Future: Is there life after the browser?

from CNet News.com Have you hugged your Web browser today?

Probably not. It’s been years since the browser was new and exciting for the average Web surfer. Browsers have become a bland commodity, dominated by Microsoft’s sturdy but stodgy Internet Explorer. Internet innovation, meanwhile, is increasingly shoved off to specialized, new applications such as instant messaging clients, media players and Weblog viewers.

“It has become abundantly obvious that the Internet does not only consist of the browser,” said Kim Polese, one of the early evangelists for the Java programming language, which was key to browser innovation. “Now people are very actively using IM, music jukeboxes, video players, online games, alternative interfaces. While the browser is as important as ever, it’s not the be-all end-all.”

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the role of the browser is being pared back to the essential but none-too-exciting function of reading HTML code. During the heady years of the browser wars, Netscape and Microsoft competed partly by trying to offer browsers that did everything, from e-mail to coding. The result was bulky, confusing applications that didn’t handle the basics properly.

Today, the browser wars are history, and innovation has moved to other fronts, with the development of applications specialized for Internet tasks ranging from XML (Extensible Markup Language) news feeds to the sharing of music files.

“It’s beginning to look like people have finally figured out the browser ought to be a browser, and if you need other tools, you can build other tools,” said Barry Parr, an independent Internet media and e-commerce consultant. “Instead of trying to make the browser a Swiss Army knife, why not get a screwdriver and a wrench and other tools designed for the job?”

Those tools include applications such as GuruNet, a Web-based program that allows PC users to click on any word in an active document and get relevant information such as a definition of the word or background on a business. Bob Rosenschein, the inventor of GuruNet and CEO of parent company Atomica, said he developed the software when it became clear that search engines might not be the ideal way to retrieve the quick bits of information often sought through the PC.

“There’s not a single thing with GuruNet you couldn’t do in eight or nine clicks with your favorite search engine, but people don’t want to have to go through that routine every time they need a little piece of information,” he said. “You can go to a Web site for a company, and if you want to find out how many employees they have, it’ll take you a lot of clicking and navigating. We’ve got it with one click.”

Stephen Klein, CEO of software maker ActiveBuddy, saw similar limitations in the browser. His solution was to develop “interactive agents” for expanding the functions of instant messaging software.

Using such tools, for instance, you can type “weather” into the window of an IM program and instantly get a brief forecast for your hometown. At work, you can type in “vacation days,” and a business version of the software quickly shows how much paid time off you have available.

“I don’t like to waste time,” Klein said. “For things that aren’t crucial to my life and I don’t need a lot of depth on the information, why should I have to type in a URL, have it load and render a page, then figure out where to go on that page? I think it makes a lot more sense if I can type in the word ‘weather,’ the software knows who I am and tells me what I want to know.”

Such expediency would be especially useful on cell phones and other small hardware. Just because these devices are connected to the Internet doesn’t require them to use a traditional Web browser, which was invented for relatively large PC monitors.

“Putting the Web on a cell phone is kind of a questionable idea. I think there’s going to be a lot of experimentation around what’s the best means to deliver information to these devices,” Parr said. He added that technologies such as “rich site summary” (RSS) news feeds, an increasingly popular Web publishing format, may be one solution for mobile devices.

Norm Meyrowitz, president of Macromedia Products, agreed that it makes sense to look beyond the PC-type browser for these markets. “We’re doing a lot of stuff on mobile devices, which aren’t really browsing devices,” he said. “I don’t think a phone is a great navigation device, so you need a paradigm that doesn’t require a lot of navigation work.”

Like other manufacturers of specialized Internet tools, ActiveBuddy’s Klein makes no claim that his product will replace the browser. Instead, he envisions people using many tools for different tasks, such as ActiveBuddy for quick data and browsers for other jobs.

“I don’t think interactive agents, because they’re less of a rich experience than the Web can deliver, will satisfy that core experience for the things people really care about,” he said. “I think it’ll be like TV: People have their favorite channels where they watch whole shows, but they also flip around. They check the Weather Channel, check in at CNN for a minute or two.”

The question for the browser then becomes what form it will take as the Internet is used increasingly for functions that go beyond simply reading Web pages.

“The big challenge is does it get more specific in the foreground or expand to include all these background news-scanning functions,” said Clay Shirky, new media professor at New York University. “As Weblogs move from being interesting to important, do RSS newsreaders like NewsMonster become a separate application?”

Macromedia, creator of widespread browser add-ons such as the Flash and Shockwave animation players, is one application maker no longer content to toil in the background and is seeking “first-class citizen” status for its products. The company recently announced plans for software that will allow Flash applications to run on their own.

“The message is that the Web browser isn’t designed for applications; it’s designed for documents,” said Kevin Lynch, Macromedia’s chief software architect. “I think developers have done an amazing job of stretching what the browser is capable of doing. But we think there’s a need for an environment specifically designed for hosting applications.”

Macromedia expects developers to create myriad Flash applications that will prove equally valuable regardless of whether they are connected to the Internet, by providing an optimized environment for viewing and storing data.

“One of the disadvantages of the browser is that there aren’t very good ways of organizing information,” Meyrowitz said. “Bookmarks just don’t do the whole job. There’s no real sense of place for the information you want to come back to.”

Because browsers are passive, applications that take at least some of the initiative to find information relevant to the user are likely to gain ground. “One of the problems with the browser is that you’re going out to find information; the user has to fetch everything,” Meyrowitz said. “Sometimes people want to just have the information on their desktop. We think there’s a real need for applications that do that intelligently.”

Polese echoed that sentiment, saying the browser’s limitations have become increasingly clear. “In the first couple of years, everyone thought you’d do everything in a browser. Companies were trying to deliver very complex applications like bond-trading services, and it became clear that it wasn’t going to work,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t want to use a browser because constant fetching of information back to a Web page is not appropriate.”

None of this means that the browser will disappear anytime soon. It’s likely to remain the all-purpose workhorse for viewing Web content for the foreseeable future. And it can do a lot more with a little work.

“It may be that, for a set of people, the browser is a commodity. But a lot of people are still focused on the browser and have definite ideas about how they want it to work,” said Mitchell Baker, leader of the project behind the open-source Mozilla browser, which allows for more customization because its code is open to anyone. “Those people who come to Mozilla and try it are often quite happy to find a different experience. People who think of the browser as a commodity may not be aware of what’s out there.”

Yet Jon Mittelhauser, a member of the team that created the seminal Mosaic, said the browser has achieved its original goals and may be reaching maturity.

“If you want to draw an analogy to humans, it’s past its adolescence, it’s definitely got its driver’s license, it’s probably old enough to drink at 21,” he said. “You hit a point where you say, yeah, it’s an adult–and that’s where the browser is.”

That, of course, doesn’t mean that Internet innovation will stop there. Mittelhauser colleague Marc Andreessen says it is impossible to predict what the Web will look like in the future because its infrastructure is so different from previous technological breakthroughs in history.

“Highways and railroads are fixed in hardware limitations like gauges. One hundred years later, that hasn’t changed,” Andreessen said. “Software is based on its own carrier and has no limitations.”

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