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3 May 2018

Ekioh launches multi-threaded Flow browser, beating out the big boys

An abundance of UI software houses are getting into the business of providing legacy set tops with some sort of delayed death. Although not directly in this market, there is a small UK-based company called Ekioh suggesting imminent disruption will hit the set top and smart TV markets. Ekioh has launched its new Flow product this week – claiming to have developed the world’s first multi-threaded HTML5 browser, over five years in the making.

The architects at Ekioh have a tantalizing track record, contributing to the Ant Software IPTV browser in the noughties, which dominated IPTV installs, and later introducing the first Scalable Vector Graphics engine for HTML 5 browsers, which provided the first upgraded HD graphics overlays for the TV market. That product was white labelled by almost every major set top maker.

In order to maximize performance, browser software needs to make use of all cores in a multi-core architecture, which the traditional browsers are not doing, according to Ekioh, as well as utilizing GPUs which are now standard on embedded multi-core devices. Ekioh claims many cores normally sit completely idle when using a traditional browser, a problem the company identified way back when dual core devices arrived, so it began analyzing the activities of traditional browsers.

The big browser players would probably argue that for the majority of processes, making use of multiple cores is unnecessary, yet the performance results provide some compelling comparisons – painting a picture of sorts for how future set top and TV browsers will, or should, perform.

It’s worth highlighting that the term multi-threaded does not directly equate to multi-core. Essentially a thread is a subset of a core process within a processor, so by using a multi-threaded architecture, a browser can work more efficiently by running background scripts, meaning in a standard desktop environment for example, crashed tabs can be closed without killing the entire browser. Chrome and Firefox have supported multi-threading for years but Ekioh is not chasing the desktop market – it’s all about set tops and TVs.

The next big challenge, as Ekioh sees it, is developing 4K UIs. Ekioh claims there isn’t a single 4K TV on the market with a 4K UI, instead they are simply upscaling HD, which is perfectly acceptable for a UI, yet manufacturers are looking at having more information on a screen, allowing for new methods of engagement beyond a basic UI.

“Some of the content guys accept that hardware just can’t do it today, but hardware performance is getting quicker with DMIPs rising about 30% a year,” said Ekioh’s Commercial Director Stephen Reeder, in a pre-launch briefing with Faultline Online Reporter.

Ekioh breaks its analysis down into four tasks, loading, scripting, layout and painting, finding that scripting and layout account for almost 90% of overall activity. Painting pixels only accounts for a small amount of activity, but as resolutions increase, painting will have a greater impact on overall product performance, a task perfectly suited for the GPU, according to Ekioh. Thereby Flow can free up the CPU for other activities, while saving memory transfers and requiring less graphics memory.

An extreme UI rendering test found Flow produced 60 frames per second (fps), while Chrome and Safari only managed around 7fps. Even Chrome’s experimental GPU rasterization-enabled browser could not get above 10fps. Firefox Nightly, with experimental WebRender enabled, came closest with around 27fps. However, Reeder highlighted anything above 60fps is unnoticeable so that’s the end point here, and Ekioh is the first one to get there. It is likely that in the pay TV market this will be white labelled by everyone, much like Ekioh’s SVG implementation.

Flow claims to complete the layout task in under half the time of Firefox Nightly, Mozilla’s test repository, competing layout and painting of over 70,000 paragraphs of text in around 5 seconds, compared to Chrome, the worst performing browser in Ekioh’s tests, taking 60 seconds to complete the same task.

Perhaps Ekioh’s biggest claim is that the big players can’t simply take existing browsers and easily retrofit them with copycat Ekioh technology. The 10-person company has been developing Flow behind closed doors since 2012, conducting extensive R&D which the company believes has given it significant headway against rivals.

“The big guys will investigate a similar approach. The Mozilla foundation is looking into multi-threaded stuff which shares a common view, but we’ve moved a bit faster,” said Reeder.

Flow works with silicon across the board and Reeder expressed gratitude to silicon suppliers, saying Ekioh is very lucky to have their support, although he could not disclose which silicon or hardware vendors have been involved in the testing processes.

“The UI developers will push the set top companies. We are working with forward thinking UI developers such as Wiztivi, which we share a sizable deployment with at Telecentro (Argentinian cableco), and we are working on specific projects with Zenterio including one in Norway,” said Reeder.

Ekioh earned its stripes developing a browser combining established scalable vector graphics with HTML5. The Ekioh team has been among the browser pioneers which brought first Scalable Vector Graphics to IPTV services as far back as 2004 and now has a full HTML5 micro-browser.

As for the smartphone and tablet browser market, ousting Chrome and Safari is nigh on impossible, although Reeder noted Ekioh has some Android customers where its software is bundled as part of an app rather than a browser for speeding up the process.

Reeder expects traditional TV services in the Far East to be early adopters of Flow, where the company is seeing a lot more going on and a steady set top market in particular. If Ekioh can replicate its extensive test results in field deployments then Flow might live up to its highly regarded significance in the market by the Ekioh team, particularly with the gradually growing portfolios of 4K content.