Browsers in existential crisis

Firefox is closing in on 200 million downloads, but this otherwise impressive feat will be for naught if it can’t make the leap into the next-generation Web.

Fact is, the browser is dying. Not in the quick way that a Star Trek red shirt would vanish, but in the slow and long-lived agony of a bad Shakespeare in the park Romeo.

But don’t shed any tears for our soon-to-be dearly departed browsers — not just Firefox, but Opera, Safari and Internet Explorer as well — because it’s a broken metaphor for accessing content and software over the Internet anyway.

A year ago here, I marvelled at the 50 million downloads achieved by the open-source Firefox. But I questioned how far it could go in truly reviving the browser battle, long since lost by its Netscape parentage to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

For all the fanfare over Firefox’s success, however, it turns out that the Firefox counter watchers — me included — missed the elephant in the room. The way content and functionality are distributed, repurposed and accessed is undergoing radical changes. How the Web plays as the conduit between provider and user is morphing to take on much greater significance — to the extent that old media and packaged software are threatened quite profoundly.

But as the Web progresses, the user experience catches up. When I look up sports scores on the Web, they are listed in a boring table layout and can’t be sorted, such as alphabetically by team or by win/loss. Add to this the difficulty of pulling scores into a stats analysis tool on my desktop to give me the edge in a pool.

And don’t even think about having access to player photos or game video organized to my tastes and demands.

Fortunately, though, there are four horsemen riding in to signal the browser apocalypse: software as a service (SaaS), open standards (e.g., RSS, Web services/REST), open APIs and device- and browser-independent graphical runtimes (e.g., Flash, Java, XUL and the Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere [WPF/E]). The first three horsemen create the need for change, while the fourth replaces the traditional browser.

SaaS acceptance in the marketplace is growing and it’s able to deliver revenue in new ways from content and software. Vendors have to provide a compelling user experience to gather momentum for making money in the next-generation Web. But when big business smells big money, the will always finds a way.

Open standards are the underpinning of the next-generation Web platform — too often referred to as Web 2.0. Currently, the Web browser promotes a one-to-one relationship between a user and a Web site. But there is an evolution underway from siloed Web apps towards connecting anything with anyone. XML specs such as RSS and SOAP are used to integrate and synch content and applications over the Web.

Open APIs help to build a rich experience by enabling the combination of multiple sources of content and functionality — coming to be known as a mashup. Web sites such as Amazon and Google let developers tap into their commerce or search technologies by publishing their APIs.

Over time, applications of all stripes are going to be available for use to knit together in new ways never before thought of. SaaS underlies the models of the future, while open standards and APIs bring it to life. But it’s the standalone graphical interface that will take the browser’s place when the music stops.

Adobe, maker of Flash, has plans for a project named Apollo, to allow applications to run independently of the browser on any device. Flash already has strength in its ubiquity, running cool graphics in a browser. Now it’s sprouting legs of its own and running a range of applications for the next-generation Web outside of the browser.

Whether the Firefox browser would have ever truly rivalled the usage of IE is a question that won’t ever be answered. Rather, the extent that the Mozilla community can morph Firefox into a rich-client XUL-enabled experience is the extent to which it gets to stay in the game. The jump ball isn’t for browser dominance anymore, it’s for providing the full view into the next-generation Web platform experience.

But similar to the cries from the otherwise lifeless body “I’m not dead yet,” from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, there is a lot of valuable HTML brochure-ware content for consumption — and lots of browsers installed to consume it yet.

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–Senf is the manager of IDC Canada’s Canadian Software Research Service. He can be reached at [email protected].

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