At the risk of repeating an old saw, when you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Our hammer has been the Web browser. It has been crippling the software industry for the past eight years and it will kill productivity at any company that introduces major enterprise applications on its intranet.
Should we get rid of the browser? No, no more than we should get rid of the hammer. The browser is a useful tool. It needs to cease being the only tool, and it could use some improvement.
Problems With Todays Browsers
The first networks that were the foundation of the Internet went online in the late 1960s. For the next 25 years, the Internet remained the exclusive province of technocrats. The browser changed all that, giving real people unprecedented access to information.
The Web browser has one big advantage: The basic functionality needed to read an article is fairly easy to use, and even novice users can view content from across the world in a reasonably nice layout.
Thats it for the benefits. Browsers fail to support the actual task of browsing the Web. Netscape Navigator does not have many navigation features, and Internet Explorer does not help users explore new information spaces. Page viewing is truly all they excel at. Movement between pages and the ability to understand where you have been and where you can go? Forget about it.
From the programmers point of view, it was expedient. Unfortunately, it had the side effect of stopping everyone who wasnt a programmer dead in his or her tracks. No one but the priesthood could develop advanced Web pages.
Eventually, a new standard for dynamic HTML promised to give back some of the power wrested away by the programmers, but infighting among the browser publishers has continued to hold back its implementation.
Because the browsers capabilities were, for all practical purposes, frozen four years ago, the browser has failed utterly in its attempts to keep up with the increasing demands of Web users.
How bad are these failings? Many basic capabilities that we took for granted on microcomputers in the late 1970s remain absent from todays browser technology. "Weblications," applications designed to be used under browsers, may run hundreds of times more slowly than the same types of applications on a 1978 Apple II.
Can anything be done about it? Yes — as long as you control the browser environment in which your users will run your weblications. Given such total control, developers can make use of third-party plug-ins that work around the problems. Lacking that control, developers must continue to turn out software no one would have dared release in the 1970s. Why do we keep using the browser if it is so bad? It is the only game in town — the only way ordinary people can access the wonders of the Web. For all its failings, it is still far better than nothing, and nothing is the only alternative.
What went wrong? Microsoft. By forcing Netscape Communications and Sun Microsystems out of the market, it eliminated the competition. As a result, all competitive pressure to fix the problem has been eliminated. (Just think: If Microsoft had as effectively stymied Apple Computer early on, wed all still be using MS DOS.)
If you are unwilling to assign all culpability to Bill Gates, we can also blame Netscape for allowing this to happen. Maybe it would have lost in any case, but several releases of the Netscape browser seemed to have no goal except increasing the bug count, allowing for more fancy page viewing and adding features that did not facilitate Web browsing. Robust code quality and features to support users goals took the backseat, thus making it unreasonably easy for Microsoft to win.
Major news stories about such topics as the Olympics and election returns jam everything up today. In the future, such information will be streamed; people will pick it up "live," as it passes by, rather than forcing each individual to stand in line at the window and beg for a plateful of information. Instead of a browser window, youll have windows onto continuously changing data streams. Yes, it can be faked today, but using tomorrows technology, even data-intensive streams wont bring down the Internet because everyone will tap into the same stream.
Broadcasting will become a major player on the Web. Already we are seeing hundreds of radio stations take to the Net. TV stations are waiting in the wings, waiting for true high-speed, wide-bandwidth Internet connections.
In the future, you will buy a set-top box that picks up cable, satellite or terrestrial signals, along with hundreds and hundreds of Internet channels. Guess what? There still wont be anything on. The beauty of it will be that by the time you discover that fact, youll be into a new half-hour and it will be time to start looking all over again.
Many of those hundreds of channels will be specialty broadcasts, with far greater variation than we see in todays biography, pet-lovers and romance-movie channels. You will have channels dedicated to stamp collectors, snake lovers and pig farmers. Just as we are seeing today, the quality of the programming will drop in inverse relationship to the number of channels available.
Web applications will become indistinguishable from traditional applications. The productivity losses are stunning as long as we force complex transactions to take place in an interface for filling out forms that resembles nothing more than the IBM 3270 terminals from the 1960s. Either the browser manufacturers will begin to support Web applications properly, or someone else will supply the tools.
Currently, the main argument in favor of supplying application functionality through a Web browser is that users wont have to install software on their own computers. It is true that software installation can lead to a nightmare of support problems as unexpected parts of the system stop working. Windows is so brittle that users rightly resent having to add new software to any computer that still retains most of its faculties. In the future, traditional applications will be updated seamlessly over the Web. It will be possible to get the best of both worlds: Network computing frees the user from having to act as system administrator, and personal computing dedicates a powerful system to being immediately responsive to the users smallest whim. Why not cache application functionality on the users local hard disk and download upgrades transparently as they are needed?
Most people think browsers are the Web and the Web is the Internet. Yet these same people use a different Internet service every day: e-mail. Many of them use a completely different Internet tool as well: peer-to-peer sharing à la Napster. In the future, many more separate and distinct software and hardware tools will appear. We are already seeing Internet "radio sets" that pick up commercial-laden Internet "broadcasts." The aforementioned TV tuners will follow.
Tomorrows audio-visual receivers will likely have music-on-demand capabilities, so that you can draw from a vast library of DVD-audio-quality music, in effect sporting a multithousand-song "jukebox" in your very own living room. If Hollywood and the recording industry support such a phenomenon, they will make a fortune charging consumers a few cents per song per play. If they dont support it, the music will cost consumers even less.
Movies-on-demand, the great promise of a decade ago, will finally be a reality, as long as greed doesnt get in the way. With high-speed connections, a two-hour film in high-definition TV quality will be downloaded to a local player in a few minutes. Charge 50 cents or a dollar per viewing, and people will gladly pay. Charge more, and they will watch for free, even if it isnt HDTV-quality.
Books await paper-white, high-resolution, portable displays. When they arrive, the trees will finally be able to breathe easier.
The so-called convergence will finally happen. Come across a neat film on your laptop and "throw it" to your TV, which will then contact a movies-on-demand supplier and show it to you. Pick up something interesting on a TV news show and "throw it" to your desktop computer, so you can dive into the story in depth.
The real revolution will be in communications. Live videophone will be practical for the first time. No more murky pictures and total lack of interoperability. Pictures will be life-size or bigger, and will appear in living color.
Videophone, as with most new consumer technologies, will first be embraced by the sex industry, but it will quickly spread. Students and businesspeople torn from their homes will be able to remain in close and intimate contact. Work groups scattered across the globe will be able to glance into one anothers offices and talk casually in a way that is difficult even when they are located in the same building.
The "chat rooms" where people type at each other will be replaced by face-to-face meetings. At first, many will be disappointed by the disappearance of the anonymity of the keyboard, but soon they will take to the new medium. Most of the problems associated with chat rooms where children are concerned will be swept away as the sleazy creeps who would pretend to be young slink back into their dark corners.
Enough Is Enough
Web pages are not even a good metaphor for accessing information. As we have discussed, several other forms of information access are needed for the Internet to reach its potential. We also need better ways of visualizing the information space so that users dont get lost so easily. The move toward business-to-business services, extranets and complex applications delivered over the Web makes the need to go beyond the browser even more pressing. Billions of dollars are wasted every year in lost productivity as people wait for Web pages to perform duties that could have been handled better by a 1984 Macintosh-style graphical user interface application. Enough. Browsers kicked off the Web revolution, but its time to retire them to their rightful place in the Computer Museum and get more powerful tools to support the hours of work and play we are all going to spend on the Internet every day in the future.
Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini is a principal of Nielsen Norman Group and author of Tog on Software Design. Dr. Jakob Nielsen is a principal of Nielsen Norman Group and author of Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity. The authors Web sites are: www.AskTog.com and www.useit.com.