James Governor's Monkchips

The web browser as a coccyx, HTML as an appendix

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Great post by mr de h0ra this morning led me to revisit some ideas I had, put forward, dismissed, then started pondering again lately.

A couple of years ago I began to wonder if browsers would go the way of the tail and become a coccyx, something vestigial. I tried out the idea on a couple of reporters I spoke to. I was thinking about what a rich browser would look like. It seemed clear what Microsoft’s strategy was in that regard, to elminate the browser as a standalone component, and drive richer user experiences through a hybrid smart/client approach. I wondered if Eclipse might play a similar role in the non-Windows community, or whether Macromedia might step up to the plate with some kind of Flash browsing experience.

Once we had stopped swinging through the trees of Web 1.0 and started walking across the open plains of Web 2.0 would the tail just drop off?

The human body has some great examples of stuff we no longer need, which to my mind also happen to comprehensively blow intelligent design out of the water. Models that were superceded. The appendix, the tonsils, and of course the good old tail-bone. Another favorite are the gills that embryos grow and then dispense with during that weird nine months of intense personal evolution before we are born to breathe air.

I mean browsers are just so… dumb. Not as dumb as intelligent design, perhaps, but its no cooincedence some of the coolest rich app demos are Flash-enabled. 

Bill says, when discussing how the aggregator is a better way of getting things done:

Instead this would be great: at some point weblogs flip over and the HTML website bits will become secondary fluff to the XML content, like how PDFs are secondary web fluff to HTML today. The frontpage would be the feed, the archives would be Atom entries, and instead of a “subscribe to the feed” buttons, you could have “read this stuff in a browser” buttons. And reading this stuff in browser would be retro-cool in a Harris tweed sports jacket kind of way – you could use Lynx at tech conferences to read weblogs and get some respect for keeping it real. It would be strictly for the weekends. Otherwise, no more handwringing about one-click subscriptions – if you got here, you’re already subscribed.

Bill makes great points, eloquently as ever, but the browser seemingly isn’t going away. When the same reporters I talked to about the “death of the browser” started calling me all the time about Firefox it was pretty obvious I had made a bad call. The more I see of Ajax, and DHTML-based rich internet applications, the more obvious it is the browser isn’t quite ready for the evolutionary scrapheap quite yet. Oh yeah – and where would I be without bloglines, for which I use Firefox.

So playing browser’s advocate to Bill, another reason we cant replace the browser with an aggregator is because not everyone is going to offer full text feeds. Instead we have people trying to maintain control, drive up their web stats or whatever it is. If information wants to be free, Doc Searls, then how come I have to come to you for it (slight barrier to entry).

If content producers were all helpful, an or the adwords model works and is acceptable to users, then perhaps we’ll see the tail drop off. But that seems a long way off. Homo Sapiens 1.0 wasn’t built in a day, and we still retain vestiges of earlier models. That is the beauty of evolution–its not always elegant, but it always effective.

One comment

  1. It’s an interesting issue that clearly hasn’t been resolved yet. I see at least two key issues that weigh on either side of the debate:

    1. Having a UI experience tailored to the activity can be nice. That is, an interface for interacting with a dictionary isn’t the best one for interacting with a weather report.

    2. Having separate applications for every single thing I want to do on my computer leads to a bad experience. This is due not only to HCI issues (lack of consistency), but also to the very mundane issues of application startup time, application switching time, and memory usage.

    As evidence of both of these trends, I think we have great examples with OS X Dashboard and Konfabulator widgets. The initial experience is often very positive: You have an attractive, functional UI tailored for a particular purpose. The extended experience is sometimes more negative, as you realize that there aren’t that many widgets that are all that useful… and do you really want 20 different widgets always running? They use a lot of memory, and tend to not be very well organized. Ultimately, all of the web-based information delivered by widgets is available via a Browser, and the deciding issue, for me at least, is that I always have a browser window open. Given that, it is simply more efficient for me to use my Browser to consume online content. There is no extra startup time for a custom app, and there is only the memory overhead of a new Firefox tab as opposed to another entire application.

    Ultimately, I think the current dominance of the Browser is due to it being a more responsive platform for consuming data over the network than any other option. You can either view the future as the browser becoming the desktop, because it offers a more responsive, integrated internet experience, or you can say the desktop will become the browser. The latter would be defined by rich client apps being integrated into the desktop as tabs are into firefox.

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