The CSS Text 3 specification defines a module for text manipulation and covers, among a few other features, the line breaking behavior of the browser, including white space handling. I’ve been working lately on some new features and bug fixing for this specification and I’d like to introduce in this posts the last one we made available for the Web Platform users. This is yet another contribution that came out the collaboration between Igalia and Bloomberg, which has been held for several years now and has produced many important new features for the Web, like CSS Grid Layout.
I guess everybody knows the white-space CSS property, which allows web authors to control two main aspects of the rendering of a text line: collapsing and wrapping. A new value break-spaces has been added to the ones available for this property, which allows web authors to emulate a terminal-like line breaking behavior. This new value operates basically like pre-wrap, but with two key differences:
- any sequence of preserved white space characters takes up space, even at the end of the line.
- a preserved white space sequence can be wrapped at any character, moving the rest of the sequence, intact, to the line bellow.
What does this new behavior actually mean ? I’ll try to explain it with a few examples. Lets start with a simple but quite illustrative demo which tries to emulate a meteorology monitoring system which shows relevant changes over time, where the gaps between subsequent changes must be preserved:
Another interesting use case for this feature could be a logging system which should preserve the text formatting of the logged information, considering different window sizes. The following demo tries to describe this such scenario:
In the demo shown before there are several cases that I think it’s worth to analyze in detail.
A breaking opportunity exists after any white space character
The main purpose of this feature is to preserve the white space sequences length even when it has to be wrapped into multiple lines. The following example tries to describe this basic use case:
The example above shows how the white space sequence with a length of 15 characters is preserved and wrapped along 3 different lines.
Single leading white space
Before the addition of the break-spaces value this scenario was only possible at the beginning of the line. In any other case, the trailing white spaces were either collapsed or hang, hence the next line couldn’t start with a sequence of white spaces. Lets consider the following example:
Like when using pre-wrap, the single leading space is preserved. Since break-spaces allows breaking opportunities after any white space character, we break after the first leading white space (” |XX XX”). The second line can be broken after the first preserved white space, creating another leading white space in the next line (” |XX | XX”).
However, lets consider now a case without such first single leading white space.
Again, it s not allowed to break before the first space, but in this case there isn’t any previous breaking opportunity, so the first space after the word XX should overflow (“XXX | XX”); the next white space character will be moved down to the next line as preserved leading space.
Breaking before the first white space
I mentioned before that the spec states clearly that the break-space feature allows breaking opportunities only after white space characters. However, it’d be possible to break the line just before the first white space character after a word if the feature is used in combination with other line breaking CSS properties, like word-break or overflow-wrap (and other properties too).
The two white spaces between the words are preserved due to the break-spaces feature, but the first space after the XXXX word would overflow. Hence, the overflow-wrap: break-word feature is applied to prevent the line to overflow and introduce an additional breaking opportunity just before the first space after the word. This behavior causes that the trailing spaces are moved down as a leading white space sequence in the next line.
We would get the same rendering if word-break: break-all is used instead overflow-wrap (or even in combination), but this is actualy an incorrect behavior, which has the corresponding bug reports in WebKit (197277) and Blink (952254) according to the discussion in the CSS WG (see issue #3701).
Consider previous breaking opportunities
In the previous example I described a combination of line breaking features that would allow breaking before the first space after a word. However, this should be avoided if there are previous breaking opportunities. The following example is one of the possible scenarios where this may happen:
In this case, we could break after the second word (“XX X| X”), since overflow-wrap: break-word would allow us to do that in order to avoid the line to overflow due to the following white space. However, white-space: break-spaces only allows breaking opportunities after a space character, hence, we shouldn’t break before if there are valid previous opportunities, like in this case in the space after the first word (“XX |X X”).
This preference for previous breaking opportunities before breaking the word, honoring the overflow-wrap property, is also part of the behavior defined for the white-space: pre-wrap feature; although in that case, there is no need to deal with the issue of breaking before the first space after a word since trailing space will just hang. The following example uses just the pre-wrap to show how previous opportunities are selected to avoid overflow or breaking a word (unless explicitly requested by word-break property).
In this case, break-all enables breaking opportunities that are not available otherwise (we can break a word at any letter), which can be used to prevent the line to overflow; hence, the overflow-wrap property doesn’t take any effect. The existence of previous opportunities is not considered now, since break-all mandates to produce the longer line as possible.
This new white-space: break-spaces feature implies a different behavior when used in combination with break-all. Even though the preference of previous opportunities should be ignored if we use the word-break: break-all, this may not be the case for the breaking before the first space after a word scenario. Lets consider the same example but using now the word-break: break-all feature:
The example above shows that using word-break: break-all doesn’t produce any effect. It’s debatable whether the use of break-all should force the selection of the breaking opportunity that produces the longest line, like it happened in the pre-wrap case described before. However, the spec states clearly that break-spaces should only allow breaking opportunities after white space characters. Hence, I considered that breaking before the first space should only happen if there is no other choice.
As a matter of fact, specifying break-all we shouldn’t considering only previous white spaces, to avoid breaking before the first white space after a word; the break-all feature creates additional breaking opportunities, indeed, since it allows to break the word at any character. Since break-all is intended to produce the longest line as possible, this new breaking opportunity should be chosen over any previous white space. See the following test case to get a clearer idea of this scenario:
Bear in mind that the expected rendering in the above example may not be obtained if your browser’s version is still affected by the bugs 197277(Safari/WebKit) and 952254(Chrome/Blink). In this case, the word is broken despite the opportunity in the previous white space, and also avoiding breaking after the ‘XX’ word, just before the white space.
There is an exception to the rule of avoiding breaking before the first white space after a word if there are previous opportunities, and it’s precisely the behavior the line-break: anywhere feature would provide. As I said, all these assumptions were not, in my opinion, clearly defined in the current spec, so that’s why I filed an issue for the CSS WG so that we can clarify when it’s allowed to break before the first space.
Current status and support
The intent-to-ship request for Chrome has been approved recently, so I’m confident the feature will be enabled by default in Chrome 76. However, it’s possible to try the feature in older versions by enabling the Experimental Web Platform Features flag. More details in the corresponding Chrome Status entry. I want to highlight that I also implemented the feature for LayoutNG, the new layout engine that Chrome will eventually ship; this achievement is very important to ensure the stability of the feature in future versions of Chrome.
In the case of Safari, the patch with the implementation of the feature landed in the WebKit’s trunk in r244036, but since Apple doesn’t announce publicly when a new release of Safari will happen or which features it’ll ship, it’s hard to guess when the break-spaces feature will be available for the web authors using such browser. Meanwhile, It’s possible to try the feature in the Safari Technology Preview 80.
Finally, while I haven’t see any signal of active development in Firefox, some of the Mozilla developers working on this area of the Gecko engine have shown public support for the feature.
The following table summarizes the support of the break-spaces feature in the 3 main browsers:
Web Platform Tests
At Igalia we believe that the Web Platform Tests project is a key piece to ensure the compatibility and interoperability of any development on the Web Platform. That’s why a substantial part of my work to implement this relatively small feature was the definition of enough tests to cover the new functionality and basic use cases of the feature.
Implementation in several web engines
During the implementation of a browser feature, even a small one like this, it’s quite usual to find out bugs and interoperability issues. Even though this may slow down the implementation of the feature, it’s also a source of additional Web Platform tests and it may contribute to the robustness of the feature itself and the related CSS properties and values. That’s why I decided to implement the feature in parallel for WebKit (Safari) and Blink (Chrome) engines, which I think it helped to ensure interoperability and code maturity. This approach also helped to get a deeper understanding of the line breaking logic and its design and implementation in different web engines.
I think it’s worth mentioning some of these code architectural differences, to get a better understanding of the work and challenges this feature required until it reached web author’s browser.
Lets start with Chrome/Blink, which was especially challenging due to the fact that Blink is implementing a new layout engine (LayoutNG). The implementation for the legacy layout engine was the first step, since it ensures the feature will arrive earlier, even behind an experimental runtime flag.
The legacy layout relies on the BreakingContext class to implement the line breaking logic for the inline layout operations. It has the main characteristic of handling the white space breaking opportunities by its own, instead of using the TextBreakIterator (based on ICU libraries), as it does for determining breaking opportunities between letters and/or symbols. This design implies too much complexity to do even small changes like this, especially because is very sensible in terms of performance impact. In the following diagram I try to show a simplified view of the classes involved and the interactions implemented by this line breaking logic.
The LayoutNG line breaking logic is based on a new concept of fragments, mainly handled by the NGLineBreaker class. This new design simplifies the line breaking logic considerably and it’s highly optimized and adapted to get the most of the TextBreakIterator classes and the ICU features. I tried to show a simplified view of this new design with the following diagram:
In order to describe the work done to implement the feature for this web engine, I’ll list the main bugs and patches landed during this time: CR#956465, CR#952254, CR#944063,CR#900727, CR#767634, CR#922437
Although as time passes this is less probable, WebKit and Blink still share some of the layout logic from the ages prior to the fork. Although Blink engineers have applied important changes to the inline layout logic, both code refactoring and optimizations, there are common design patterns that made relatively easy porting to WebKit the patches that implemented the feature for the Blink’s legacy layout. In WebKit, the line breaking logic is also implemented by the BreakingContext class and it has a similar architecture, as it’s described, in a quite simplified way, in the class diagram above (it uses different class names for the render/layout objects, though) .
However, Safari supports for the mac and iOS platforms a different code path for the line breaking logic, implemented in the SimpleLineLayout class. This class provides a different design for the line breaking logic, and, similar to what Blink implements in LayoutNG, is based on a concept of text fragments. It also relies as much as possible into the TextBreakIterator, instead of implementing complex rules to handle white spaces and breaking opportunities. The following diagrams show this alternate design to implement the line breaking process.
This SimpleLineLayout code path in not supported by other WebKit ports (like WebKitGtk+ or WPE) and it’s not available either when using some CSS Text features or specific fonts. There are other limitations to use this SimpleLineLayout codepath, which may lead to render the text using the BreakingContext class.
I hope that at this point these 2 facts are clear now:
- The white-space: break-spaces feature is a very simple but powerful feature that provides a new line breaking behavior, based on unix-terminal systems.
- Although it’s a simple feature, on the paper (spec), it implies a considerable amount of work so that it reaches the browser and it’s available for web authors.
In this post I tried to explain in a simple way the main purpose of this new feature and also some interesting corner cases and combinations with other Line Breaking features. The demos I used shown 2 different use cases of this feature, but there are may more. I’m sure the creativity of web authors will push the feature to the limits; by then, I’ll be happy to answer doubts, about the spec or the implementation for the web engines, and of course fix the bugs that may appear once the feature is more used.
Finally, I want to thank Bloomberg for supporting the work to implement this feature. It’s another example of how non-browser vendors can influence the Web Platform and contribute with actual features that will be eventually available for web authors. This is the kind of vision that we need if we want to keep a healthy, open and independent Web Platform.