Future Browsers

Written for Spider Magazine March 2006 issue, the following is speculation on what the future browsers might offer. Also available directly through the Spider website

Future of Web Browsers

Microsoft’s 300-billion-dollar empire was built primarily through Windows and Office. Its online division MSN lost money during the initial seven years till it finally managed to break the jinx in 2004. It was the same year Google went public and Wall Street found its mojo after sustaining a battering at the hands of the dot-com bubble in 2001. This was also around the time Mozilla Firefox made its debut, threatening Internet Explorer’s (IE) dominance for the first time since the demise of Netscape. All these events coupled with resilient investors standing behind this growth proved to be a catalyst for innovation on the Web, eventually resulting in a series of start-ups and acquisitions.

The Web development community contributed to the growth of the IT sector by fighting for a standard implementation across all browsers — an ongoing struggle that has levelled the playing field for all browsers to a large extent. This growth spiked up with the adoption of AJAX, nearly overnight. AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) technology put the Web on steroids and Web applications became highly responsive. GMail became the first commercial service to harness this technology and to offer a lightning quick e-mail service. This new direction in Web applications marked the birth of Web 2.0 and suddenly users were expecting a lot more from the Web than vanilla webpages. There is plenty of room to grow and this era only marks the beginning.

Looking at e-mail applications on the Web, they have evolved sufficiently to do away with the need to adhere to desktop e-mail clients such as Microsoft Outlook. The average netizen can enjoy more mobility by using a Web-based e-mail service from any computer without having to worry about backups, spam filtering or viruses in the mail. This trend is likely to persist into other domains and it won’t be long before applications like Microsoft Word end up migrating to the Web or competing with Web-based counterparts.

Currently there are quite a few limitations preventing this, one of them being the User Interface (UI) robustness. Consider the simple example of a File menu found in almost all Windows applications. The File menu is a standardised control and therefore navigation is highly responsive. Compare this to Web applications and it becomes very obvious that very few Web applications have such dynamic menus (and for sound technical reasons). The next generation browsers (and future Web standards) will likely expand the set of available controls beyond simple buttons and drop down lists found on today’s browsers. Moreover, since these UIs will be a part of browser library or extensions, they will not have to be downloaded each time from every page and they will not have to be run through the rendering engine. Instead they will run natively (at the Operating System level just like the browser itself or even dropdown menus which are part of the browser’s core) which will ensure the interface is much faster.

Then there are online multimedia integration issues. Currently, sending a voice clip over e-mail entails recording it on the desktop, saving it and then uploading it as an attachment to an e-mail. The same goes for graphics and animation files. Future browsers will likely have integrated controls (and not the slow clunky Java kind) to allow for at least these two aspects (voice and graphics) to be seamlessly integrated in a way that a voice clip can be directly streamed as part of an e-mail attachment, which also displays your personal signature at the message. Basic as they may seem, these two features alone are quite powerful as they enhance communication considerably. For example, they would make chatting through the browser a lot richer, eliminating any need for Instant Messaging clients.

Another cool feature of future browsers would be drag-n-drop capabilities. Users wishing to send pictures through Hotmail could simply drag it from their desktop and on to the browser window and that would be all there is to it. Though this may seem a bit far-fetched, future browsers could feature controls that would allow files to be dragged across different browser windows in such a way that users could drag a file from their online music repository and over to a browser window displaying their personal blog and then post a blog entry, which would include the song as the background music.

Future browsers will ultimately blur the line between Web and desktop applications, thus combining the best of both worlds. This would translate into not just sophisticated Web applications running in browsers, but browsers running desktop applications. In fact, Microsoft made similar investments in mid 1995 in Active Desktop. Although the project was abandoned, the back and forward buttons in the Windows explorer folder stayed on as reminders of that endeavour. (The buttons were originally part of the IE shell integrated into Windows but stayed back for folder navigation even after the shell was abandoned to a great degree). Having browsers integrated into desktop applications would mean that the Windows Start menu for example could be a Web-based control and change themes or a new quote everyday based on some website. The Windows calculator could calculate currency conversions based on real time currency exchange rates through a browser control. The latter though a bit sneaky, is already possible through Web services and internet applications and has nothing to do with browsers. But what if the calculator were actually a Web application running in a small Web window by itself just like pop-up windows but without any of the browser’s borders, toolbars, address bar or other buttons? Well then that would truly be a Web application disguised as a desktop application with the added advantage that if any updates are required, they would happen seamlessly because a fresh version could be loaded off the Web on the next run.

There are other critical and more technical directions required to rev up the browser engines. One of these will hopefully be intelligent caching and pre-fetching webpages. Instead of loading a website and browsing through its pages one by one, future browsers will intelligently download all pages based on the user’s browsing tendencies and preferences. What this basically implies is that users will not have to wait for each page to download and the experience will be instantaneous. For instance a surfer reading the business section of a news website would be an ideal candidate for pre-fetching.

Finally, virtuality imitates reality. When consumers go to the grocery store and run into friends and acquaintances, it gives a social dimension to the shopping experience. Online, the browser represents the user and speaks for the user. Given this paradigm, if a user is shopping online and an acquaintance happens to be shopping at that particular website as well, the browser will inform the user about it. Now the website could also accomplish this by letting the user know if any other acquaintances are also visiting the same website but leaving it up to the website is not a great idea. MSN Autos may not know that a user’s social network is established on Yahoo! Groups but a browser can poll the Yahoo! Groups Web service asynchronously (in parallel) and inquire if any friends are on MSN Autos at the time and link them together.

Other interesting features browsers will likely add on will be to allow users to keep track of all sorts of interesting data and summarise it, thus facilitating self evaluation and learning. The browser is the only application that knows exactly which sites were visited throughout the day, how often and for how long and at the end of a day, month or year can let the user know that they read 80 per cent of the investment articles on a particular news website and spent 1.6 minutes on average per article which is a 10 per cent gain compared to last month and so on. If a user realises he looked up 220 words in the past year and 430 the year before while reading roughly the same number articles each year, he might be able to deduce his vocabulary is improving since the number of dictionary lookups has gone down.

There are no guarantees where the Web will lead us and there are many directions to pursue not only in terms of browser features but across different mediums (browsers for phones, PDAs have different needs), platforms (Windows and Apple have different desktop interfaces; Linux does not have one) and vendors (Mozilla, Safari, IE will try to differentiate on their own attractive features). Hopefully the power of the Web will cause some convergence and competition will drive innovation. And with a few more imaginative minds and dedicated developers and Wall Street putting faith and money in IPO’s, the Web will continue to push the envelope.