Preface

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A computer science degree traditionally includes courses in operating systems, compilers, and databases in order to replace mystery with code. These courses transform Linux, Postgres, and LLVM into improvements, additions, and optimizations to an understandable core architecture. The lesson transcends the specific system studied: all computer systems, no matter how big and seemingly complex, can be studied and understoodOthers reasons for these classes: a focus on speed; learning low-level APIs; practice with C; knowing the stack; using systems better; and the importance of the system covered..

But web browsers are still opaque, not just to students but to faculty and industry programmers. This book dissipates this mystery by systematically explaining all major components of a web browser.

Reading this book

Parts 1–3 of this book construct a basic browser weighing in around 1000 lines of code, twice that with the exercises. The average chapter takes 4–6 hours to read, implement, and debug for someone with a few years’ programming experience. Part 4 of this book covers advanced topics; those chapters are longer and have more code.

Your web browser will “work” every step of the way, and every chapter will build upon the last.This idea is from J.R. Wilcox, inspired in turn by S. Zdancewic’s course on compilers. That way, you will also practice growing and improving complex software. If you feel particularly interested in some component, please do flesh it out, complete the exercises, and add missing features. We’ve tried to arrange it so that this doesn’t make later chapters more difficult.

The code in this book uses Python 3, and we recommend you follow along in the same. When the book shows Python command lines, it calls the Python binary python3.A few operating systems use python, but on most that means Python 2. That said, the text avoids dependencies where possible and you can try to follow along in another language. Make sure your language has libraries for TLS connections (Python has one built in), graphics (the text uses Tk), and JavaScript evaluation (the text uses DukPy).

This book’s browser is irreverent toward standards: it handles only a sliver of the full HTML, CSS, and JavaScript languages, mishandles errors, and isn’t resilient to malicious inputs. It is also quite slow. Despite that, its architecture matches that of real browsers, providing insight into those 10 million line of code behemoths.

That said, we’ve tried to explicitly note when the book’s browser simplifies or diverges from standards. And in general, when you’re not sure how your browser should behave in some edge case, fire up your favorite web browser and try it out.

Acknowledgments

We’d like to recognize the countless people who built the web and the various web browsers. They are wonders of the modern world. Thank you! We learned a lot from the books and articles listed in this book’s bibliography—thank you to their authors. And we’re especially grateful to the many contributors to articles on Wikipedia (especially those on historic software, formats, and protocols). We are grateful for this amazing resource, one which in turn was made possible by the very thing this book is about.

Pavel: James R. Wilcox and I dreamed up this course during a late-night chat at ICFP 2018. Max Willsey proof-read and helped sequence the chapters. Zach Tatlock encouraged me to develop the book into a course. And the students of CS 6968 and CS 4962 at the University of Utah found countless errors and suggested important simplifications. I am thankful to all of them. Most of all, I am thankful to my wife Sara, who supported my writing the book, listened to countless status updates, and gave me the strength to finish this many-year-long project.

Chris: I am eternally grateful to my wife Sara for patiently listening to my endless musings about the web, and encouraging me to turn my idea for a browser book into reality. I am also grateful to Dan Gildea for providing feedback on my browser-book concept on multiple occassions. Finally, I’m grateful to Pavel for doing the hard work getting this project off the ground and allowing me to join the adventure. (Turns out Pavel and I had the same idea!)

A final note

This book is, and will remain, a work in progress. Please leave comments and mark typos; the book has built-in feedback tools, which you can enable with Ctrl-E (or Cmd-E on a Mac). The full source code is also available on GitHub, though we prefer to receive comments through the built-in tools.