There’s Still Life in Web Browsers
BackBy Kelly Shermach — October 2008
With Web applications quickly wallpapering the desktops of PC users these days, it seems the traditional Web browser soon will become obsolete. While the Web has been reinvented many times over, no long-standing browser — Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari — has shown much innovation since its inception.
But with the recent debut of Google’s Chrome, “the browser is here to stay,” said Ray Valdes, a vice president of research for Gartner in San Jose, Calif. In fact, the bar is now raised for Firefox and Internet Explorer.
Chrome launches a Web-based application in a window that presents the app without the traditional window panes of the address bar, bookmarks, etc. Pundits claim it could accelerate the demise of the browser, despite the fact that it is one itself.
Adding to the mix is the fact that recent iterations of Web companies resemble browsers. Skype, the software application for voice communication over the Internet “is not a browser but is browser-like,” Valdes said.
Similarly, the gaming/fantasy applications “World of Warcraft” and Second Life are in effect browsers of virtual worlds. iTunes is like a browser for music, and social networks arguably are yet another type of browser, Valdes said.
“Different types of desktop applications use Internet protocols like browsers but aren’t general browsers,” he said. However, many widgets on the desktop open a browser window when activated and use the Web as their delivery platform.
Adobe’s Integrated Runtime (AIR) and the software developed on it can run outside of the browser, but they depend on Web technologies — albeit more advanced ones than Internet Explorer or Safari. Thus, AIR and enterprise apps developed by Google, Salesforce.com, Zoho and others are pushing the envelope of browser capability.
“The browser has certain design limitations that are intentional, and now people are bumping into those,” Valdes said. “Certainly, the boundary between the desktop and the browser is being blurred. There are browser apps that are looking more and more like desktop apps.”
Take Prism, for example. The simple browser hosts Web applications and, like Chrome, has cut the clutter of toolbars, drop-down menus and other common features. Prism is a site-specific browser (SSB), meaning it is embedded into applications in a way unique to each application. Any tools present in the frame appear only because they make sense to the functionality of the application.
Given Chrome and Prism, to dismiss browsers now is a mistake, Valdes said.
“A browser is a tool to connect to a server, so it’s designed to be connected,” he said.
The browser also is designed to function in isolation. It may rewrite local files on a user’s computer and interact with local devices, but it does not rewrite the server. This offers data and other security structures that desktop apps alone cannot promise.
For this reason, Valdes said software developers and designers should be careful how they remove the limits of browsers. He suggests application builders seriously consider omitting browsers and instead appreciate their role in delivering content to end users.
“We are moving in the direction away from the original concept out there to a more multifaceted browser,” he said.
Because application development knows no intellectual or creative boundaries and draws upon left-brain coding, as well as right-brain artistic methods, the traditional browser is unlikely to disappear as an application-delivery platform, even as desktop Web apps proliferate.
Kelly Shermach is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., who frequently writes about technology and data security. She can be reached at email@example.com.