Webkit, KitKat and Deadlocks!

I don’t know what provision Dante Alighieri made, but I’m hoping there’s a special corner of Hell reserved for paedophiles, mass murderers and so-called engineers from big software companies who think there might ever be a justification for breaking backwards compatibility. I suspect that over the past 10-15 years I have wasted more computing effort trying to keep things working which a big company has broken without providing an adequate replacement, than is due to any other single cause.

The latest centre of incompetence seems to be Google. Hot on the heels of my last moan on the same topic, I’ve just wasted some more effort because of a major Google c**k-up in Android 4.4.X, AKA KitKat. My new app, Stash-It!, includes a web browser based on the “Webkit” component widely used for that purpose across the Android, OSX and Linux worlds. On versions of Android up to 4.3, it works. However when I released it out into the wild I started getting complaints from users running KitKat that the browser had either frozen altogether, or was running unusably slowly.

It took a bit of effort to get a test platform running. In the end I went for a VM on my PC running the very useful Androidx86 distribution (as the Google SDK emulator is almost unusable even when it’s working), and after a bit of fiddling reproduced the problem. Sometimes web pages would load, sometimes they would just stop, with no code-level indication why.

After various fruitless attempts to fix the problem, I discovered (Google.com still has some uses) that this is a common problem. In their “wisdom” Google have replaced the browser component in KitKat with one which is a close relative of the Chrome browser, but seem to have done so without adequate testing or attention to compatibility. There are wide reports of deadlocks when applications attempt any logic during the process of loading a web page, with the application just sticking somewhere inside the web view code. That’s what was happening to me.

The fix eventually turned out to be relatively simple: Stash-It feeds back progress on the loading of a web page to the user. I have simply disabled this feedback when the app is running under KitKat, which is a slight reduction in functionality but a reasonable swap for getting the app working… However it’s cost a lot of time and aggro I could well have done without.

Can anyone arrange a plague of frogs and boils for Google, please?

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