Web-to-App Communication: The Native Messaging API

One of the most powerful mechanisms for Web-to-App communication is to use an extension that utilizes the NativeMessaging API. The NativeMessaging API allows an extension running inside the browser to exchange messages with a native-code “Host” executable running outside of the browser sandbox. That Host executable runs with the full privileges of the current user account, meaning that it can show UI, make network connections, read/write to any files to which the user has access, call privileged APIs, etc.

The NativeMessaging approach requires installing both a native executable and a browser extension (e.g. from the Chrome or Edge Web Store). Web pages cannot themselves communicate directly with a NativeMessaging host, they must use message passing APIs to communicate from the web page to the Extension, which then uses NativeMessaging to communicate with the executable running outside of the browser. This restriction adds implementation complexity, but is considerably safer than historical approaches like ActiveX controls with elevated brokers.

Implementing the Host Executable

The browser launches1 the Host executable in response to requests from an extension. On Windows, two command-line arguments are passed to the executable: the origin of the extension, and the browser’s HWND.

From the native code executable’s point-of-view, messages are received and sent using simple standard I/O streams. Messages are serialized using UTF8-encoded JSON preceded by a 32bit unsigned length in native byte order. Messages to the Host are capped at 4GB, and responses from the Host returned to the extension are capped at 1MB.

Hosts can be implemented using pretty much any language that supports standard I/O streams; using a cross-platform language like Go or Rust is probably a good choice if you aim to run on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Open-source examples of Native Messaging hosts abound; you can find some on GitHub, e.g. by searching for allowed_origins. For instance, here’s a simple one written in C#.

Registering the Host

The Native Messaging Host (typically installed by a downloaded executable or MSI installer) describes itself using a JSON manifest file that specifies the Extensions allowed to invoke it. For instance, say I wanted to add a NativeMessaging host that would allow my browser extension to file a bug in a local Microsoft Access database. The registration for the extension might look like this:

{
  "name": "com.bayden.moarTLSNative",
  "description": "MoarTLS Bug Filer",
  "path": "C:\\Program Files\\MoarTLSBugFiler\\native_messaging_host_for_bug_filing.exe",
  "type": "stdio",
  "allowed_origins": ["chrome-extension://emojohianibcocnaiionilkabjlppkjc/"]
}

On Windows, the host’s manifest is referenced in the registry, inside \Software\Microsoft\Edge\NativeMessagingHosts\ under either the HKLM or HKCU hive. By default, a reference in HKCU overrides a HKLM reference. For compatibility reasons (enabling Chrome Web Store extensions to work with Edge), Microsoft Edge will also check for NativeMessagingHosts registered within the Google Chrome registry key or file path:

On other platforms, the manifest is placed in a well-known path.

User-Level vs. System-Level Registration

Writing to HKLM (a so-called “System Level install”) requires that the installer run with Administrator permissions, so many extensions prefer to register within HKCU so that Admin permissions are not required for installation. However, there are two downsides to “User Level” registration:

  1. It requires every user account on a shared system to run the installer
  2. It does not work for some Enterprise configurations.

The latter requires some explanation. The Microsoft Edge team (and various other external organizations) publish “Security Baseline” documents that give Enterprises and other organizations advice about best practices for securely deploying web browsers.

One element in the Microsoft Edge team’s baseline recommends that enterprises policy-disable support for “user-level” Native Messaging host executables. This policy directive helps ensure that native code executables that run outside of the browser sandbox were properly vetted and installed by the organization (and have not been installed by a rogue end-user, for instance). The specific mechanism of enforcement is that a browser with this policy set will refuse to load a NativeMessagingHost unless it is registered in the HKLM hive of the registry; HKCU-registered hosts are simply ignored.

In order for Enterprises to deploy browser extensions that utilize NativeMessaging with NativeMessagingUserLevelHosts policy-disabled, such extension installers must offer the option to register the messaging host in HKLM. Those System-level installers will then require Admin-elevation to run, so it’s probably worthwhile to offer either two installers (one for User-level installs and one for System-level installs) or a single installer that elevates to install to HKLM if requested.

Calling the NativeMessaging Host

From the JavaScript extension platform point-of-view, messages are sent using a simple postMessage API.

To communicate with a Native Messaging host, the extension must include the nativeMessaging permission in its manifest. After doing so, it can send a message to the Host like so:

var port = chrome.runtime.connectNative('com.bayden.moarTLSNative');
port.postMessage({ url: activeTabs[0].url });

When the connectNative call executes, the browser launches the native_messaging_host_for_bug_filer.exe executable referenced in the manifest. The subsequent postMessage call results in writing the message data to the process’ stdin I/O stream. If the process responds, port‘s onMessage handler fires, or if the process disconnects, the onDisconnect handler is invoked.


NativeMessaging is a remarkably powerful primitive for bi-directional communication with native apps. Please use it carefully– escaping the browser’s sandbox means that careless implementations might result in serious security vulnerabilities.

-Eric

1 As of Chromium 87, the way the executable is invoked on Windows is rather convoluted (cmd.exe is used as a proxy) and it may fail for some users. Avoid using any interesting characters (e.g. & and @) in the path to your Host executable.

Published by ericlaw

Impatient optimist. Dad. Author/speaker. Created Fiddler & SlickRun. PM @ MSFT '01-'12, and '18-, presently working on Microsoft Edge. My words are my own.

3 thoughts on “Web-to-App Communication: The Native Messaging API

  1. This feature is interesting, but this approach seems quite complex… If you have a desktop app that needs to communicate with a webapp, you need to
    – implement an extension for each browser you want to support
    – implement a low-level communication protocol in the native host
    – implement another channel of communication between the native host and the actual desktop app

    So in the end, to send a message from the webapp to the desktop app, it needs to be sent to the extension, which forwards it to the native host, which forwards it to the desktop app.

    Is there any advantage to this approach compared to talking directly to the desktop app over HTTP on localhost? (possibly using websockets)

      1. Eric,

        Thanks for your reply. I look forward to this article!

        I have already implemented the “local web server” solution, twice.

        The first time, a few years ago, we ran into the issues you mentioned in the intro regarding HTTP connections from an HTTPS context. We used the workaround you described, and devised an elaborate strategy to avoid the MITM problem (basically, we performed a “pairing” between the local web server and the web app, where the user must copy a pairing code). It was a mess, and didn’t work when the user was behind a proxy.

        The second time I had to do that, about a year ago, I was aware of the difficulties, so I initially used application protocols. But it was limited, and had other issues. So I tried again the local web server approach, and… it just worked. No HTTPS, no certificate, no nothing. It works fine at least in Firefox, Chrome and “Edgium”. So now I’m not sure why it didn’t work before… Could this be related to the SecureContexts feature you mentioned?

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