Skip to main content
 

The stagnant browser

Remember before web browsers had tabs?

A lesser-known browser called SimulBrowse was the first one to do it, although Opera subsequently popularized the idea: you could keep a whole set of websites open at once, so you could keep them up in parallel and multitask from one to the other. Before then, you needed to have multiple windows open, and most people confined themselves to the browser as a single porthole onto the web.

Once tabs became mainstream, they changed the way people surfed. I still clean my tabs out every day, but some people keep hundreds of the things running, as if this somehow makes them more organized. On average, desktop web browsers have around 10-20 tabs open; mobile browsers, which encourage you to keep them lingering in the background, have more.

Tabs were introduced in the nineties. Although the iPhone has since changed where we browse from, there haven't really been many changes to the browsing paradigm itself since then. Whether it's on a four inch window in your hand or on a twenty inch window in your office, we're all still browsing through the same tabbed porthole with the same rough request-result interaction model.

Websites themselves have changed a great deal since the nineties. I remember when colored backgrounds became possible; these days websites are more often interactive and frequently-updated than not, with layers of data and personalization that we could barely have dreamed of. The web of today is an entirely different medium. Browser vendors have adjusted their security models in response, but not their interaction models.

It's fun to think about what a reinvented browser would look like. It would be centered on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, of course: the building blocks of the web. But I suspect its temporal model in particular would be different. Rather than request-response, you might be able to aggregate updates from frequently-updated sites, and see a unified timeline that incorporated information from every website you had an account on. You also might be able to do more than read: the browser itself could have verbs like "reply" and "like" built right into it, in the same way you can bookmark a page today.

We've spent a lot of energy thinking about decentralized social networks and platforms, but I have to wonder if we've been concentrating on the wrong part of the stack. What if the browser was the aggregator? What if it was an active participant on the application web on our behalf? What if we didn't need to build all these complicated protocols for decentralization if the browser could keep track of all of our data, accounts, and updates for us, on-device?

A new generation of browsers, led by Brave, are beginning to head in that direction. In particular, Brave incorporates elements of web3 - the decentralized, blockchain-reliant web. But it's worth noticing that it (like Puma Browser, for example) focuses on ad-free privacy rather than interactivity. Privacy is an important human right that is worth protecting, but much more is possible.

A browser can keep track of everything we're interacting with on the web, while deriving insights from our browsing habits and keeping track of what we're interested in on-device. It can tell us when webpages we use update and present us with that content (including public sites like blogs and auth-protected sites like newspapers and communities, or our Facebook and Twitter feeds). It can remind us to perform certain frequent actions. And with the understanding that the web has turned from a publishing medium into a global conversation, it can help us to reach out to the people behind decentralized web pages and have better conversations.

Browsers have evolved before. Remember before they had tabs? They can, and should, evolve again.