Ladies and gentlemen, a moment of silence please. It is time for us to start preparing for a death: the death of the web browser.
It has served us well as a construct and central means of finding and absorbing online content for 15 years, and yes it has sentimental value and much has been invested in it. It is the Swiss Army knife of applications, having grown from a simple, streamlined single-blade knife to a do-everything, all-singing, all-dancing affair. In this sense it is much like the traditional PC itself, which has stubbornly soldiered on as an all-purpose machine even though there are many things that dedicated devices would be much better for (which is why we are so much flurry of innovation in the smaller form factors of smartphones, tablets, netbooks, and the like).
The PC is not going away anytime soon, and I’m being purposefully hyperbolic in suggesting that the browser will disappear completely. But the fact is that it is going to decrease in importance as the role of web content gets embedded into all manner of other applications, widgets, gadgets, mobile devices, cars, environments, ambient devices, surfaces, and clothing. Often we do not even know we are using the web, so transparent is the interaction.
[I should caveat here for the technically minded that I’m using the term “web” in a layman’s way, where web and internet are indistinguishable. From an end user perspective it’s just “stuff” I get from “out there” that shows up on a screen, I don’t care about the mechanics of how it arrived.]
Being Ahead of the Curve
Soon after the launch of Mosaic, the very first web browser, Oracle posited the Network Computer, and Sun Microsystems introduced Sun Ray. Both were thin client computers that presaged the notion of cloud computing. In an excellent recent article in Wired, Daniel Roth writes:
“[Oracle] imagined a simple machine that would eschew software installed on a hard drive in favor of accessing applications online. Data — videos, documents, pictures — would be stored in Oracle databases instead of on the computer itself. In place of a robust operating system, this machine would work with programs and files through browsers like Netscape Navigator… The device would be called the network computer.”
The Network Computer failed and the Sun Ray gained only niche appeal. One challenge they shared was that they tried to take the Wintel PC head on, which was an admirably disruptive idea but one doomed to failure. With that said, the NC and the Sun Ray were not inherently bad ideas. They were too far ahead of several key enablers:
– The web being embedded into our lives every minute of every day
– Ubiquitous broadband bandwidth
– Comfort with the mental model of data living remotely (i.e. in the cloud)
Today all these factors are more or less present, and in essence we are seeing a dramatic shift toward web-based content and away from a monolithic approach to getting at it.
The notion of “web surfing” seems like a quaint anachronism in the same way that the old “Under Construction” animated road-worker GIFs do. In the surfing mental model I went on the web in order to go on the web. In today’s mindset, the only thing that matters is what I get out of it. Whether this is through an overt browser or not, and whether I’m even aware that I’m “going online” is completely immaterial. We need to liberate “the web” from “the web browser”.
When the Web Meets the Object
The browser is essentially a frame for the content. As web access gets embedded into more and more physical objects – whether they be handheld products, kitchen appliances, retail environments, or car dashboards – the browser becomes an interstitial interference rather an enabler. The object itself takes over the presentation and control, whether with physical, touch, gesture, voice or some other type of control method.
With the disappearance of the browser comes the attenuation of the notion of being “online”. Today and even more so in the future, one will never be offline, so why bother to announce when you are online?
If devices take on a significant role in being a conduit for web content, as they are starting to do already, does this mean they simply get turned into glossy black blank slates whose sole purpose is to become a new picture frame for the content? The prevalence of people wrapping their sexy, thin iPhones in less attractive, thick rubber skins perhaps indicates that they really don’t care about the physical artifact, only about the content floating beneath the glass.
This is the next realm for product design – revitalizing the importance of objects as objects so that they do not simply become bland containers for content, like disembodied aliens in an episode of Star Trek who exist purely as thought. Objects still matter – in fact I would argue that they matter even more in a world of nebulous ecosystems of content and services. But we are still coming to grips with what it means to design objects whose primary purpose is replace the old fashioned browser.