Do we need a web browser?

17 06 2009

There have been a lot of discussions I have seen floating around on Twitter etc with regards to HTML 5, and will it kill Flash and Silverlight. To be honest, there is no way this can happen, simply because both Flash and Silverlight do not rely on a third party to make them work. In addition neither has to conform to a generic standard which can hinder their functionality. Both have product roadmaps and both move forward at a rate that such a generic implementation could never hope to achieve. This means, the user experience will always be (potentially) better, and that’s the main aim.

However, both Flash and Silverlight based web experiences do rely on a browser. A browser has to be used by the end user to locate the web site, and then for the Silverlight / Flash plug-in to be executed. After that, the browser is pretty much redundant…

In the beginning

In the beginning of the Internet, a browser was simply used to locate, access and display basic documents, that were formatted in a particular way in which the browser would understand. (I know, I am making this very simple, but I want everyone to see where I am going with today’s post). This allowed people to access these documents that were stored somewhere and read them. If you think of a browser as Microsoft Word for example, and the HTML as the actual document, you start to see where I am coming from…

Browser wars…

Jumping forward, and into the web as it was a few years ago (before social media, videos etc),  the browser started to become an integral way of accessing content on the internet. Using HTML format for the documents, the browser allowed users to use an address to find that content, then interact with it (move around the website etc). Now this is all fine, if you have one browser, or a set of hard and fast rule of standards that everyone conforms too. But we don’t, in practice that is…

There are many browsers out there, which essentially have the primary of displaying HTML content to you, the user. However, as users we want more. We want to have options to store favourites, access feeds, personalise my browser etc etc. We also want websites to do “things”. We don’t want to just read content. So what we end up with is companies fighting for us to use their browser, which in turn turns into a bit of a nightmare for web developers as their supposed standardised HTML gets displayed differently in different browsers. Worse than this, some functions just simply don’t work in some browsers…

Does browser wars actually help end users?

Old way of thinking…

For me the web has moved on. We are already saying goodbye to web 2.0, and some smart person will term web 3.0 before long (which will actually mean nothing different to web 2.0 or even web 1.0…) my point is, the web hasn’t changed its implementation, only we as users have changed the way we use the web and what we expect from the web.

The concept of using a third party application to access content on the web is old. I don’t like it at all. I also think that using HTML or any standardised format to deliver applications is plainly wrong. As a developer you are always being “shoe horned” into a way of thinking and working which hinders the application look, feel, interaction, and therefore detracts from your users experience.

Internet websites are no longer formatted pages of information; many now act as applications and with Flash and Silverlight, deliver highly rich, interactive user experiences. With such websites, the browser is simply used to find the RIA (rich internet application) and start it. The application isn’t run by the browser at all. So do we need a browser for this?

HTML 5 is supposed to deliver the ability to show video for example. However, the same issues will still apply between browsers and websites; they will just now be even more complicated.

A new way of using the web

In my own mind, HTML should remain as it is today, however, with standards (especially regarding CSS) tightened. HTML is fine at delivering content, that’s after all what it was designed for. However, delivering complete websites, rich user experiences should be left to bespoke software, such as Flash and Silverlight. This form of distributed computing power helps the end user, and enriches their experience. I see no place for a browser on my machine, and would rather see the ability to browse the web as part of the underlying operating system.

Websites can then be developed in whatever technology they require, such as Silverlight or Flash. These technologies then display the website / application as they should. The web is used to provide access and download the application / content, no need for a browser…

I hear some of you crying at this point “how will a search engine pick up the content”, which is a good point. However, search engines must adapt. Why can they not interact with Flash and Silverlight? With the latter, the content essentially is stored as xml, so it’s not a massive leap. Also, what’s stopping search engines from picking up on tags that describe the content fully, still within the hosting HTML?

HTML shouldn’t be seen as just something a browser understands, rather a format the operating system itself understands. Once this happens, and we use the web to distribute applications and information in this fashion, many of the headaches of the web will be removed, and we can truly open up the potential of distributed and mobile applications / rich experiences…Silverlight 3.0 already delivers an out of browser experience, so are we far away from this ideal?

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3 responses

17 06 2009
Chris Duffy

Some very interesting points, I was very sceptical at the beginning. By the time I got to the end I was thinking of the possibilities. But I still get this nagging feeling that it will be a while before the rest of the world catches up, in the meantime we will all be stuck providing for everybody, ie IE, Opera, Firefox, Chrome. As well as this there are people running older operating systems and machines that just don’t have the speed of today’s machines, watch a recent Flash movie on an old machine and watch the frame rate drop……

Great thinking but maybe to idealistic for the sorry state the web is in today, lets hope it becomes a reality because the sooner it starts the sooner things can get in order.

14 03 2012
Andrew Smith @onedegree

Things are changing, and if you use IE 10 in Windows 8 Metro you will see that the browser experience has changed greatly. In many ways it feels like you are not in a browser at all, websites become immersive and full screen. I like this…

I would also argue that many functions we currently perform on the web (such as shopping etc) will be replaced by “Apps” on our Windows 8 machines or Apple based machines. Apps deliver greater flexibility and much improved user experiences. In the future, our use of browsers will become less and less, even though we are using the web for so much more….

14 03 2012
Andrew Smith @onedegree

Final note, that the Flash Silverlight comments in this blog are now pretty out of date, however the architecture and concept is essentially that of “Apps”.

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