Browsers, the future thereof

Doug Engelbart

When I first realized the web as a medium — like artists found clay — I was someone who built websites. I grew up an artist, dabbling with pastels, sculpture, painting; I took lessons in all the classics. Back when I started out on the web, well, I threw my paint against the wall, watched it dry differently; tried watercolor and salt; mixed in color pencil. I created on someone else’s canvas, beholden to the whims of the Internet Explorers and Netscapes.

It wasn’t until I grew frustrated trying to create a publishing and composition tool for regular folks in CivicSpace that I realized that it wasn’t that the brushes or paint that I was using that were flawed — but that the canvas itself could be streched so much further. And so when the opportunity arose to go work on and set the direction of Flock, I jumped at the chance. The thought that I could take a number of the ideas on content creation that I’d been trying to implement in regular webpages into the browser itself was too irresistible to pass up.

And that’s how it started for me — working first on the side of web content developers — and then on the side of the actual rendering context and application. I doubt that I was qualified to work on either, but that’s besides the point, since that’s where I found myself (and artists worth their weight are hardly what I would call experts).

So now, a few months out after leaving Flock, a few heady announcements about microformats, a new Firefox Beta to toy with, a number of webkit-based apps to ponder over and an emerging identity standard coming to the fore, I’m starting to see the future materialize in front of me. From where I sit though, there is a lack of clarity as to what it’s all about, what’s really going on and what’s missing in between to glue it all together and — perhaps most importantly — a sense for what we can learn by focusing on the negative space of our current situation.

I’ve been reading about Doug Engelbart lately and the stuff he was doing in the 60s with his Augment system. He’s now collaborating with my buddy Brad Neuberg on a system he calls “Hyperscope”. I can’t help but see disjoint parallels between his ideas and what’s emerging today. Simply put, there is no grand theory or unifying concept that will bring it all together, just as there’s no single design for a tree — in fact, it takes many to make a forest, and we’re only now beginning to see the emergence of the forest in spite of the individual trees that seem oh-so-important.

And we don’t even have the benefit of LSD. Man, how are we to escape what we already know to imagine what’s possible? Oh well.

Anyway, lemme get down to brass tacks, coz I can tell you’re getting bored already. I almost am, striking out at some kind of point out of this rambling.

When I was at Web 2.0™ (I think) I mentioned to Jason Fried — as I’ve done to others since — my desire to have a webwide conversation about what the future of web browsers should look like. This was the work that I thought I’d started at Flock, but the reality is that they’re a business and not an academic institution and need to pay their employees (a harsh reality that I’m now realizing owning my own company and having a payroll). I left because of this — and maybe for other personal reasons — but primarily because my vision for the future wasn’t exactly compatible with where they needed to go in the short term. Hey, bills, remember?

Anyway, let me put it out there: I don’t get where Firefox is going. I don’t think it’s going anywhere actually. I think it’s strong, it’s stable, it’s a great platform. But it’s not innovative. It’s not Quicksilver. It was a response to IE and now IE7 will come out, co-opt everything that makes Firefox great or interesting and we’ll run through another coupla years of stagnation. Blah.

There is a solution though — you’d be surprised maybe, but you can find it in Safari and I’m dead serious about this. The number of webkit-based apps being released is growing by the week. Pyro, Gcal, Webmail, Hiker (thanks Josh!). There was talk about the future of the merged Internet-desktop as, quite clearly, this is where we’re going — but the choice of user agent is sadly coming down to facility over featureset or robustness. Why isn’t this happening with XUL Runner or Firefox (you figure it out)?

At Flock, this is where I saw things going. I didn’t see Flock as a monolithic package of integrated apps like Netscape or Office — bundled up with unmaintainable software sprawl… but with a solid underlying platform that these secondary apps could be built upon (yeah, Lucene, yeah, Microformats, yeah IM, yeah video and audio and all the rest). Speaking RSS, microformats, Atom and other syndicated content natively, you’d be able to universally star anything for later sharing… you’d be able to upload anything… be able to have any AJAX’d experience offline with a super-cache that could handle the sporadic network connectivity that most of the world puts up with (or that we put up with when we travel). And hell, with OpenID, we’ve even got a way to sync it all up together. Toss in a platform that is built on and around people people people and you’ve got something to really take us forward into the next evolution of Things As We Know Them™.

I wanted Firefox to be my Chariot, Flock to be my Sun.

Such as it is with Open Source, trying to inspire end-user interface innovation is often a losing battle.

(As an aside in parentheses, I think this is biological; I met Tara’s 2-year-old niece this weekend and she mimicked everything we did; thus it’s developmental and inherent — yet the problem remains: how do we bring the majority of user interface innovation to the open source space?)

So anyway — Safari; webkit apps… the future.

For the benefit of everyone involved, whether Mozilla, Flock, Microsoft, Opera, and so on implements any of this stuff… there needs to be some major advancements made in browser technology, both for normal humans and for web… um… painters. This stuff, seriously, is still way too opaque, and way too obscure for most humans for whom “delicious” still means “tastes good”. I want to have that web-wide conversation about the future of the web but somehow, my instincts tell me that the venue to have that conversation isn’t going to be on the web… it’s going to be in barber shops and gas stations and restaurants and the places where normal people really hang out.

If we’re ever going to bear witness to the promise of Doug Engelbart’s achievable vision, it has to be this way. And, to paraphrase walkway wisdom: nothing worth doing is easy. And so I challenge you — those who give a shit — look at what’s out there — and more importantly — what’s not out there — and begin to think seriously on what comes next… on what’s missing… on where this medium needs to be stretched in order to make the most of what’s possible.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

8 thoughts on “Browsers, the future thereof”

  1. Amen! I precisely share these thoughts on the subject with you.
    What a deception in installing firefox 2.0! Ten minutes later, back to the Safari / Omniweb(5.5beta) combo and other webkit goodies (pyro…).

  2. First, I’d like to say that I’ve been reading your blog from the shadows for awhile and I admire what you and Tara are doing in the Community Space. I also dind your thoughts and insights really refreshing, so please keep up the good work.

    Now, the reason that I’m writing today is because I too have been thinking about where the future of browsers is headed. I’m a Front-End Web developer, so to say the least I have a vested interest in what the future holds for the various browsers.

    I like Safari. I think it’s interface is clean and usable…the only thing holding it back is its JavaScript support. Admittedly, the WebKit team is doing a great job of advancing things on that endeavor, but since Apple only releases upodates to Safari whenever there’s a new (major) update to OS X, Apple users by and large won’t get to see how far the te4am is taking WebKit. Very sad. I also wish that the developers consider releasing a cross-platform version of Safari… I think the millions of Windows users out there would enjoy using a browser like Safari, but we know that Apple isn’t going to do that.

    Camino is my day to day browser. It’s Gecko wrapped in Cocoa goowey-ness. I love it! No extensions, a pleasant UI, it’s light, no memory leakage, sites render beautifully…it’s everything that I wish Safari was.

    I like Flock. I love the Flickr intergration, the Blog tools, I love the look, the icon is the sexiest one that I have ever laid eyes on……but I can’t use it. I mean I do use it…it functions as my Web Control Panel. Using the ‘pipe’ method Gcal, Gmail, Backpackit, Google Analytics, W3Counter and Google Space (flock extension) share one common window. But I can’t use it to do my everyday browsing. Why? The way the developers changed the way users handle bookmarks is atrocious. I have god knows how many bookmarks. I keep them all in a Hierarchal scheme that let’s me know where everything is. I am comfortable with this system, it works for me. In fact, I think bookmarks on the whole is one of the few “Web 1.0” things that is still viable and functional. When I imported my bookmarks into Flock, my nice beautiful system broke because the developers felt they came up with a new way of handling bookmarks that was better. Yeah, that’s cool if you only have a few bookmarks or maybe you keep all of yours on delicious. But what about the milions upon millions who don’t use delicious? I don’t mind trying to innovate, but give me the option of rolling back to what’s familliar to me if I so choose. This, I think, has been Flock’s only flaw. In all other regards, Flock as a browser smashes Firefox.

    Of course, there’s no need to talk about Firefox because your analysis was spot on. If Mozilla doesn’t figure things out soon, that 15-20% that they enjoy now will be gone and replaced before you know it.

    I’d also like to say, don’t forget about Opera. It’s lived most of it’s life as the Black Sheep of internet browsers, but the developers of late have really been working hard to change all of that. Its’ look still leaves much to be desired, but under the hood, and the rich feature set that it comes with, is pretty impressive. Native Bit-Torrent intergration (how come Flock didn’t think of that?), widgets that run inside the browser, thorough customization and it has a pretty secure kiosk mode that allows Sys-Admins to deploy it in public computing lounges and educational institutions….I know because I rolled it out in the labs at the University where I work. Trust me I looked at all of the browsers available for our Macintosh based labs and none of them offered the security and feature set that Opera did. Give it a try, you might like it.

    In the end, I’m exicted about what the future holds as far the Web is concerned. I just wish that I didn’t have to use five different browsers to experience it.

  3. Very well said! I had the good fortune of talking with Alvy Ray Smith on the 4th of July and he expressed much of this same sentiment. Artists convey complex concepts in innovative ways while engineers focus more on innovative ways to simply get something to work. Getting better communication between people with different ways of thinking about browsers and the web is a fundamental step in making that necessary synergy actually do something. I see this happening right now with more collaborative approaches to innovation occuring in more physical spaces like the soon to be opened d school at Stanford and the worldwide explosion of BarCamp. We also need to be better at watching the frustration of our parents and young children and every recipient of the $100 laptop project and realize we don’t need to change their understanding of the technology, we need to change the technology.

  4. Bear with me, because I’m going to sound like an old fart for a second.

    I remember sitting in a college computer room in 1992 on a text terminal getting the weather in strange cities via Gopher, and thinking, “Man, this internet is going to change everything.” I had no idea what it was going to do, but I knew that playing Jeopardy in IRC with strangers all over the world was incredibly addictive.

    A handful of years later, the internet swept through barbershops like you mentioned, and it revolutionized businesses, advertising, HR, all kinds of things. It took a few years, but it happened. Along the way, companies paved the way. Some rose, most fell, and Netscape keeps coming to mind.

    This year, I remember seeing the Flocktails extension, looking at the Flock “about” page and seeing all the microformat contacts, and thinking, “Man, these microformats are going to change everything.” I don’t know what it’s going to impact, but you’re right, it will be huge.

    Getting microformats into barbershops is going to be another few years, but it’ll happen. Flock will be the next Netscape, because they’ll get the early adopters to push microformats. All it takes is a few smart apps like HR hiring sites using microformat resumes, and bam, it’s going to take off. I’m not in a position to push microformats in any meaningful way in my company, because we don’t have a use for them yet, but I’m itching to find a way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: