R.I.P. Browsers? No way!

Tara Hunt's headline R.I.P. Browsers was accompanied with the hauntingly matching graphic on the left.

browser cemetaryTara Hunt's headline R.I.P. Browsers was accompanied with the hauntingly matching graphic on the left. What led Tara to declare the death of browsers - particularly as her partner Chris Messina until very recently was helping to make a next-generation browser called Flock?! Is that why he left Flock, because he was building a product for a market that will soon cease to exist? Well I have met both Tara and Chris in person (actually we are both doing consulting work for Broadband Mechanics, which is how we met), so I know they're lovely people. But I don't agree with them on this one, so let me try and tell you why I think browsers are not dead.

Tara starts off by making some great points to back up her contention that browsers are (or soon will be?) dead. She says that browsers are constraining for designers (true), browsers drain a lot of virtual memory (given my browser is right at this point in time consuming 178 MB, also true...), browsers crash (actually, my desktop apps seem to crash more...), ... and that's about when she loses me. I have to disagree with the following points:

Tara: "We have to type in addresses to get to applications. Websites run applications. But instead of just clicking naturally, we type in an address, then fill in login information, then click."

Me: well yes, but we also have to open up a desktop app - and then sometimes "clicking naturally" is not as usable as it could be. On the Web, there are usability and other standards that help to ensure a consistent experience across sites.

Tara: "All of our information is stored in the ether. If we want to store it on our own machines, we have to take an extra step. Shouldn't it be the other way around?"

Me: What's wrong with storing data The browser is - and will remain for some time - the common platform for Net connected apps in the ether? As the Internet becomes more and more cross-device, storing data in the cloud becomes a much easier way to maintain it. Granted there are methods of achieving data synch with desktop apps too, but my point is that there is nothing inherently wrong with storing data in the ether (as long as the security is sufficient and backup procedures are in place).

Tara: "And speaking of information in the ether. Wouldn't it be good to work offline whenever we wanted to and have it update when we are re-connected?"

Me: I certainly agree that data synching between offline and online is an increasingly important feature in Internet-enabled devices and apps. But my one push-back here is that we're increasingly in an 'always-on' Internet-connected world. From X-boxes to mobile phones to broadband TV to PCs to the cliched fridge of the future - it'll all be connected to the Net.

Tara: "There is this whole having to design for browser compatibility thing that would be done with - just design for OS compatibility."

Me: Hmmm, wait till the Linux fans hear that! OK yes, browser incompatibility is an ongoing issue for Web designers - I've experienced that just recently with my other blog's re-design. But really, will OS compatibility issues be any better - particularly with hundreds of different devices using different OS's?

Tara: "Just think! No more stupid search! Search is sooo broken. I want find. There has to be something smarter..."

Me: But we'll still need search on our desktops...

In summary I think Tara makes some great points. But I don't think we should throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just because the browser has some faults, doesn't mean we should overlook its number one compelling feature - it is as close as we have to a genuinely ubiquitous platform for web applications. Millions of people have a web browser installed on their computers, which means there is zero install required for most web apps that run on the browser (some web apps require a java install or some such, but that's relatively rare). If you're running a desktop app, you need to install it. And let's not forget the usability and web standards that browsers promote (nobody mention IE6!).

I do however agree with this statement by Tara: 

"There are more and more perfectly good desktop apps that should just be made networkable (connectable, viewable and sharable) virtually instead of moving the apps into a browser base."

That's true, making desktop apps network and synch with one another is a great idea - and it's happening more and more. With Microsoft Vista, that type of functionality will probably increase dramatically. But what about the thousands of other websites and web apps - like Amazon, eBay, Flickr, etc. If there are no browsers, will we have to download a separate app for each of those?

And if someone suggests there will be desktop apps available that can host multiple apps, then I'll tell you we already have one of those - it's called the browser.

But I don't want to appear dogmatic about it... fellow ZDNet blogger Ryan Stewart pops up in Tara's comments section to say:

"Adobe's Flex, Microsoft's WPF, and OpenLaszlo enable the Rich Internet Application right now that is slowly eroding the browser. Once people realize there is a better alternative to Ajax, they'll embrace it."

In pure technology terms, I agree with Ryan and Tara that the browser is out-moded by these "Rich Internet Application" tools. But once again I come back to the fact that the browser is our 'lowest common denominator', although I'd prefer to say it some other way (in order to maintain my noble 'defender of the Web' stance).

But that's what it boils down to - in 2006 and (I'd argue) for the forseeable future the Web browser is the common platform for Internet-connected applications. Once the likes of Amazon, eBay, Yahoo and Google start running their apps on Flash or OpenLaszlo - well then I'll believe that browsers are really dead!


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