JavaScript news from GNOME 3.30

JavaScript news from GNOME 3.30

Welcome back to the latest news on GJS, the Javascript engine that powers GNOME Shell, Endless OS, and many GNOME apps.

I haven’t done one of these posts for several versions now, but I think it’s a good tradition to continue. GNOME 3.30 has been released for several weeks now, and while writing this post I just released the first bugfix update, GJS 1.54.1. Here’s what’s new!

If you prefer to watch videos rather than read, see my GUADEC talk on the subject.

JavaScript upgrade!

GJS is based on SpiderMonkey, which is the name of the JavaScript engine from Mozilla Firefox. We now use the version of SpiderMonkey from Firefox 60. (The way it goes is that we upgrade whenever Firefox makes an extended support release (ESR), which happens about once a year.)

This brings a few language improvements: not as many as in 2017 when we zipped through a backlog of four ESRs in one year, but here’s a short list:

  • Asynchronous iterators (for await (... in ...))
  • Rest operator in object destructuring (var {a, b,} = ...)
  • Spread operator in object literals (obj3 = {...obj1, ...obj2})
  • Anonymous catch (catch {...} instead of catch (e) {...})
  • Promise.prototype.finally()

There are also some removals from the language, of Mozilla-specific extensions that never made it into the web standards.

  • Conditional catch (catch (e if ...))
  • For-each-in loops (for each (... in ...))
  • Legacy lambda syntax (function (x) x * x)
  • Legacy iterator protocol
  • Array and generator comprehensions ([for (x of iterable) expr(x)])

Hopefully you weren’t using any of these, because they will not even parse anymore! I wrote a tool called moz60tool that will scan your source files and hopefully flag any uses of the removed syntax. It’s also available as a shell extension by Andy Holmes.’

person using black blood pressure monitor

Time for your code to get a checkup… Photo by on


A special note about ByteArray: the SpiderMonkey upgrade made it necessary to rewrite the ByteArray class, since support for intercepting property accesses in C++-native JS objects was removed, and that was what ByteArray used internally to implement expressions like bytearray[5].

The replacement API I think would have made performance worse, and ByteArray is pretty performance critical; so I took the opportunity to replace ByteArray with JavaScript’s built-in Uint8Array. (Uint8Array didn’t exist when GJS was invented.) For this, I implemented a feature in SpiderMonkey that allows you to store a GBytes inside a JavaScript ArrayBuffer object.

The result is not 100% backwards compatible. Some functions now return a Uint8Array object instead of a ByteArray and there’s not really a way around that. The two are not really unifiable; Uint8Array’s length is immutable, for one thing. If you want the old behaviour back, you can call new ByteArray.ByteArray() on the returned Uint8Array and all the rest of your code should work as before. However, the legacy ByteArray will have worse performance than the Uint8Array, so instead you should port your code.

Technical Preview: Async Operations

The subject of Avi Zajac’s summer internship was integrating Promises and async functions with GIO’s asynchronous operations. That is, instead of this,

file.load_contents_async(null, (obj, res) => {
    const [, contentsBytes, etag] = obj.load_contents_finish(res);

you should be able to do this:

.then((contentsBytes, etag) => print(ByteArray.toString(contentsBytes)));

or this:

const [contentsBytes, etag] = await file.load_contents_async(null);

If you don’t pass in a callback to the operation, it assumes you want a Promise instead of a callback, and will return one so that you can call .then() on it, or use it in an await expression.

This feature is a technology preview in GNOME 3.30 meaning, you must opt in for each method that you want to use it with. Opt in by executing this code at the startup of your program:

Gio._promisify(classPrototype, asyncMethodName, finishMethodName);

This is made a bit extra complicated for file operations, because Gio.File is actually an interface, not a class, and because of a bug where JS methods on interface prototypes are ignored. We also provide a workaround API for this, which unfortunately only works on local (disk) files. So the call to enable the above load_contents_async() code would look like this:

Gio._promisify(Gio._LocalFilePrototype, 'load_contents_async', 'load_contents_finish');

And, of course, if you are using an older GNOME version than 3.30 but you still want to use this feature, you can just copy the Promisify code into your own program, if the license is suitable. I’ve already been writing some code for Endless Hack in this way and it is so convenient that I never want to go back.


At long last, there is a debugger. Run it with gjs -d yourscript.js!

The debugger commands should be familiar if you’ve ever used GDB. It is a bit bare-bones right now; if you want to help improve it, I’ve opened issues #207 and #208 for some improvements that shouldn’t be too hard to do.

The debugger is based on Jorendb, a toy debugger by Jason Orendorff which is included in the SpiderMonkey source repository as an example of the Debugger API.

Performance improvements

We’ve made some good improvements in performance, which should be especially apparent in GNOME Shell. The biggest improvement is the Big Hammer patch by Georges Stavracas, which should stop your GNOME Shell session from holding on to hundreds of megabytes at a time. It’s a mitigation of the Tardy Sweep problem which is explained in detail by Georges here. Unfortunately, it makes a tradeoff of worse CPU usage in exchange for better memory usage. We are still trying to find a more permanent solution. Carlos Garnacho also made some further improvements to this patch during the 3.30 cycle.

The other prominent improvement is better memory usage for GObjects in general. A typical GNOME Shell run contains thousands or maybe ten-thousands of GObjects, so shaving even a few bytes off per object has a noticeable effect. Carlos Garnacho started some work in this direction and I continued it. In the end we went from 128 bytes per GObject to 88 bytes. In both cases there is an extra 32 byte penalty if the object has any state set on it from JavaScript code. With these changes, GNOME Shell uses several tens of megabytes less memory before you even do anything.

I have opened two issues for further investigation, #175 and #176. These are two likely avenues to reduce the memory usage even more, and it would be great if someone were interested to work on them. If they are successful, it’s likely we could get the memory usage down to 56 bytes per GObject, and eliminate the extra 32 byte penalty.


Eventually we will get to that “well-oiled machine” state… Photo by Celine Nadon on Unsplash

Developer Experience

I keep insisting it’s no coincidence, that as soon as we switched to GitLab we started seeing an uptick in contributors whom we hadn’t seen before. This trend has continued: we merged patches from 22 active contributors to GJS in this cycle, up from 13 last time.

Claudio André landed many improvements to the GitLab CI. For one thing, the program is now built and tested on more platforms and using more compile options. He also spent a lot of effort ensuring that the most common failures will fail quickly, so that developers get feedback quickly.

From my side, the maintainer tasks have gotten a lot simpler with GitLab. When I review a merge request, I can leave the questions of “does it build?” and “are all the semicolons there?” to the CI, and concentrate on the more important questions of “is this a feature we want?” and “is it implemented in the best way?” The thumbs-up votey things on issues and merge requests also provide a bit of an indication of what people would most like to see worked on, although I am not really using these systematically yet.

We have some improvements soon to be deployed to DevDocs, and GJS Guide, a site explaining some of the more basic GJS concepts. Both of these were the subject of Evan Welsh’s summer internship. Evan did a lot of work in upstream DevDocs, porting it from the current unsupported CoffeeScript version to a more modern web development stack, which will hopefully be merged upstream eventually.

mountains nature arrow guide

It’s about time we had a signpost to point the way in GJS. Photo by Jens Johnsson on

We also have an auto formatter for C++ code, so if you contribute code, it’s easier to avoid your branches failing CI due to linter errors. You can set it up so that it will correct your code style every time you commit; there are instructions in the Hacking file. It uses Marco Barisione’s clang-format-hooks. The process isn’t infallible, though: the CI job uses cpplint and the auto formatter uses clang-format, and the two are not 100% compatible.

There are a few miscellaneous nice things that Claudio made. The test coverage report for the master branch is automatically published on every push. And if you want to try out the latest GJS interpreter in a Flatpak, you can manually trigger the “flatpak” CI job and download one.

What’s coming in 3.32

There are a number of efforts already underway in the 3.32 cycle.

ES6 modules should be able to land! This is an often requested feature and John Renner has a mostly-working implementation already. You can follow along on the merge request.

Avi Zajac is working on the full version of the async Promises feature, both the gobject-introspection and GJS parts, which will make it no longer opt-in; Promises will “just work” with all GIO-based async operations.

Also related to async and promises, Florian Müllner is working on a new API that will simplify calling DBus interfaces using some of the new ES6 features we have gained in recent releases.

I hope to land Giovanni Campagna’s old “argument cache” patch set, which looks like it will speed up calls from JS into C by quite a lot. Apparently there is a similar argument cache in PyGObject.

Finally, and this will be the subject of a separate blog post coming soon, I think we have a plausible solution to the Tardy Sweep problem! I’m really excited to write about this, as the solution is really ingenious (I can say that, because I did not think of it myself…)


Thanks to everyone who participated to bring GJS to GNOME 3.30: Andy Holmes, Avi Zajac, Carlos Garnacho, Christopher Wheeldon, Claudio André, Cosimo Cecchi, Emmanuele Bassi, Evan Welsh, Florian Müllner, Georges Basile Stavracas Neto, James Cowgill, Jason Hicks, Karen Medina, Ole Jørgen Brønner, pixunil, Seth Woodworth, Simon McVittie, Tomasz Miąsko, and William Barath.

As well, this release incorporated some old patches that people contributed in the past, even up to 10 years ago, that were never merged because they needed some tweaks here or there. Thanks to those people for participating in the past, and I’m glad we were finally able to land your contributions: Giovanni Campagna, Jesus Bermudez Velazquez, Sam Spilsbury, and Tommi Komulainen.


7 thoughts on “JavaScript news from GNOME 3.30

  1. Hi Philip, I’m just a GNOME end-user. Although I don’t know a bit about JavaScript and programming stuffs, but awesome, I like how you consistently write about GNOME and give a speech at GUADEC 2018. Amazing. Thanks for bringing us latest news from GNOME Project.

  2. Pingback: Ubuntu 18.10 Beta is Now Available to Download today

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