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.