What if the browser disappeared?

Tristan Nitot

16

I was reading the other day a provocative article titled The end of the browser?. This article basically argues that with the world using more and more mobile devices, mobile applications are replacing Web browsers for various reasons, the main one being that they’re more convenient to use than Web pages displayed in browsers.

While I disagree with the author, I think this is a very interesting question that raises two different issues:

  1. What if the Web is replaced by Mobile Apps? Why would it be bad to lose Web browsers as a primary way to access information and services?
  2. What can be done to ensure that the Web browser doesn’t become a thing of the past as the world goes mobile?

What if the Web was replaced by Mobile Apps?

I think the world would lose a lot in this case. It would actually lose so much that I don’t even know where to start…

Freedom of expression

The Web is not only made of commercial content. Having the ability to express oneself is fundamental. The Web provides this, and having a decentralized place to publish things is necessary. Centralized commercial AppStores have shown a tendency to censor content aggressively to avoid litigation, whether it’s about artistic content, political content, freedom of the press or plain bad taste.

Freedom to shape my experience

Modern Web browsers feature add-ons that enable users to customize their experience. But even before Firefox made such add-ons popular, it was possible to use alternative style sheets or user style-sheets to alter the presentation of the content. It’s not just about taste, but also very important for Web content to be experienced by people with special needs.

Let’s not forget that every major platform features a Web browser, from Windows to MacOS to GNU/Linux and all smartphones: users don’t have to purchase specific hardware of software to access the Web. All they need is a computer that can run a Web browser.

Freedom to learn, tinker and create

What makes the Web different from other media is that people can participate. Unlike TV, you don’t have to own a TV station to share your point of view with an audience. Everyone can publish a blog post that links to other pages, share photos or videos, and it’s fantastic progress for democracy, compared to the times of TV, radio and newspapers.

But the Internet and the Web are not just media. They are platforms for innovation. Because anyone can learn how the Web works by viewing the source code, the Web allows anyone to create a Web application, which leads to more innovation, coming from more people.

What can be done to prevent the Web browser from becoming a thing of the past as the world goes mobile?

This question has a much shorter answer, and I’ll describe what Mozilla is doing about this:

  1. Keep making a great desktop Web browser: Firefox
  2. Keep making a great mobile browser: Firefox for Android
  3. Work on an open mobile operating system to make the Web the mobile platform of choice: Firefox OS (soon on mobile phones near you!)

The Open nature of the Web is giving people freedoms of all kinds, and this is why Mozilla is investing in Firefox OS: it’s the best way to make sure that the Web has a future in a world where most people use the Internet on mobile phones.

What do you think he world would lose if the Web browser was to disappear? Tell us in the comments below.

16 responses

  1. Dragnucs wrote on ::

    Well,

    If the world would lose Web browser, we would not only lose a simple usability experience (must install an application per each web site, or kind of websites) for accessing the web, but we would also lose easy access to information.

    In fact, there is now four main mobile OSs. So applications compatibility would prevent certain users from accessing informations. For example, if Wikipedia totally changed to a mobile application, and forgot the support of blackberry, all blackberry users will be prevented from accessing Wikipedia.

    So I don’t think that will happen easily.

  2. Marcel van Wort wrote on ::

    Hi Tristan,

    Many thanks for your clear answer on this one. It definitely proves that the web with everything in it and connected to it is an exciting place to be!

    I really look forward to what is ahead of us!

    Best regards,
    Marcel van Wort

  3. rémi wrote on ::

    Hey Tristan,

    Nice thoughts here. Which I understand and agree with by the way. Only thing that actually bothers me is that I don’t think people actually look for freedom and stuff: they look for user experience.

    A few years ago, when I looked at http://www.alexa.com/topsites I realized that people’s top 3 interests with the Web were:
    – searches (with google)
    – Facebook
    – Youtube

    And all these three needs are answered with… apps! So even if the Web browser definitely helps providing other information, it will lose (if it hasn’t lost already) the main needs for people using the Internet.

    My two cents,

    Rémi
    @orangebusiness

  4. Tristan Nitot wrote on :

    @Rémi : I agree that users don’t always realize that they want freedom, but on the long term, the really need it. It’s our role as inventors of the digital future to make sure that freedom is part of the future we’re building. We need to educate users, for sure, but we need to make sure that they don’t have to end up choosing between a good user experience and freedom.

    It’s something that I have been explaining in a previous article:

    Education and great products: https://blog.mozilla.org/beyond-the-code/2013/01/18/education-great-products/

    Thank you for your comment,

    –Tristan

  5. rémi wrote on ::

    Very true, I’m happy we share these thoughts. Hopefully we’ll make it come true! :-)

    Rémi
    @orangebusiness

  6. Tristan Nitot wrote on :

    @Rémi : I would add that the number one interest you list is “Search (with Google)”. They don’t want “Search”. They want results… that are actually Web pages. So, in short, you just agree with me without necessarily knowing it: people want the Web, and after that, they want Facebook and Youtube. :-)

    –Tristan

  7. rémi wrote on ::

    haha good one! ^^

    Rémi
    @orangebusiness

  8. Marcel van Wort wrote on ::

    @Tristan, Remi,

    While writing the article I never guessed it would turn into a discussion around web freedom..

    I fully agree that the web should be open to everyone. And yes, pushing apps by commercial organisations trying to lock-in their users/public will definitely cause a limitation of this freedom and have an effect on the openness of the web.

    However, I also see that there still is an issue with lack of standardization that is causing web developers to create products that do not run well on all browsers and platforms. This despite all the efforts done in the past years already. Another issue is that many organisations do not bother to create a mobile version of their sites leaving it almost unreadable on PDA screens.

    Especially on the portable platforms I see that users will install apps for sites where they want to go back to or where they want additional functionality that ties in with the OS of the device they are using.

    Do you think browsers will be able to tackle this in the future? Or will browsers only be used for… browsing.. ?

    Thanks,
    Marcel

    1. Tristan Nitot wrote on :

      On these 2 issues:

      * web developers create products that do not run well on all browsers
      * many organisations do not bother to create a mobile version of their sites leaving it almost unreadable on PDA screens.

      Developers move at different speeds. Some are quick to adapt to “responsive design” and newer standards, some are slower. That’s life. Those who move slower tend to have less success. But over time, the economics of Open make it so that everybody who’s relevant is moving there. It takes a little too much time, that’s true. But in the ends, it happens. You can believe me: I’ve been with Mozilla for 15 years now, and back in 2001, I was trying Web developers to adopt newer standards and just not be compatible with IE4, 5 and 6. It took a lot of time, but it happened. The pressure felt from Firefox did help quite a bit, for sure!

      > on the portable platforms I see that users will install apps for sites where they want to go back to or where they want additional functionality that ties in with the OS of the device they are using. Do you think browsers will be able to tackle this in the future?

      Yes, the Web is a much more powerful platform thanks to WebAPIs that enable We apps to do things that used to be impossible in a recent path. Canvas, Geolocation, 3D (WebGL), you name it. Firefox OS has all of this. See https://hacks.mozilla.org/2013/02/using-webapis-to-make-the-web-layer-more-capable/ .

      Let’s keep this conversation going!

      –Tristan

      1. Marcel van Wort wrote on ::

        Hi Tristan,

        Yes, indeed I will certainly keep this conversation going!

        First I have to say that it indeed looks like you have interesting WebAPI’s already there and more coming up in order to provide a better user experience. I checked these out and must admit that this is a major step forward in the evolution of the old style browser that, to my opinion, is nothing more than a modern “terminal emulator” into an application that is fully embedded into the Operating System.

        Hopefully these helpful tools and the standardisation at W3C level for HTML5 and CSS3 will be a fact soon so web developers (and their investers!) get the trust needed to accellerate building their sites based on these new specifications.

        From a technology point of view I believe your team and also others in the development world can do anything. That is not the problem. However, pushing technology may find some challenges on its path. From a legal- or market regulation point of view Microsoft is constantly facing this challenge in their antitrust case against the EU. This prohibits them to deliver their own browser together with their OS or at least give users the choice of browsers while installing the OS. This EU verdict did slow down Microsoft in developing an embedded browser in their OS bigtime. Do you agree that the fault they made, and still make, is that their OS is not open enough or can Mozilla fix this with API’s besides to the browser plug-ins too?

        By developing W3C standardised API’s that can run in the background to keep and provide functionality and connectivity while the browser is not on the foreground may provide a legal answer here. This way you give the possibility to keep the system “open” and offer a free choice of browser. Do you think that Firefox OS (even when it would become dominant on the desktop) will meet these EU regulations?

        Another challenge for the “perfect” future browser would be that many content providers already invested in building apps. The IOS, Android and Microsoft app stores are full with it and of course they deliver all tools needed to the developers to keep them focussed on these apps. The market may want to keep it that way because they already succeeded in locking-in their users?

        With Firefox OS, would you be initiating an app store (or API store?) to tackle all market needs using API’s in combination with any standardised W3C compliant browser? Of course the Internet must stay open but organisations looking for business and public on the internet will only invest if they have a valid business case..

        What about the desktop? Are there still any left in a few years ? :-) Any plans in moving into that direction as I believe the FireFox OS B2G desktop client is to emulate a mobile test environment only?

        Many thanks and best regards,
        Marcel van Wort
        @Marcel_Orange

  9. rémi wrote on ::

    @Marcel : if the browser would be “just” used to browse it’d turn the Web into something like another Deep Web (more at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_Web) which would mean that Tristan’s ideas of freedom would be severely harmed. On the other hand, I don’t think many non-merchant websites (other than news websites) will develop an app for their content… so the “browsed Web” would be for corporate websites and stuff like that maybe?

    Thinking out loud…

    Rémi
    @orangebusiness

    1. Marcel van Wort wrote on ::

      Hi Remi,

      It all depends of the suppliers of content, they will have to decide which market they want to address and where they want to make their money. That is also freedom.. maybe not the right sort of freedom but it is..

      Well, there may be a difference on your desktop where apps will stay to be the new “shortcuts or browser favorites” for popular sites, just like on your phone now. The browser may stay as an OS embedded search engine app (see the Google search app!) whether or not based on an underlying background application.

      Those apps will probably use HTML5 and other new specifications in the background as well anyway.

      Cheers,
      Marcel

  10. VictorDanielRio wrote on ::

    Hi Tristan , Marcel and all,
    Many thanks to Tristan for developing the discussion, and Marcel to have raised the original question.

    I follow the debate with passion and fear, because I feel something essential is discussed here.

    Different perspectives, often encountered at work, claim that business cases can not be wrong, even if they harm their own ecosystem.
    I don’t feel a valid business case consists of keeping an exclusive control on implementation and APIs. This is for me, as you mention it Marcel, the essence of EU regulation against Microsoft Web browser choice. And I don’t feel it blocked Microsoft in anything except developing anti-concurrential practises.
    Another example of this is Apple control on their ecosystem. They have the right to do so, in a business perspective, and it’s a clever move from this point of view, but it can’t be the perspective we offer to the whole web.

    This is not innovation, just control and limitation : where is invention there ?

    Do you remeber the era of ActiveX extensions ? Something similar to apps for me, imposing the use of a compiler, a development environment, a browser, and even of an OS.
    (still in use in most tools at orangebusiness for your great shame ;) ).

    Companies don’t fear vendor lock-in, they always can find a compensation, it’s called cooperation and business. When it provokes limitations in functionalities and development cycle, it becomes dangerous, however, and it’s time to change partner.

    But customers should always avoid it (but most don’t even realize that) for many reasons, from idealistic (freedom) to pragmatic (cost and choice) reasons.

    This is the reason of my reaction to your original twitter post, Marcel, and of my prompt to Tristan, who was the best person to help me answering. Thanks you all.

    Some minor comments to Marcel’s original post :
    – Apps don’t solve the minor compatibility issues between browsers, on the contrary they provide a different answer.
    – HTTP is not the only protocol to discuss from a browser to a server, many other exist, and apps are not better for that.
    – Performance ? JIT techniques now implemented in modern browsers fill the gap between javascript interpreted and static compiled languages.
    – most of the time, apps are just repackaged access to the mobile version of a site (but, ok some good apps offer other fonctionalities)

    You just mention HTML5 in your comments, and I was surprised not to find it in your original article.
    This year may be an interesting year for that, and I wish great success to firefox OS, and other developments in the same direction.
    Cheers,

  11. Pingback from Lectures et humeurs de la semaine du 28-01-2013 par on ::

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  12. Marcel van Wort wrote on ::

    Hi VictorDanielRio et all,

    Many thanks for your thoughts and forwarding the question to someone like Tristan.

    At the end of the day the success of any innovation, be it apps, browsers (and their extensions) or any other technology will in the acceptance by users and the industry dealing with it. Bad technology will always die if it is overtaken by something better from the user AND/OR if the industry cannot make money on it.

    In order to have something accepted by a wide audience you will need standardization where it is key that everybody sticks to it fully. ActiveX, Microsoft Java and Adobe Flash are (bad) examples that where pushed by some manufactures but not fully adopted by everyone or all industries. The attempts of W3C to have web code standardized becomes more and more successful but still there is a gap. Still, in 2013 I need 3 browsers on my desktop to make everything work, (and yes also because some of our own company tools made by big names in the industry do not work in all browsers.. :-)

    Now with the small touch screens on phones, apps became more user friendly and widely adopted by industry and users and fact is that browsers are less used probably due to for mobile purpose bad designed websites..

    The different app stores are almost exploding and my tablet and phone are full with it whether I like it or not… And yes, from a user point of view it is silly to install an app for every site you want to visit rather than only having a list of favorites in a browser… It is like going back to fat clients again, maybe this is caused by increasing CPU power on small devices as well , times seem to repeat .. But despite this I really wonder if the share that apps already have gained on our mobile devices can be won back by browsers only. It is up to Tristan and his team to give an answer on that one.. What you say this will be an interesting year.

    PS: I didn’t mention HTML5 and other detailed technical terms in the original article as I wrote it for a certain audience; users that are not aware of what is running in the background of their device and don’t care as long as they have a good user experience and get what they want..

    Thanks
    Marcel

    PS… I just found out that when I submitted the above comment in a Chrome browser it leaves me with a blank screen afterwards.. So I copied the text into a Firefox browser and now it works…

  13. VictorDanielRio wrote on ::

    Well, well,
    end users who don’t care of the underlying implementation are a classic excuse , but
    – they HAVE to know
    – the ones who implement the frameworks, the app development tools, and the apps themselves etc, they DO know about those questions (but don’t always decide)

    A temporary valid objection from a friend last week : HTML5 doesn’t seem to support encryption or DRMs for VOD delivery for example. I read today that W3C headed into that direction http://slashdot.org/story/13/02/12/014257/w3c-declares-drm-in-scope-for-html

    Don’t know yet if it’s a good idea, but, it’s another counter argument that falls.