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Demo of clipboard promises on the Web

Demonstrates lazily-evaluated clipboard data on the Web platform.

Try it out: https://rsms.me/web-clipboard-promise/

It makes use of Shared Workers and the new-ish Clipboard API. This demo only works in browsers with these APIs available and enabled.

Animation demo

Clipboard access on the Web platform

Since the world wild web is unruly and content is accessed by a simple click or tap, users can easily get into trouble if Web allowed freely reading and writing to your clipboard. For instance, imagine if you copied your Gmail password from 1Password and then clicked on some link saying "10 things you didn't know about cat hair!". If that fishy website could just read your clipboard, it would now know your Gmail password. That'd be bad.

Now "native" apps that you've installed can of course read your clipboard, but hopefully you are careful when installing native apps. You are probably also using an OS that provides additional safety like code signatures and sandboxing (like MS Windows and macOS.)

Clipboard access on the Web is therefore very limited and historically rarely used by web applications for these reasons. There's a new API which at the time of writing this is still in development and only available in Chrome and behind a feature flag in Firefox.

The stable and readily available clipboard API is not really a clipboard API, but part of the Event API where the events copy and paste provides their handlers with a clipboardData object.

Limitations with interfacing with the clipboard using the event API:

  • Events only triggered from either OS standard keyboard shortcuts like cmd-C and ctrl-C. This limits the user interface you can provide users with. If you make your own context menu and want copy or paste in there, you're out of luck.
  • The clipboardData object is only valid within the same runloop frame as when the event handler is invoked. This object will appear completely empty if you keep a reference to it and look at it later, say with setTimeout. This limits
  • The clipboardData object can be read from, accessing some formats (browser dependent) but not all. Some browsers also filter and pre-process the data in the clipboard. For instance, Chrome re-encodes some image types to protect the user from malicious stuff like lolcat.jpeg. However some things may be lost in this process, like image density metadata information.
  • Perhaps the most important limitation is that writing to the clipboard must happen within the same runloop frame! If you need to call out to a Worker, access the network or just chunk up work to keep your UI responsive, you won't be able to write to the clipboard.

Clipboard access via native OS APIs

Native clipboard APIs of most modern operating systems provide a "promise" model:

  • Upon copy, a promise is made to provide the data requested
  • The clipboard now contains one or more items each with one or more representations (data types). However, there's no actual data in the clipboard yet.
  • Now, upon paste, the OS will ask the original code that responded to the copy earlier on to now provide data for a certain type.
  • When the data is available the code that triggered paste receives the data and the copy-paste story is complete.

This technique has one very important upside: For payloads that requires a lot of work, copy is virtually free (since no work is done on copy.)

When pasting somewhere the app that responded to copy in the first place is likely to be in the background and so it freezing for a while during data generation is less bad for the user experience.

Further, this allows apps like graphics editors to provide many different file formats without having to encode an image in all those formats. For instance, it can promise to provide a TIFF, PNG and JPEG image. Later when paste happens, the code that responds to the paste can choose one of those formats. Let's say it chooses PNG. Now, the original graphics app that populated the clipboard only needs to generate the PNG image.

What this code does

This demo is addressing some of the limitations of the Web platform by using a Shared Worker substituting the OS clipboard manager, coordinating copy, paste and lazy data production between apps.

It uses the new Clipboard API as well to populate the clipboard.

Note: In a real-world implementation on "copy", you would want to immediately begin the process of generating the data and writing it to the clipboard as soon as you are done, in order to allow paste to work in other apps.

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Demonstrates lazily-evaluated clipboard data on the Web platform

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