goes according to plan, DirectWrite support will reach the Stable edition of Chrome with version 37. Google does not hew to a set timetable to browser upgrades, as does Mozilla, but it typically rolls out a new version every six to eight weeks.

Google promoted Chrome 36 to the Stable channel last week, so version 37 should ship between the end of August and mid-September.

The beta of Chrome 37 for Windows can be downloaded from the company's website.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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