Questions About The Future of the Web Browser

The future of the web browser. It’s an interesting topic in and of itself. It’s even a more interesting topic for a guy like me who makes his living developing stuff that runs in said browser. Lately I’ve found myself asking a lot of questions, both to myself and to the people I know who are knowledgeable in the industry.

Here’s what pops into my head:

  • Are we moving toward an app world where the browser becomes less relevant?  Are we already there?
  • How do closed apps affect search and the “link economy”, the primary infrastructure in which our modern day web is built?
  • As a new developer, would it be more intelligent to skip the web all together and start learning a more “traditional” programming language like Java or C++?
  • Are we going to keep seeing more and more app stores for more and more devices?
  • If so, how does this divergence effect businesses and users?  Right now you already need to make an app for Android, Blackberry, and iPhone/iPad. What happens when WebOS becomes big? Or any of the many other proposed app stores. Can developers keep up?  Should they try to?
  • How do HTML5 and CSS3 play a role in all of this? HTML5 can interact with the desktop in ways that browsers couldn’t do previously (geo-location, desktop notifications, etc).
  • Does this whole thing swing back full circle and result in app stores becoming the walled gardens that no one wants to partake in, similar to CD Roms and desktop software (an idea planted in my head by Leo Laporte and Jeff Jarvis during various TwiT podcasts)?
  • And then does the web and mobile web end up being what we’re all using in 5 years? And is it then actually a long term competitive advantage for small web development companies with limited resources to not spend time and money developing mobile apps?

Now keep in mind, I’m asking these questions in the context of thinking about LockerPulse, a web app that depends very much on the “link economy” of Google and therefore the browser, as outlined in my last post, and DetailedImage, an e-commerce store that might actually be less dependent on the browser, but in general e-commerce is still more of a browser thing than an app thing, at least compared to things like Twitter and Facebook and email.

Then the other day Wired declared the browser dead, as they also (wrongly) did in 1997:

Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display. It’s driven primarily by the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing, and it’s a world Google can’t crawl, one where HTML doesn’t rule. And it’s the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the Web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen).

Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunsh, fired back with When Wrong, Call Yourself Prescient Instead. Sometimes I totally agree with Arrington, other times I couldn’t agree less, however I have enormous respect for him because he isn’t afraid to speak his mind. In this case, I think I actually agree with him, although I’m clearly biased towards the web browser:

The browser isn’t dead. Web pages aren’t dead. HTML works really, really well. Check out Facebook’s iPad “app,” for example. You don’t download it from an app store, you just point your browser to touch.facebook.com. Not only does it work really well, Steve Jobs doesn’t get to have a veto right over people using it. It’s no wonder that we’re seeing a surge of traffic from the iPad to our site, via a browser.

Apps are great on mobile phones with small screens. But they are a pain to install and keep synchronized. Eventually having less local software will make sense on phones, too. All you really need is that browser virtual machine and you can pull everything else from the cloud. This is obvious. Only a bunch of hipster tech journalists checking email on their iPads all day* would think otherwise, and then make up a bunch of data to support their argument.

*Wired, not us.

Fascinating to ponder. What do you think?

19 comments on Questions About The Future of the Web Browser

  1. Anthony says:

    Well as you know, we’re thinking a lot about this as well. 🙂

    For what it’s worth, Website Magazine recently declared the website “irrelevant”:
    http://www.websitemagazine.com/content/blogs/posts/pages/is-the-website-becoming-irrelevant.aspx
    … says a lot for a magazine focused on teaching, errrr, web developers.

    Anyway, in my preliminary research, what I’ve been coming to find is that the browser *as we know it* probably is dead. But not the technologies the browser use.

    PhoneGap, for example, is an open source project. It allows you to take a bunch of HTML5 and CSS code, package it up into an “app” that essentially runs a browser instance. HTML5 can already use the phone’s GPS, local storage, etc. For other functions, like the camera, PhoneGap provides Javascript that allows you to plug in and take advantage.

    Then there’s jQTouch – which is essentially what jQuery UI is to the normal computer. jQTouch is built specifically for mobile devices, and allows you to a) skin your web code to look like an app and b) use JS that helps it “feel” like an app (recognize the accelerometer, understand gesture speed, etc).

    Package these 2 technologies together, and you can build an app with browser technologies. But instead of testing on versions of IE, Mozilla, etc, you better be sure you’re testing on phone emulators.

    The catch? Well, your app is limited by web technologies, which lag on many phones. iPhones and Droids run webkit, which means you can make great apps for both. But not Blackberry – yet. So you either have to make dumbed-down Blackberry apps, or just wait it out.

    I think eventually, all paths leads to Webkit/HTML5 as the technologies which will fuel *most* apps. Then again, there will be some things that are just too complicated/laggy to execute within the confines of HTML & Javascript, much like on a normal computer.

    At the end of the day, though, web developers will need to update their knowledge. Writing an app for a phone – even if based on browser *technologies* – is still inherently different (and more complicated) than writing it for a browser. You need to account for different screen sizes/orientations, different levels of HTML 5 support, and different hardware support. You also need to account for spotty network coverage and great error handling as a result. These are all fairly novel concepts to the average web developer, and certainly complicate the development process, even if familiar technologies are being used

  2. Anthony says:

    Oh, and another comment —

    Michael Arrington used Facebook’s touch website as an example of why apps will not continue their trend upward. Well, I think the question for Michael, then is: If the touch website is all a mobile suer needs, then why does Facebook also release apps?

    He’s a bit confused. See, I think Facebook has a touch website to try to satisfy users of less-supported devices (or people who happen to go to facebook.com from their touch-enabled mobile device). They’re simply trying to hit all angles. But if you ask nearly anybody with a mobile device if they prefer their Facebook app or the touch-enabled site, I’m pretty most would tell you it’s the app, hands down. Native functionality always wins. At least from a user standpoint. That changed on the computer because websites became more convenient for the user – not because they became more convenient for the developers. Developers followed the gold rush.

    So the question is – will developers again listen to what the users wants, and shift towards apps on mobiles, or will they revolt and continue to insist the website is the best platform for content & collaboration? Well, I think that answer is already stunningly clear. There are hundreds of thousands of apps out there already. And people are downloading them en masse. The developers who understand the opportunity there will win. The ones who don’t, won’t. And the users won’t care why those developers never made apps. All the users know is that these shiny icons are installed on the device, and they can easily get more of them. And whoever provides more will get their business. And anybody else isn’t even in their realm of consciousness

  3. Tim says:

    This is a VERY interesting subject that I can see both sides of the story but I feel that cloud computing with our “portals” being the handshake between us and whatever we are doing is going to be the final solution, how exactly we get there is a mystery. I don’t see apps being a long term solution, that’s not to say people are going to stop purchasing them but I think those on the edge of technology will start gravitating away from them sooner rather than later.

    I look at my computing, desktop app vs web app and I can not think of an example that I use which the desktop app is better. Then you factor in the local update requirements, data storage, etc… Web browsers and OS’s as a whole are freaking unbelievable today, for 95% of the population off the shelf computers at affordable prices have computing power beyond the reach of their users. The exception to the rule are Widgets, which in a way, in function, are like mini-apps. For example a Weather widget is easier and faster then going to a weather website.

    For apps to become viable long term players I think they need a universal language and freedom, if someone wants to make an app that just says “You suck” and someone wants to use that app they should be able to, as it currently stands that may not happen. The web is more of a wild wild west environment where good ideas and creative execution is rewarded, the current app stores have limitations not present in the conventional web environment.

    As computers and computing has evolved one of the truths that seems to continually show itself, simpler is better. What will win is what is the simplest and most efficient, right now that is not apps.

  4. Adam McFarland says:

    Great comments guys, all really valid points. Anthony and I actually had this discussion in person last week, which is one of the many reasons this has been on my mind 🙂

  5. Anthony says:

    Well, look. The problem is that mobile apps are a lot like desktop widgets: They’re built for one purpose, the UI is barebones, you can get to them in one click – in short, they’re simple & efficient, and a website is not. That can change. But in reality, an app just has the ability to simplify things in a way even a modern browser does not. Try snapping a photo on your phone and uploading it to Twitter via your browser. Talk about as complicated and inefficient as possible. People deal with this on the computer simply because website’s are easier and faster to navigate with a mouse and a big screen and a broadband connection. But on a mobile device, where every second and extra step counts? Forget it.

    Until a mobile website can become simpler than an app (which may be an extremely long time), your average consumer will prefer an app. And that same person won’t care at all how complicated & inefficient it is for the developer to create. Because as long as *some developer* is willing to create it, and it’s simpler to use than a website, there will be no motivation to use a website.

  6. Adam McFarland says:

    Wait I’ve got one more question. So clearly as Anthony pointed out, mobile apps are a part of what we do now and what we’ll be doing in the future. But to what extent – to use them for special use cases (like the example of snapping and uploading a photo to twitter, or to check-in to foursquare) or for everything, including shopping and news and everything else we currently use a browser for? I have plenty of apps on my Android phone (Google Reader for example) that are nothing more than an icon that links to the mobile web site, because that fulfills all of the necessary functionality and a dedicated app isn’t necessary.

  7. Anthony says:

    That is yet to be seen. Clearly, apps shine with device-specific functionality. But – they’re still easier to use, even for more dumbed-down purposes.

    Frankly, here’s what it comes down to for me: This isn’t about the browser vs. the app. It’s about the phone companies vs. developers. Phone companies are making it an app world, in the same way IE & Firefox made it a browser world. But to the user – there’s no difference. It’s just a means to an end. If you asked most ordinary people today, they probably *still* wouldn’t even be able to tell you what a “browser” is (I know I certainly have clients who understand they use Internet Explorer to get on websites, but don’t understand how that’s different than using an application – they just know the content they need to access is accessed via Internet Explorer). This is an important point. Because it means that most people aren’t *aware* there are options. If a News widget comes with the phone, people will use it instead of the browser for news. Why? Because it’s there, and a website is tucked away – a browser app click, google search, and bookmark away. And gosh darnit, Adam, if an ecommerce detailing website shows up in the app store, then car detailers everywhere will begin using it, even though it’s not much better than the experience on your browser-based site. Why? Because they’ve been programmed to understand that the app store is where they go to get new & cool functionality that’s made just for their phones.

    So why do people still go to detailedimage.com, even from their phones? Simple. There’s nowhere else to go. You’re too nichey, and there’s not enough incentive to build an app. But the minute your first competitor does, it’s a race… People aren’t still using websites on the phone because they want to. They’re using websites in the few spaces left that force them to.

    Amazon understands this all too well – which is why they have an Amazon app that allows you to search for products however you want (text-based, image-based, or barcode), and add/buy them straight from your phone. And you can be sure that if Best Buy’s upper management saw me scanning barcodes of items in their stores and adding them to my Amazon wishlist, they’d be asking themselves – is a website alone really going to cut it moving into the future?

    • Adam McFarland says:

      “And gosh darnit, Adam, if an ecommerce detailing website shows up in the app store, then car detailers everywhere will begin using it, even though it’s not much better than the experience on your browser-based site. Why? Because they’ve been programmed to understand that the app store is where they go to get new & cool functionality that’s made just for their phones.”

      It’s been done. There are iPhone apps and whatnot out there from our competitors, and they don’t much matter as of now. Shopping on a phone sucks. Maybe it will suck less in a few years, but some things are just better done on a full sized screen with a keyboard. It’s not that detailing is a small niche, it’s that mobile shopping is a small niche and it will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future. I don’t know about you, but on Black Friday no one is going to be running to their phones to shop. The phone works great to compare prices in-store vs online quickly (scan a bar code in Walmart, see if it’s cheaper somewhere else online via Google Shopping), but you don’t stand there in store and actually make the purchase. There are too many decisions that need to be made (pick other products, log in, choose an address, payment method, shipping, etc) that aren’t easily done on a phone.

      There’s kind of two discussions going on here in this post. How does all of this play out in general and how does all of it specifically impact our business, DI in particular. I do think that most people know the difference between a website and an app, a browser and an app on their phone, and I don’t necessarily think that they want hundreds of apps on their phone for things they only do a few times a year (like buy/research detailing supplies).

  8. Anthony says:

    Fair points, for sure. I guess I miscommunicated the point about competition. I didn’t mean to suggest an app would become more relevant than a website, period. Only that an app is more relevant than a website, *in the mobile space*. I’d be willing to bet your competitors get more mobile traffic. Right now, that’s not an issue, because mobile traffic in general, for the purposes of ecommerce in your niche, is extremely low. As mobile traffic in general rises, this will become a bigger issue and you’ll want to get a larger slice of that pie than your website is able to achieve for you.

    As far as hundreds of apps vs. websites go – you’re right. The occasional shopper may very well prefer your website to installing a one-off app. But the avid shopper wants an app. And at the end of the day, you want to satisfy both.

    And besides, we’re talking a lot about detailedimage.com, but if we shift the focus to LockerPulse (which is how your post started), this becomes about 100x more relevant, as it’s a service people are supposed to be using all day, not a few times a year. And it’s a service that would benefit tremendously from app-specific features (like push technology for news notifications).

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Yes, true, but as we discussed and as I mentioned in this post and the last post, LockerPulse does have some potential issues with the content providers. When you take away linking and the browser, you change the game. Let’s say the app becomes way more popular than our website – the link on the web passes them very little of our true link value. The incentive to let us use content falls apart and people get greedy about their content (and rightfully so). It’s already happening on the iPad and I think it’s taking the content-web in the wrong direction. We’re going from closed off to open, and back to walled off again.

      I’m not saying that a mobile app isn’t a good idea or even that this means there won’t be an app, but there are some serious things to think about before just doing anything beyond an app with a push alert that links to the website (or an app like the Google Reader one that simply is a link to the mobile web site). With the rate of stories we have coming in, push alerts, while attractive, probably would drive any normal person insane. In general I think LP is still too early off to tell exactly how people prefer to use it.

  9. Anthony says:

    Well, that point you threw in there about Google Reader is a great one. It goes back to the idea that people don’t understand and/or don’t want to bother with the browser. Google circumvents those frustrations by letting people launch Reader without needing to understand/mess with firing up the browser and getting to it.

    So, potentially, it’d be a great idea in the short-term to simply create a shortcut to the mobile LP site for common phone platforms. This would allow you to get listed in most app stores (which is a huge plus), and would make it even easier for avid users to point-and-check. And you’d still be able to retain the “website” status, which means no complaining on the part of the content publishers. This seems nice and simple, and is already a big step forward.

    Moving from there, push alerts are a big deal. Like you said, you could implement push alerts that send a user to a website. It wouldn’t piss anybody off since the content itself is still on the web, but from a user’s perspective, that’s a huge step ahead of having to open a browser and check manually (even if there is an auto-refresh).

    In reality, a large part of your value-add is in the notification aspect of the system, not just the aggregation. Your daily emails, for example, demonstrate your notification abilities, at which point you simply send the user to your webpage. You can accomplish the same thing on a user’s phone (only on a more regular basis), while leaving it up to the website to present the actual aggregation. It’s not important that your entire app is, well, an app. Just that it’s one click away, simple to use, and does things your website can’t, even if the website still comes into play in some capacity.

  10. Adam McFarland says:

    OK one more thought 🙂

    So I was listening to a podcast this morning with Jeff Jarvis where they were talking about net neutrality and the deal struck this month between Google and Verizon (his post called Internet, schminternet). Verizon + AT&T already are doing “tiered” plans for bandwidth, what happens if they also tier the services available to you. Does that slow/hinder/change the growth and future of the mobile web? Doesn’t necessarily tie into the browser, but it does tie in to potentially slowing widespread adoption of phones/apps replacing functions now done on the computer.

  11. Anthony says:

    Well, I believe it’s only ATT right now. Verizon is talking about it, but nothing is in stone.

    Anyway, I don’t think services would ever be tiered – at least not to the point where it matters. Giving QoS to a VoIP app vs a website, for example, is a good thing. It’s not malicious; it’s common sense. It helps make the end user’s experience better, at the end of the day.

    As far as data tiers go – I don’t think they will slow adoption. If anything, they will speed it up. *Most* consumers use less than 2GB of data per month. And only an extremely small fraction uses more (usually, extreme techheads and/or people who are abusing the system). So what the big phone companies are beginning to do is charge *less* for data to the masses, and *more* for data to the people who use it most. At the end of the day, this will only lead to a higher rate of mobile adoption – people who didn’t want to be paying $30/mo for data before may start jumping in at $15-20. And unless they “overuse” the service, they’ll basically have no concept of this tier/cap anyway.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Right now most people use less than the 2GB of data, but what about when everyone wants to video chat? Do conference calls? Play multi-player games? To me, those types of things are slowed. I mean, if the iPhone 4 was allowed to make video calls on the AT&T network we’d see more video calls. As it stands, people can only do it on wifi and therefore it’s not practical and it slows the adoption.

  12. Anthony says:

    Right, but the point is they can’t. The fact is simply that the 3G networks are too bogged down to handle that much data, regardless of how much they charge for it. That won’t change for at least a few years – until 4G becomes standard across networks and devices. By then, they may reassess this whole data tier structure anyway.

    So what you’re doing is comparing apples and oranges.

    If video chat, conf calls, etc, aren’t possible for the next few years regardless, then the only thing changing here is the price point of the data package. And by lowering that price point, adoption will trend up. People aren’t going to suddenly start dropping their service because they can’t do something they’ve never been able to do in the first place.

    And once 4G does become standard, and the data tier limits go up or disappear altogether, you can bet adoption will *continue* to trend up. This isn’t a hiccup in adoption; it’s a planned stepping stone. Right now, price point will drive adoption. In 2-5 years, new features only possible with 4G will continue that trend.

  13. Tim says:

    I thought about what I posted yesterday and think that apps do stand a viable chance. I overlooked some of the apps that I was using and think that when done properly a specific purpose app can be helpful, simple and efficient. As much as people don’t care about efficiency they do care about battery life and by having a number of inefficient apps on a mobile device running continually and you are guaranteed poor battery life. I don’t think apps are going to take the place of conventional websites overnight but with an evenings thinking I give them a lot more credit than I did yesterday.

  14. Rob says:

    Very interesting discussion. To me it seems parallel to the whole convergence/single function devices vs multifunction device type things. At what point do you have so many apps you might as well just have bookmarks in your browser? What’s stopping you having a web app that runs in browser performing the same duties as an app? Current tech? Right now there’s a lot of interests in Apps and it’s a growing market, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will continue, just as many single-function devices are dying out (eg. compact digital cameras because of cameraphones) and only the exceptionally good things that can’t so easily be replaced (eg. professional SLR digital cameras) will continue as single function devices.

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