The more things change, the more they stay the same. Sort of.
When Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first Web client, or browser editor, in 1990, his aim was to build a creative tool that would allow people using the nascent system to organize information and present it to others in a fun, dynamic way.
Fifteen years into the project, he and other experts closely involved with shaping the browsers legacy agree that fostering greater levels of user interaction remains their ultimate goal.
When you ask Berners-Lee what surprises him most about the development of browser technologies, its not that one company, Microsoft Corp., has been able to take control of an estimated 85 percent of the market for the software today. Rather, the inventor, who currently serves as the director of the W3C (World Wide Web consortium), said his greatest shock is that so many people have embraced the browser despite its overall rigidity.
For as much as Berners-Lee seems proud that the browser has come as far as it has, growing from an underground academic phenomenon to a vitally important tool in millions of peoples lives, he still believes browsers are too limiting in how they allow people to input and consume information.
For the browser to remain as relevant as it is today, he said, the applications will need to become more effective at letting people get the information they want faster, from wherever they want to get it.
“Here we are in 2005 and you see this craze around blogs and wikis, which anybody can edit,” said Berners-Lee in a recent interview with eWeek.
“In a way that sort of ratifies my original assumption that anybody can edit and that people wanted to be creative and have the power to write as well as to read.”
The W3C head said that hes encouraged by the new wave of interest in self-publishing technologies such as blogs, RSS feeds and wikis, as those interactive Web applications are closer to what hed originally imagined, versus a network of tightly-controlled browsers and sites largely owned by businesses.
As part of a tightrope act that people exchanging information online must learn how to balance better, he said, Web browsers and sites will need to become more adaptive in allowing users to manipulate information online, while also getting more secure and trustworthy.
“Theres more technology out there which is going to make both the reading and input of data much more powerful,” Berners-Lee said.
“It would be a mistake to think that the browser is a static well-defined object as it is now, I think well see a lot more development in that area.”
Firefox Raises Eyebrows
Boosting the level of control that users have over the content on the Web is a theme that has been reinforced on many levels in the browser space in 2005, in particular with the rise of a technology that lets people toy with its very makeup.
Firefox is perhaps the best example of the type of innovation that experts believe the market will demand in the future. The browser, launched in late 2004 by open-source backers Mozilla Foundation, drew widespread attention over the course of the last year.
With over 100 million downloads, the open-source Firefox browser also increased the amount of attention given to the space in general, arguably pushing Microsoft to add new features such as so-called “tabbed” controls and to increase its attention on plugging the security holes that have long-plagued its dominant Internet Explorer browser.
Now the chief technology officer at Mozilla.com, the commercially-oriented arm of its nonprofit parent, Eich said the reason why so many people have responded positively to Firefox is because the browser is closely-aligned with the same sort of interactivity that Berners-Lee envisions, and not just because it is an alternative to Microsoft products.
“Theres a natural force field that were all falling into, a groove to the Internet, and its about being two-way and many-to-many, unlike client server in the 90s or with watching TV,” he said.
“Theres a level playing field like never before in any other medium, and its getting taken further by wikis and blogs; in essence the Web is big, lower-cost way for people to find and form value networks with each other like eBay, or just to find a more reliable piece of content.”
Eich said that despite nagging problems with security—and his belief that Microsoft is intentionally slowing development across the browser market with the proprietary design of its Windows operating system—todays browsers are doing a much better job of engaging users via tools like RSS, which have inspired people assemble their own news feeds rather than relying on portal Yahoo Inc. or search giant Google Inc. to do it for them.
While Eich and others may contend that Microsoft has controlled advancement of the browser by having Explorer loaded as the default browser on most of the worlds PCs, executives at the company say they actually agree with the more academic approach to furthering interactivity.
Microsoft has even begun backing some of the same open standards that its rivals, such as Mozilla, have embraced and used to criticize the software makers browser designs.
“The extensibility mechanism we put in [Explorer] for Flash and PDF for developers has been huge,” said Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Microsofts IE team.
“And the most underappreciated asset we have going forward is RSS. Its not just about blogs, its the glue. It lets you get information broken out and separated from the Web page.”
The other major force in the commercial browser market is Apple Inc., which has seen its hardware business swell based on an aggressive multimedia content strategy and has subsequently added more users online.
The company launched its Safari Web browser in January 2003, but still retains less than 3 percent of the browser market, according to researchers Net Applications.
While its user base remains comparatively small, and typically concentrated among users who work in creative fields such as publishing or academia, Apple said it is trying to win a broader audience using a similar standards-oriented approach.
Chris Bourdon, senior product manager at Apple, said that using standards to create new browser applications will not only foster greater levels of user interaction by allowing developers to work with its code, but that such an approach also protects the entire browser industry from becoming too vendor-oriented.
“There have been some efforts over the years to wrench away and establish other standards, but those have largely been resisted and thats the very reason why we can continue to see the choice available to people today,” he said.
Browsers are Going Mobile
“Because the Web is standards-based, well see a lot of different people competing into the space and all the competition will keep things interesting.”
One of the biggest trends that will undoubtedly shape the browser industry over the coming years is the increased adoption of mobile devices that can be used to access the Internet, and therefore carry browsers, such as so-called smart phones.
While Microsoft is creating its own mobile version of Windows and Apple has licensed some of its browser technology to handset maker Nokia Corp., some experts believe that the challenge of creating an application that works on handheld devices will change the appearance, and potentially the market, for browser technologies.
Nate Root, analyst with Forrester Research, said that a whole range of companies could see their names become more closely linked with the browser market as new devices demand different types of applications.
The analyst said that it probably wont be new players youll see winning in the mobile browser space, but he believes there will be some interesting companies competing on non-traditional devices—such as Macromedia, now owned by Adobe Systems Inc.—who will see their prospects grow with wireless Net adoption.
“Flash has been around forever, and people think they have a pretty good idea of what Flash is for—for downloading content or building a Web site,” Root said.
“But one of the very cool things that Flash and Macromedias Flex platform can do is build interactive applications that are distinctly non-Web-like, but that you can adapt easily to the size of the screen that you have.”
“Some of these companies like Macromedia will hit their stride, and someone like Mozilla will have to decide if they want to maintain a mobile native version of their browser, or if anyone cares about that.”
Whether or not the browser continues to be the visible framework through which people view the Web, or if it becomes something less noticeable that simply facilitates execution of other online applications, Root said that much development remains to be done if vendors expect large numbers of customers use mobile Internet services.
Root believes that in reality, there will be gradual progress toward less obtrusive browsers that allow people to input and view information more effectively, just as the technologys inventors might have imagined.
However, as long as large volumes of information are accessible by todays browser applications, he maintains that todays tools will stick around.
“There will be new ways to create rich applications experiences that are native to the Web, but that dont require browsers to run, and that will be the way of things going forward, with more transparent Web-enabled platforms,” said Root.
“The bottom line is that there will be incremental change and that there will probably always be some sort of browsers.”