Back in 2009, Google released a fun video showing a team walking around New York, asking pedestrians what a Web browser is.
The vast majority of those interviewed seemed to confuse it with their search engine. A good deal of people thought it was an operating system.
Only 8% knew the right answer.
That number may have changed a little since, but probably not by much. The browser is the digital equivalent of electricity: we use it every day, but few people even care to know how it works.
Norway’s Opera wants to double its Android user base within the next two years, it said this past week. This statement got me thinking about browsers again.
I’m a big fan of Opera, but mainly because I like underdogs. As far as browsers go, I tend to mix things up often. But with just 1,5% market share, some might ask why I bother with Opera.
I can tell you why: because one day — and that day is soon — our browsers will be our operating systems.
Several trends lead me to this conclusion.
Firstly, the plug-in is dying. Nobody wants to run Java anymore, and even the once-ubiquitous Flash is losing ground. Looking at my browser’s plug-in list reveals only a few other names in the pack: one for VLC, to play a wider variety of movie files I never play through my browser, and one for PDF support.
This last one leads me to point two…
Browsers are adopting a lot of native capabilities. My favourite is WebRTC, which introduced built-in voice and video communications to browsers. It’s still pretty young, so applications are few, but the idea is that at some point you won’t need proprietary desktop applications such as Skype to have an online video chat; the application will be powered through the browser. The PDF plug-in reflects a similar trend: with the exception of secure PDFs, I open all of my PDF documents in my browser.
Thirdly, browsers are carrying a lot of applications these days. Raise a hand if you use Gmail or Google Docs. Ditto. I also use Office 365 for work e-mail and such — and I don’t run a desktop app.
It’s all in the browser. Head over to the Internet Archive to see DOSBox games stream through your browser or look up any of the numerous games emulators doing the same. Not a single piece of software lives on my machine to enable Amazon Cloud Drive, Dropbox, YouTube and so on. I don’t even know when last I installed an office suite and I’ve begun to use Pixlr for basic image editing.
Fourth on my list of reasons is HTML5. In fact, we can throw this programming language and its peers at all of the above points, because these are the ones cannibalising the desktop software world.
HTML5 appears to be incredibly powerful and versatile, and growing more so with every iteration. Already, many vendors who offer applications on any device are pinning their ambitions to HTML5, which allows rich applications to be created inside a browser.
Now you might argue: what about apps? But many apps are already being developed in HTML5 and complementary languages. Smartphones are highly reliant on being connected — that is how Siri and other artificial intelligence-based personal assistants work. Combine HTML with some back-end processes on a remote server and you can theoretically match anything a native app could do on your device. In fact, what developers often do is create a single core app using HTML5, then use “wrappers” to make it deployable on different devices. And offline support for HTML5 is fast approaching.
Granted, my views are making a few assumptions. But there is obvious momentum towards the browser occupying more and more of our application workload. Now, considering that the end-user experience exists entirely out of applications, how long before someone decides to just make the browser the centre of it all? If that were to happen, you could run any app on any device (hardware permitting) as long as you have an up-to-date browser.
This trend is probably at the core of Opera’s strategy. You don’t need even double digit market share to be relevant in the browser market, not with billions of users to pick from. Opera wants 275m users by 2017 — that’s more than a third of Europe’s population.
Yet we’re only seeing the start of a new era in the browser wars. Microsoft’s Project Spartan browser in Windows 10 may light the fuse on a new chapter in the browser wars. If Microsoft doesn’t do it, someone will — and soon.
- James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications
- Read previous columns by Francis