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?

Advertisements




A worrying trend in IT

15 04 2009

You don’t have to look too hard on the internet to find businesses giving away solutions and services. I can’t think of any other industry where businesses actively choose to make a loss. For me, I find it hard to comprehend that individuals would offer their services for nothing, but when businesses start doing it, I fear for the IT industry as a whole…

Why offer software and services for free?

Well it seems to me to have all started with Search Engines. Obviously you can’t have people paying to use a search engine, however, how does a company that provides a highly valued service, do so for free, and bare the implementation costs? What business argument is there behind that?

Well the only argument is that of users. The more users you have using your service / software the more “value” it must have. Now turning that “value” into actual cash, proves to be a sticky area.

Money options?

So how does a company with millions of users, such as Google or Facebook actually turn these users into some form of cash flow?

Well, in the case of Google, Advertisements is the way forward. Advertisers pay to have a potential audience the size of that provided by Google. In addition, the actual advertisement cost is so small compared to that of TV, Radio or News papers. For companies and Google, this is a great arrangement, which is only possible because of the number of users Google receives.

Now this currently works well for Google, however is it the silver bullet for all? Probably not. It is hard to place a value on advertisements, and it’s even harder to place a value on an advert placed within another website, such as Facebook or Twitter.

Worrying trends

In the fight for users, companies are starting to provide software solutions for free. Cloud Computing services and access to free web based applications mean users are now questioning why they would pay for something, when they could get it for free. This undervalues so many solutions and services provided by IT companies, bringing such organisations under increasing pressure.

With the current economic trend, many small organisations are offering services at such vastly reduced rates that there is no way they can actually make a profit. Worryingly some IT developers and organisations feel this is the only way in which to win work.

Beware…

While the “users” model works for the likes of Google, the chances of it working for even big players, such as Facebook and Twitter are still uncertain. The main issue is, and will always be, that your business model is very volatile and relies on confidence of you keeping your market share of users. If you start to lose users, you will find your business will unravel far quicker than those businesses built on a more traditional model.

Not only is the quest for “users” highly risky, it is also damaging to the IT industry as a whole. With services and software being offered for nothing, just to get users to a site, it makes it increasingly harder for small IT businesses to actually deliver and sell their products. This in the end, can only lead to a “slow” down in creativity and worryingly a reduction in product / service competition.

Be true to yourself…

If you build and deliver software solutions, always charge correctly. Don’t get caught up into trying to win endless users to then fuel a business model that is potentially highly volatile, and flawed.

If you are an end user / consumer, remember if something is free there will be a catch. You only get what you pay for in life, and this is still true of the internet and web based applications. Ask yourself, just why are they offering this for free?