Chrome Extensions: Extending API to support Instant Navigation

Dave Tapuska
Dave Tapuska

TL;DR: The Extensions API has been updated to support back/forward cache, preloading navigations. See below for details.

Chrome has been working hard at making navigation fast. Instant Navigation technologies such as Back/Forward Cache (shipped on desktop in Chrome 96) and Speculation Rules (shipped in Chrome 103) improve both the going back and going forward experience. In this post we will explore the updates we’ve made to browser extensions APIs to accommodate these new workflows.

Understanding the types of pages

Prior to the introduction of Back/Forward Cache and prerendering, an individual tab only had one active page. This was always the one that was visible. If a user returns to the previous page, the active page would be destroyed (Page B) and the previous page in history would be completely reconstructed (Page A). Extensions did not need to worry about what part of the life cycle pages were in because there was only one for a tab, the active/visible state.

Eviction of the active page
Eviction of the active page.

With Back/Forward Cache and prerendering, there is no longer a one to one relationship between tabs and pages. Now, each tab actually stores multiple pages and pages transition between states rather than being destroyed and reconstructed.

For example, a page could begin its life as a prerendered (not visible) page, transition into an active (visible) page when the user clicks a link, and then be stored in the Back/Forward Cache (not visible) when the user navigates to another page, all without the page ever being destroyed. Later in this article we will look at the new properties exposed to help extensions understand what state pages are in.

Types of pages
Types of pages.

Note that a tab can have a series of prerendered pages (not just one), a single active (visible) page, and a series of Back/Forward cached pages.

What’s changing for extension developers?

FrameId == 0

In Chromium, we refer to the topmost/main frame as the outermost frame.

Extension authors that assume the frameId of the outermost frame is 0 (a previous best practice) may have problems. Since a tab can now have multiple outermost frames (prerendered and cached pages), the assumption that there is a single outermost frame for a tab is incorrect. frameId == 0 will still continue to represent the outermost frame of the active page, but the outermost frames of other pages in the same tab will be non-zero. A new field frameType has been added to fix this problem. See the “How do I determine if a frame is the outermost frame?” section of this post.

Life cycle of frames versus documents

Another concept that is problematic with extensions is the life cycle of the frame. A frame hosts a document (which is associated with a committed URL). The document can change (say by navigating) but the frameId won’t, and so it is difficult to associate that something happened in a specific document with just frameIds. We are introducing a concept of a documentId which is a unique identifier for each document. If a frame is navigated and opens a new document the identifier will change. This field is useful for determining when pages change their life cycle state (between prerender/active/cached) because it remains the same.

Web navigation events

Events in the chrome.webNavigation namespace can fire multiple times on the same page depending on the life cycle it is in. See “How do I tell what life cycle the page is in?” and “How do I determine when a page transitions?” sections.

How do I tell what life cycle the page is in?

The DocumentLifecycle type has been added to a number of extensions APIs where the frameId was previously available. If the DocumentLifecycle type is present on an event (such as onCommitted), its value is the state in which the event was generated. You can always query information from the WebNavigation getFrame() and getAllFrames() methods, but using the value from the event is always preferred. If you do use either method be aware the state of the frame may change between when the event was generated and when the promises return by both methods is resolved.

The DocumentLifecycle has the following values:

  • "prerender" : Not currently presented to the user but preparing to possibly be displayed to the user.
  • "active": Presently displayed to the user.
  • "cached": Stored in the Back/Forward Cache.
  • "pending_deletion": The document is being destroyed.

How do I determine if a frame is the outermost frame?

Previously extensions may have checked whether frameId == 0 to determine if the event occurring is for the outermost frame or not. With multiple pages in a tab we now have multiple outermost frames, so the definition of frameId is problematic. You will never receive events about a Back/Forward cached frame. However, for prerendered frames the frameId will be non-zero for the outermost frame. So using frameId == 0 as a signal for determining if it is the outermost frame is incorrect.

To help with this, we introduced a new type called FrameType so determining if the frame is indeed the outermost frame is now easy. FrameType has the following values:

  • "outermost_frame": Typically referred to as the topmost frame. Note that there are multiples of these. For example, if you have a prerendered and cached pages, each has an outermost frame that could be called its topmost frame.
  • "fenced_frame": Reserved for future use.
  • "sub_frame": Typically an iframe.

We can combine DocumentLifecycle with FrameType and determine if a frame is the active outermost frame. For example: js tab.documentLifecycle == “active” && frameType == “outermost_frame”

How do I solve time of use problems with frames?

As we said above a frame hosts a document and the frame may navigate to a new document, but the frameId will not change. This creates problems when you receive an event with just a frameId. If you look up the URL of the frame it might be different than when the event occured, this is called a time of use issue.

To address this, we introduced documentId (and parentDocumentId). The webNavigation.getFrame() method now makes the frameId optional if a documentId is provided. The documentId will change whenever a frame is navigated.

How do I determine when a page transitions?

There are explicit signals to determine when a page transitions between states.

Let’s look at the WebNavigation events.

For a very first navigation of any page you will see four events in the order listed below. Note that these four events could occur with the DocumentLifecycle state being either "prerender" or "active".


This is illustrated in the diagram below which shows the documentId changing to "xyz" when the prerendered page becomes the active page.

The documentId changes when the prerendered page becomes the active page
The documentId changes when the prerendered page becomes the active page.

When a page transitions from either Back/Forward Cache or prerender to the active state there will be three more events (but with DocumentLifecyle being "active").


The documentId will remain the same as in the original events. This is illustrated above when documentId == xyz activates. Note that the same navigation events fire, except for the onDOMContentLoaded event because the page has already been loaded.

If you have any comments or questions please feel free to ask on the chromium-extensions group.