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8 superpowers hidden inside your browser

Brad Chacos | Nov. 15, 2013
Once a mere renderer of static HTML, today's browsers come chock-full of capabilities that can transform webpages into something downright desktopian.

As our digital lives shift more and more to the cloud, more and more of the Web merges into the desktop. Consider the humble Web browser: Once a mere renderer of static HTML, today's browsers come chock-full of capabilities that can transform webpages into something downright desktopian.

Think I'm laying it on thick? Check out these eight killer features found in modern browsers and see for yourself. Fair warning: When you're done, any preconceptions you have about the impossibility of living life in a browser may well be shattered.

Killer 3D graphics
Say goodbye to the colorful two-dimensional sprites of Maple Story. Today's browsers take full advantage of hardware acceleration and the powers of WebGL—a JavaScript API that lets your browser tap your graphics processor—to deliver robust 3D graphics with minimal hiccups and no plugins (assuming, of course, that your Internet connection is up to the task). Check out the Internet Explorer test drive page (especially Hover!), Google's Chrome Experiments (especially Cathedral!), or this nifty in-browser demo of the classic Quake 3 to see what WebGL and its brethren can do.

Firefox, meanwhile, has recently been focusing on a JavaScript subset dubbed asm.js to turbo-charge its graphics. That endeavor has been so successful that the popular Unreal Engine now plays nice on the Web, as beautifully evidenced by Epic's gorgeous "Citadel" demo.

Face-to-face communications
Forget the Skype app, too. Chrome, Firefox, and Opera all support the WebRTC API, which can deliver real-time voice and video chats and peer-to-peer file sharing in-browser via everyday HTML5, without the need for pesky plugins or desktop programs. You can see a demo of it below.

A lot of folks are excited to see WebRTC become commonplace, but its widespread support among browsers is still fairly new. If you want to try the tech out for yourself, head over to talky.io for a free demonstration. (You'll need a buddy—or at least another PC—to play along.) Webmasters can head to WebRTC for info on how to add the cutting-edge protocol to their sites.

Native video playback
Speaking of ditching plug-ins and discrete programs, websites can now natively play video using HTML5, which could one day render Windows Media Player and Flash superfluous. Some big names are on the native bandwagon: YouTube offers an optional HTML5 mode, while Netflix leans on the language in Windows 8.1's Internet Explorer 11 browser—and that browser alone.

Why the cold shoulder to all the other browsers in the land? Simple: HTML5 has no official media-protection support. The World Wide Web Consortium is working to change that with a new Encrypted Media Extensions addition, however—and it's doing so over the howls of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Internet activists who loathe the idea of adding DRM to an open standard. IE 11 got the early Netflix nod because Microsoft included a yet-to-be-official implementation of EME in its PlayReady DRM.

 

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