Technology Explained

MIT’s Polaris Will Make the Entire Web Over 30% Faster

Michael McConnell 13-04-2016

Polaris is a new tech from MIT that will solve one of modern life’s biggest annoyances: slow Web pages. We’ve all been there. You just want a quick bit of information. You’re then stuck waiting close to a minute while everything loads. Polaris will solve that.


But how does it compare to other attempts to speed up the Web? Pretty darn good.

Ever since smartphones became everyday items, developers have been rushing to find ways to reduce Web page complexity and data usage, which is how we ended up with mobile browsers built for speed 4 Of The Fastest Tablet-Optimized Browsers You've Never Heard Of [Android] Android tablet browsers, generally speaking, are not that great. Most of the big four browsers suffer from poorly sized buttons and sluggish performance. The tablet-optimized alternatives mentioned in this article, which you may not know... Read More . And while mobile-optimized sites exist, they still aren’t fast enough.

This is the issue that Polaris is looking to fix. Polaris isn’t the first tech that we have seen trying to solve this problem — Google has AMP and Facebook has Instant Articles — but Polaris tackles the problem from a different angle.

How MIT’s Polaris Works

Polaris is actually two separate components: one on the Web server and one on your Web browser. The server-side component is a custom scheduler called Scout while the client-side component is called Polaris, a custom Javascript library that optimizes how your browser loads page content.



Scout is a scheduler that analyzes existing code, looking at the DOM (Document Object Model Making The Web Interactive: An Introduction To jQuery jQuery is a client-side scripting library that nearly every modern website uses - it makes websites interactive. It's not the only Javascript library, but it is the most developed, most supported, and most widely used.... Read More ) that would be created when a browser loads a page. It uses a stripped-down version of Firefox to ensure an accurate model, and all of this happens behind the scenes.

While doing this, Scout tracks where dependencies are created that would delay the normal loading, creating a custom DOM with the correct dependencies mapped out. In testing, this process found improved models for 81% of all Web pages.

That data is used to create a stub page for the server to deliver in place of the original HTML document.



The new stub page contains the Polaris Javascript Library, the custom schedule created by Scout, and your original HTML document. It uses that schedule to dynamically load the content needed for your Web page, ensuring that your browser is loading content as it’s needed.

As Polaris is made entirely in Javascript, it is able to run even in unmodified browsers. The HTML on Web pages is also unchanged, but this performance enhancement comes with a small cost: a few extra bytes for each page loaded.

Google’s AMP Is the New HTML

Polaris is not the only way that developers are trying to boost Web speeds. Google recently debuted their own tech called AMP Google Is About to Make Mobile Browsing Up to 85% Faster Google is rolling out a new standard that's going to improve mobile browsing speeds. Here's how it affects you and why you should care. Read More (Accelerated Mobile Pages). How does it differ from Polaris? For one thing, AMP uses a new kind of HTML whereas Polaris works with traditional HTML.

AMP also limits the kinds of scripts that can be run on a page, only allowing for a subset of scripts that are approved by AMP’s specifications. Customization is done through an extended form of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets Top 5 Sites To Learn CSS Online Read More ), although AMP restricts certain animations that tend to impact performance.


With AMP, pages can’t have forms either, which limits the types of sites that can use AMP. So while AMP can create blazingly fast pages, they must be simple — even primitive — and you lose a lot of the modern Web’s look and feel. If a site has lots of social integration, slide shows, and other scripted elements, AMP won’t work well.

Plus, AMP’s scripting is based on Web Components, which aren’t compatible across all browsers. In Chrome or Opera, everything will work fine. For Safari, Firefox, and Edge, you can never be too sure. This may be less of an issue in the future, but for now, it’s a big deal.

AMP’s biggest asset is its close ties to Google. When users find pages via Google search, AMP pages are cached on Google’s servers. Publishers cede a lot of control, but Google has more servers in more places and can better deliver content. This caching process will get users similar performance gains to Opera Mini Optimize Your Mobile Browsing With The Opera Mini Browser Read More .



Polaris offers some significant benefits for publishers when compared to AMP. Existing HTML code can be used, so there’s no need to rewrite pages in AMP’s version of HTML. Polaris is able to run on any browser, thus avoiding compatibility issues. Polaris improves speed for desktop browsers, not just mobile users.

But AMP gets an edge in terms of data consumption as pages are vastly slimmed down. Google’s caching is another plus as Polaris just runs on normal Web servers. Getting Google to act as a content delivery network How to Set Up CDN the Right Way and Avoid SEO Problems Read More  is always a huge bonus for publishers.

What About Facebook’s Instant Articles?

Polaris and AMP aren’t the only technologies for speeding up the Web. We also have Facebook making an attempt with their up-and-coming endeavor called Instant Articles Verizon Buys AOL, Facebook Launches Instant Articles, & More... [Tech News Digest] Verizon buys AOL, Facebook starts publishing, Microsoft starts translating, TunnelBear extends to Chrome, Domino's delivers via emoji, and Conan O'Brien plays The Witcher 3. Read More . Based on their Paper app for iOS, Facebook seeks to create a similar mobile-optimized experience elsewhere.

Basically, Instant Articles are full articles that third-party publishers post directly on Facebook. These Instant Articles are promised to load at least ten times faster than normal Web pages, and unlike AMP, Instant Articles won’t have to sacrifice any advanced JavaScript or interactivity.

In exchange, participating publishers get a share of the revenue generated by their Instant Articles. It’s a win-win for everyone involved, at least in theory.

The big downside is that publishers lose a lot of control over their content — even more than with Google’s AMP — and it’s hard to see how this can compete with Polaris in terms of freedom and compatibility. Instant Articles may improve performance on the mobile Web, but its main focus is capturing Facebook users and advertising revenue.

This helps publishers turn articles their users are sharing into revenue, and Facebook gets to keep those users Facebook longer. The only way users benefit from Instant Articles is if they already spend all of their time reading content on Facebook only.

Polaris and the Future of the Web

Compared to AMP and Instant Articles, Polaris offers the greatest benefits to both publishers and users, mainly because it’s free of complex relationships. Not only is there no need to rely on either Google or Facebook, but it speeds up the Web for mobile and desktop browsers.

Plus, it’s also the only one that doesn’t require a rewrite of existing HTML.

Just from these three projects, we can see that speeding up the Web is on the minds of top companies and computer scientists alike. Polaris has a lot of promise, as do AMP and Instant Articles. In the comments, let us know which of these technologies appeal to you the most.

Image Credits: Fast Computer by lassedesignen via Shutterstock, Sozialhelden e.V. via Flickr, MIT CSAIL via MIT.EDU, Tigger11th via Shutterstock

Related topics: Mobile Broadband, Web Development.

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  1. John
    April 16, 2016 at 5:28 am

    Polaris of course! A little sacrifice (of a few bytes) for more freedom and compatibility.

    • Michael McConnell
      April 16, 2016 at 6:20 am

      Yeah. The other two require some significant rewrites for your site to fit their service.