The changing form of the web browser

a thinking piece

The changing form of the web browser

It’s been around 20 years since the web was created, as a means to access information on the internet, and with it came the web browser. In that time both have remained largely unchanged – the biggest shift, perhaps, was the dynamic interaction of ‘web 2.0’ which allowed the rise of web applications alongside the web sites.

But in recent years the success of ‘mobile’ – that is, smartphones and apps – has changed the dynamic of how, why and when users interact with information. Where the giants of the desktop era were multi-function web portals like Yahoo!, AltaVista, and MSN, the titans of the new mobile era are single-purpose messaging, social and communications apps like Instagram, WhatsApp, SnapChat, and Twitter.

Baldur Bjarnason identifies four platforms that the web is called on to support: services; publishing; media; and apps. Of these, we can clearly see publishing and media beginning to fragment heavily as content follows consumers to their preferred social platforms; and services and apps challenged by dedicated single-purpose native mobile apps.

I should make clear that these behavioural changes are largely happening on more recently emerging platforms - mobile, tablet, smart TV - and less on the traditional desktop systems. Desktop browsers are likely to see their overall usage share drop in the future, but are unlikely to change form significantly - many people still sit in front of one for much of the day, and are habituated in how they find information with them.

The changing shape of content and services

In the past, a publisher would put content - say, a news story or other longer-form article - on their website, and people would visit the website to read it. In a modern information flow, content is published on the website first, but then pushed out to Flipboard, Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, et al. It might perhaps even be modified for video platforms like Snapchat. Discovery is rarely through the home page of a news website, but more often through social channels, apps, and email.

In this model the publisher becomes a wire service, sacrificing control over how the content is displayed, and direct advertising revenue, for a greater audience. Many (most?) people will never view the content in its original home on the web, except perhaps as a link to a web view in a browser embedded inside an app like Twitter.

It’s not only content that’s seeing this shift, the way we access information services has also changed. A web portal like Yahoo! collates everything that a user could want - news, weather, stock information, shopping bargains, etc - into a single destination. People today still want the same things, but rarely in the same place, preferring instead to break up the information into multiple single-focus apps which they can access more conveniently.

Some information, such as calendar appointments, map directions, or bus timetables, is only useful at certain times. Digital assistant apps like Google Now, Siri, and Cortana, with devices like Android Wear and Apple Watch, promise to deliver relevant information at appropriate moments, without any interaction with a browser at all.

Sergio Nouvel identifies this change as “a shift from web pages to web services: self-sufficient bits of information that can be combined to other services to deliver value”. The logical conclusion to this is that the browser may disappear almost entirely in the future, as the information we require from it is capable of being displayed by other means. But in the meantime, it’s useful to look at how browsers are adapting to these changes.

The mobile browser market

Of the four major browser vendors1, Microsoft (Edge, formerly Internet Explorer) and Mozilla (Firefox) have both largely experienced failure in their attempts to break into the mobile market, and face the possibility of being minor players with dwindling influence. That leaves two key players: Apple and Google. Between them, their mobile operating systems (iOS and Android, respectively) were installed on 96.8% of global smartphone shipments in the most recent financial quarter.

The future of each of the major mobile browsers on these platforms (Safari on iOS, Chrome on Android) is driven by the self-interests of their vendor. Apple’s priority is on creating the best possible experience for Apple users, at the expense of interoperability with other platforms. By contrast, Google’s priority is indexing information, and that’s easier to achieve if everyone uses the open, public platforms of the web. Because of these different approaches, I think we’re seeing increasing divergence in their behaviour, and in the features they offer.

On iOS, the app is monarch. As a consequence of this, Safari is treated like a somewhat insecure app; its security model limits the access that websites are permitted to the device features that are available to native apps. At worst it becomes a simple gateway between apps, a way to receive a link from one app and open it in another. Safari once led the way in making the browser a fully-enabled part of the operating system on mobile, but sadly seem to have reduced their efforts in this direction.

Google’s plan to keep information open is to focus on improving Chrome to allow the web to better compete with native apps: providing browser-level access to device features like Bluetooth and NFC, a secure way to make payments through the web, and native integration features like notifications and background processes.

The browser as native

While I don’t believe that the browser necessarily needs to compete directly with native smartphone apps, I think it’s hard to argue against the fact that native apps have set certain levels of expectation of behaviour, functionality and performance among users.

Paul Kinlan identifies four features that users require from apps to be useful: presence; persistence; integration; and media access. Benedict Evans says that for brands and publishers the question is more simply “do people want to put your icon on their home screen?”.

There is a new initiative, currently led by Chrome, to create ‘progressive apps’. These live on the web but are optimised to meet the expectations set by native apps, including features such as web manifests and ‘add to home screen’ discovery, making it easy to find, save and launch browser-based apps. Further providing parity with native is improved offline file caching, meaning an end to the blank white screens when a user has no network connection. This is enabled by an emerging technology called service workers, where the browser can continue to interact with the device even when inactive (informally known as the ‘headless web’).

Progressive apps make browser-based apps feel fully native to the mobile device, providing the features that users have come to expect with the increased ease of discoverability, installation and updating that the web provides. Data suggests that people use most of the apps on their phones very infrequently, and for uncommon and fleeting transactions a bookmarked web app is often a better option than downloading and installing through an app store.

Where next for the browser?

It seems clear from what I’ve written above that the browser is taking on a less active role in the distribution of content (and in some cases, no role at all), and that it will – on mobile, at least – increasingly diverge in function to better meet the long-term goal of its vendor, becoming less important on some platforms but critical on others.

But I remain positive on the prospects of the browser to meet these challenges and thrive, because I believe that the inherent properties of the web make it best placed to meet the flexible demands of the future; and the browser is still the easiest way to access the web. This is especially important as we see an even more exciting future for the web beginning to take shape, with touchpoints coming from outside the browser.

Emerging projects like Google’s Physical Web, which provides ambient discovery of URLs in your immediate physical location, and an increasing consolidation of HTML-based operating systems for connected devices, leave a space for the web at the heart of the new wave of networked devices in the home and abroad.

rehabstudio is a company that loves digital, and we want the digital experiences that we make to reach the broadest audience. The web provides reach that no native platform can, with the additional benefit of the reduced cost of developing for a single platform. Because of this, we hope the browser remains healthy and fit for purpose to maintain its place in the future.

1 When I talk about the browser market, I’m talking largely about Europe and the Americas. Globally, different regions have somewhat different markets: Russia have their own Yandex browser, the Opera Mini browser is popular in large parts of Africa and Asia, and in China the UC browser is champion. In some regions, multi-purpose apps replacing the web browser is a popular option.


Peter is a creative technologist at rehabstudio. He has 15 years experience working on the web, and is the author of two books.

Peter Gasston