The Browser is a Transitional Technology

January 31, 2011

in Browsers,Post-PC/Ambient Computing

In the graphic for my Third Era of Computing post I have two pairs of lines labeled “Transitional Technologies”. In my model, a transitional technology is a technology that emerges as a computing era settles into maturity and which is a precursor to the successor era. Transitional technologies are firmly rooted in the “old” era but also contain important elements of the “new” era. 

Transitional technologies that preceded the emergence of the Personal Computing Era included time-sharing and minicomputers.  Both of these technologies emerged as corporate computing matured and both technologies personalized, to a degree, human interaction with corporate computing resources.  Time-sharing allowed individuals to directly access a fractional share of large mainframe computing resources.  Minicomputers reduced the cost and complexity of computers to the point where they could be applied to departmental level problems and could be programmed or administered by individuals.

Time-sharing and minicomputers were significant steps towards the Personal Computing Era as they offered the first glimpses of what is possible when a computer is used to empower individuals. Most of the earliest personal computers physically resembled minicomputers and their operating systems were modeled after minicomputer OSes  and time-sharing user interfaces.  However, the true archetype of the modern personal computer anticipated something very different than a scaled down corporate computer.

My diagram shows cellphones and the “www” as two of the transitional technologies from the Personal Computing Era to the Ambient Computing Era. By “www” I meant both the concept of ubiquitous information access via public websites and the personal computer hosted browser applications used to access such information.  Both cellphones and the web established themselves as mainstream technologies in the 1990’s, just as personal computing was reaching maturity.  Both are personal and task-centric.  The browser itself is the epitome of a Personal Computing Era application program.

Both the cellphone and the www give us glimpse of things to come in the Ambient Computing Era and both establish some of the foundation technologies for that era.  But we shouldn’t expect the Ambient Computing Era as it matures to be just a refinement of cellphones and web browser any more than the Personal Computing Era was a only a refinement of time-sharing and minicomputers.

Right now, we seem to be in second golden age of browser innovation but that doesn’t mean that the browser, as we know it, will continue into the Ambient Computing Era.  Recall that Digital Equipment Corporation, the minicomputer company that grew into the world’s second largest computer company, hit the all-time high for its stock in 1987. That was the same year that Apple introduced the Mac II and Microsoft introduced Windows 2.0. Ten years latter the Personal Computing Era was firmly established but DEC and the minicomputer were no more.

For those of us to work on browser technologies that means it isn’t good enough to just create a great new PC-based web browser release every year or two (or even every 6 weeks, or every three months). We also have to aggressively work on the new technologies and user experiences that will make the web browser irrelevant.  Personally, I expect that many web technologies including HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are going to be foundational for the Ambient Computing Era but I don’t expect them to be packaged in a browser-like application running on running on a Windows or Mac PC. That transition has already started.

{ 3 comments }

Michael(tm) Smith January 31, 2011 at 11:48 pm

So far I’m not really buying that this transition is going to happen any time very soon.

There have been vague predictions about the death of the Web browser for years now, going back at least to now-infamous “W3C Workshop on Web Applications and Compound Documents” http://www.w3.org/html/wg/wiki/History#2004-06
(and during which Bert Bos said, “JavaScript is the worst invention ever”, and which Brendan came away from saying, “The dream of a new web, based on XHTML+SVG+SMIL+XForms, is just that — a dream. It won’t come true no matter how many toy implementations there are”, and which in part led to the formation of the WHATWG and to the development of what is now the HTML5 spec).

Looking back on that, it seems like quite a number of people attending the workshop sincerely believed at the time that the death of the browser was just around the corner and that all they needed to do to help it along was spec out the set of technologies that they figured were necessary for these non-browser things that were going to replace browsers and meet everybody’s needs so much better.

But in the six years since then what we’ve seen is that browsers instead have become even much more important than they were then, and whatever things they imagined that were going to displace browsers have never actually materialized. (I know that native applications on mobile devices are arguably displacing browsers for a lot of use cases, but it seems clear that’s hardly where hope for a better and brighter future rests for the kind of ambient computing you have mind.)

Anyway, the question I always ask when someone brings up the idea of the Web browser fading away is, What are we then going to end up using to access and render all of the content that currently constitutes the Web? Whatever it is, it’s going to need to continue to support that same set of protocols and formats that browsers currently natively support, and if the ability to access and render content using those protocols and formats is not what a “browser” actually is, then what is a browser, really? And if the thing that displaces it also still supports accessing and rendering content in those protocols and formats, how is it not also itself still going to be a kind of browser?

To put it in other terms, perhaps I’m just not looking far enough ahead, but it’s very hard for me to imagine “new technologies and user experiences that will make the web browser irrelevant”, any more than, say, the Web has made printed books irrelevant, or the made the cinema irrelevant, or whatever. Certainly, those new technologies and users experiences may make whatever we think of now as a browser *less* relevant, and may make the current browser user interfaces we are using seem quaint in retrospect. But browsers themselves have already evolved over the years in ways that the people who developed early browsers never could have envisioned, and I think another possible path toward what you’ve described here is just that browsers and browser user interfaces are going to continue to evolve even further, right along with new technologies and new user experiences as they develop.

allen February 1, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Major technologies like browsers generally don’t get replaced by essentially the same thing done “right”. They get replaced by something different that displaces their primary utility. Up through the mid-80′s there were still people trying to create better time-sharing systems but that wasn’t what killed the VAX, it was the fact the PC made time-sharing unnecessary (I’m ignoring that at it’s core, every modern PC operating system is a time-sharing system).

Today, a significant fraction of my use of web content is through mobile devices and a significant fraction of that is not via a mobile browser. Instead, it is via either hybrid native/web apps or actual web apps masquerading as native apps. I strongly suspect these forms of web content access are going to also start to dominate in non-mobile devices (I don’t want to say “desktop PC”. In the 3rd era there are certainly still going to be computing devices that sit on desks and have large displays and keyboards but I’m guessing they will be closer cousins to today’s mobile devices than they are to today’s PCs). I think the web content and web apps we access on devices of all sizes are going to be authored using web technologies (HMTL, CSS, JavaScript, etc) but they will be running in a different sort of host. Even if we continue call them “browsers” (and that’s a real possibility) they won’t be what we think of as a browser today.

Robert Kaiser February 1, 2011 at 10:23 am

I fully agree, and I’ve been longing for what you call “ambient computing” (I like that name) for quite some time, but unfortunately, we are far from it right now. And it goes even further than the dimensions you bring up here – it needs to mean that computers are not restricted to the screen/keyboard/mouse/printer-bound singularities in a household or office, but that it will be a continuum of connected pieces of equipment integrated into our lives. Given the vision of where I’d like computing to go, though, I sometimes hate needing to use a keyboard or mouse or needing to take somewhat complicated steps to care to move stuff from one device to another…

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