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The Browser, The App and the Future of the Web

posted by Matt Ward on Oct 30, 2010.

The web is an ever changing landscape, and is frequently the subject of various predictions. In this article, I would like to offer my own vision of where I see the us going in the coming years, based on what I’ve seen from browsers and both the distribution and increasing sophistication of web apps.

Ever since I can remember, it seems that we have been talking (to some degree or another) about the imminent future of this thing we call the web. In many ways, it’s probably an inevitable symptom of the technology that drives it. With seemingly rapid advancements in an ever changing digital landscape, a bright and glorious future can so often seem to be lurking just around the corner–even as relics of the not-so-distant past continue to hold on (IE6).

The question that looms, however, is simply this: what is the future going to look like?

I am not a fortune teller, prophet or seer and have no way of knowing the exact answer to this question. Honestly, I don’t think that anyone really knows for certain, but that won’t stop us from making our best guesses, based on a wide range of evidence that exists before us. I, of course, am no different in this regard and, after a few discussions with different people about this subject, I decided that it was probably a good idea for me to record my thoughts about where I think we’re going with the web–and why I think we’re going there.

Content is Not the Future

First and foremost, I have to say that content is not the future. Content is, and always has been, the now. I have heard it suggested that content will be what drives the web in the future, but quite frankly such a suggestion is inherently flawed and I have to wonder where those who make the suggestion have been for the past fifteen to twenty years.

Content has always been the most fundamental part of the web when it comes to the interactions of the end user. My earliest memories of the web involve moving around a number of (horridly ugly) fan sites about many of the books, video games and comics that I was interested in at the time. I consumed stories, reviews, pictures/screenshots and anything else I could get my hands on, and in so doing I was interacting with content.

Nothing has really changed about that.

Yes, in many ways the nature of content has changed. Today, we have interactive content through blogs, online magazines and other sites, which allow users to comment on existing content and, in many cases, even add their own. With the increasing prevalence of high speed internet connections and improved streaming technologies, videos have also really taken off and become a staple of many people’s general content consumption.

But none of these things mark any change in the fundamental importance of content on the web. It has always been central to the browsing experience. What these changes do reveal are shifts and evolutions in the way we may receive, consume, and ultimately even create content, all of which are simply varying forms of interaction that have no significant bearing on the fundamental importance of content.

It was important in 1995, is important today, and will be important as we move forward. Suggesting that content is the future of the web is like saying that breathing oxygen will be the future of mankind.

Browsing and Working

One significant change that I have seen (and which I’m sure everyone reading this article has also noted) over the past years is an increasing movement toward websites where the focus is less about warehousing information and more about providing users with powerful tools which they can use to accomplish particular tasks. In many cases, some of these web apps (as we call them) are actually taking the place of dedicated, desktop software packages.

A service like MailChimp allows users to create and manage complex email marketing campaigns, complete with powerful list management functionality. FreshBooks allows creative professionals to track their billable time and create professional looking invoices, while DraftBoard provides the functionality to manage and collaborate on design mockups with team members. All of these things can be done securely, over the internet, meaning that we are no longer necessarily tied to the particular computer on which a native desktop application may reside.

Ultimately, this has really started to change the landscape of the web. Not only are we using it to search for, find and consume content and information. We have now started to use it as a tool for productivity, and the act of “browsing” has become only part of what we do online. That, in and off itself, has some interesting implications for the future of the web, and the direction that I think we are likely to see things heading in over the next five to ten years.

The App Revolution

A few months ago, I wrote an article about reinventing ourselves as designers, in which I discussed the possible need for web designers to expand their knowledge base and begin moving into the ever expanding world of mobile app design. I still think that a lot of what I talked about in that article is applicable (things haven’t changed that much over two months), and since then I’ve had to field my first inquiries as to whether or not I create apps (I don’t – yet). This has only solidified my beliefs in this area.

With all the success if the iPhone, iPod Touch and now the iPad, the concept of the app store has become a huge success. Couple that with Apple’s recent announcement that they will be bringing a native app store to Lion – the next installment of OS X – and it becomes clear that this concept of accessible and easily purchased apps is becoming increasingly popular.

So, what does this have to do with the future of the web? Am I suggesting that everything will be done through apps? In a sense. But let’s take a step back for a moment and realize that “apps” are really nothing new. You’ve probably been using them for years before the iProducts were released. Any native program on your desktop, regardless of the operating system that you are using, is essentially an application. Microsoft Word is an application. So is Photoshop, or Painter, or any of the myriad of games that you play.

All Apple, and its various competitors, have done is taken this concept, given it a truncated name (app instead of application), repackaged it in a sleek mobile format and sold it back to us with resounding success. Nowadays, everyone and their mother is getting their own app, and we are probably all familiar with the now common catchphrase “there’s an app for that.”

Now, I’m not trying to discredit Apple in any way. Quite the opposite. I think that the combination of their clever–and sometimes brilliant–marketing strategies with a quality, intuitive product is a huge part of what has led to their great success over the past several years. By focusing on the repackaging of the application as the modern “app,” I am merely drawing attention to a relatively recent development that has an impact on our current subject – namely, the future of the web.

So, it is with the concept of the app that we turn to an article that has recently been released on the Mozilla blog, about a new project that is being developed to facilitate the quick and easy installation of web based applications onto the user’s own computer, allowing them to be launched quickly and easily from a native browser dashboard.

The article also includes a very interesting video, which outlines the basic concept and shows some working examples of how the conceptual framework would theoretically function. I encourage you to watch the video. As you do, you may notice that the sample app store that they include in the video has a strikingly similar experience to the iTunes app store, both in terms of its general design and its implied functionality. Just an interesting observation.

Browser as OS

After thinking about Mozilla’s proposal, I began to see one possible and very interesting future for the web, wherein we could actually see the death of the traditional operating system as we know it. Instead, our devices (desktop, laptop, phones, tablets) could actually be driven entirely by the browser as an OS, and the applications that we use every day would be built upon the standard technologies that drive the web – HTML, CSS and JavaScript on the front end, and any combination of server side scripting (as chosen by the service provider) on the back end.

A few years ago, this might not have seemed like a real possibility. Sure, data based applications such as spreadsheets or word processing documents could be created with web technologies, but what about those more complex applications, like Photoshop, that I use on a daily basis? Web technologies could never hope to emulate that kind of rich image editing capabilities, right?

Tell that to Pixlr, a rich photo editing application that runs right in your browser!

Pixlr provides a great deal of the same functionality as Photoshop, but in a web app

Pixlr provides a great deal of the same functionality as Photoshop, but in a web app

As I was preparing for this article, I actually played around with Pixlr a bit and was shocked at just how much Photoshop’s basic functionality that it was able to emulate. There are layers, layer styles, blurs, blending modes and a myriad of other options that really astounded me. Obviously, it has not evolved to the point where it would actually replace Photoshop for me yet, but it is an impressive demonstration of what can be achieved in the browser.

With the introduction of <canvas> in HTML5, it seems to me that web-based vector applications are probably not that far off either. Pixlr could even integrate this kind of functionality to improve its overall appeal (since one of the things it is currently missing is Photoshop’s native vector support for shapes, which I use quite frequently).

That opens up a whole world of web-based possibilities, especially for designers. Back in the summer, Jason Santa Maria wrote “A Real Web Design Application,” an article in which he outlined our current tool set (mostly Adobe products) and ultimately showed how there is no singular application that is perfectly suited to web design as he undertakes it. Photoshop is bloated and, along with Illustrator and InDesign, does not have true-to-browser font rendering, while Dreamweaver lacks rich, image editing capabilities and extensive typographical control.

But what would happen if we had a web-based application for creating website? Jason begins to alludes to something like this when he suggests the possibility of a native, desktop application that renders with WebKit. This would certainly be a step in the right direction. However, with the functionality that is currently being demonstrated by Pixlr, the possibilities of <canvas>, and the native interactivity of the browser itself, can we at least begin to see the potential skeleton of a fully featured, web-based design and development suite that would streamline the process and ultimately increase overall productivity?

It’s an exciting possibility! It’s also just one example of the potential power of applications built in a browser-based OS.

Conclusion

Of course, I could be totally off base here. Perhaps the future of the web holds something that I’ve never even envisioned. Even if I am (somewhat) right in these predictions, we’re probably still quite a ways out from this kind of thing actually being produced, and (if it does happen) the chances are that it will come fruition through a series of stages. Still, I believe we have been seeing movement toward this idea for quite some time now. In addition to the rise in popularity of apps, Apple’s move towards a native app store for Lion and Mozilla’s recently released concept for Open Web Apps, Microsoft’s various Windows operating systems have had a native connection between its File Explorer and default browser for a while now. Open up File Explorer, type a URL into the status bar, and Windows will automatically know to direct you to the browser.

The primary difference in the future will, I think, be the fact that the OS will be the browser, in some form or another, and the apps that we use will be driven by the technologies of the web.

Obviously, there are a lot of questions that will still need to be answered and issues that will need to be addressed. What about security? What about the ownership of software and code (since the web is, essentially, an open platform)? How would we manage native interaction with peripherals? These are all things that would need to be addressed, but I don’t think that there’s anything in these questions that cannot ultimately be solved.

What do you think? This is quite different from the sort of thing that I usually write doesn’t have as much to do with design itself, and I would love to hear your thoughts. What do you think the future of the web will look like?

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

Oct 31, 2010

Sari Grove says:

Ok, I’ll bite…
What your talking about is design logistics…My brother runs a company called Metro Canada Logistics- essentially what he does is help foreign companies come into the Canadian market- he helps them figure out where to store the product, how to distribute it, & some of the issues that need to be considered in the Canadian marketplace…Design Logistics is planning the path something will take, from creation to consumer, & possibly adapting the integral design to accommodate size or climactic constraints, for example…
Your analysis that apps are the future- showing people how to do something is similar…Apps deal with the flow of a product, not as much the product, or content itself, though flow will influence subtleties of the product’s life…
Yes, I agree…Flow, design logistics, apps, are the new future…I do think they are a form of content, but it is easier to speak of them separately, for the sake of argument…
I recently reactivated my audiovox thera 2032 pocket pc on a free pay as you go phone plan but with a 10 dollar a month unlimited browser capability feature added…I put a button on one of my websites that says “Buy Now from CCNow” which is a server like PayPal but offers direct credit card transactions without having to “join”, also with no spending limits or otherwise complex registration on the part of the client…I got this service for 40 dollars initial, a 5% commission on any transaction, & no merchant account needed…
My idea was this- if I ( a fine artist), am showing a painting to a collector & he or she wants to buy the painting from me using a credit card, I can pull out my pocket pc, surf the net to my website with the Buy Now from CCNow button on it, click the button, take the customer’s credit card, input the numbers, name, etc., for the customer, process the transaction on the spot (with credit card verification happening in real time) & they get an invoice emailed to them immediately…It also adds appropriate taxes & takes shipping addresses if needed…Now that is flow…
I haven’t altered the content of my paintings, but I have improved customer flow at a relatively low cost…(The pocket pc was bought in 2002- a hardware cost, but these are much cheaper now)…
I think that things like that, are getting easier for people like me who can’t afford the overhead of traditional merchant trade…
My modus operandi for conversion is to send people to my online presence, have them view works & prices online, make an appointment if they want to buy something, view it in person at a bricks & mortar place that lets me use their viewing room in exchange for a commission (1/3 is what I give), & handle the transaction myself…Controlling all aspects of the sale…Instead of the old artist paradigm that has the money flowing into a gallery owner’s hands, then the artist waiting for their share…
Design Logistics, flow, Apps, these will set free artists, self-employed people, who need to figure out ways to get their product to a client, without too many middlemen…of course, if I had a retail location, I could drum out paying a commission for meeting space…(have done it before, though cafes are not always the classiest offices…)
The future will be better for the teeny tiny business person with all these apps…I think this may be a quiet revolution against big business monopolies…The meek will inherit the earth…

Oct 31, 2010

Daquan Wright says:

Wow, quite an interesting read!

Just as their is a line blurring between man and machine…a line is also blurring between the OS and the browser as you have noted. Though security is among the top of those concerns, mainly (I think) because web apps are much easily more compromised.

I believe there will be more integration between browser and OS, possibly where you can line up the applications you want on your system and the browser will catalog these apps for you (your note on the app store brought me to this idea).

There are some pretty big differences between the web and the desktop, and I’m not sure if this integration will ever be 100% or if it should be in the first place. One of the most important questions is not what feature a particular program should have, but which it should not (it’s much easier to add something than to undo).

Certainly content will be more video and audio driven. Since this is more entertaining, it gets more viewers. I do believe that one day large apps like youtube and facebook may become intertwined with the desktop. Though I’m not sure how any of this will occur.

Great read!

Nov 1, 2010

Polly says:

Hey Matt, very nice written article (as always), great job!

So the Browser and the OS sitting in a tree, huh? :) I found myself staring into empty space and trying to imagine what their baby would look like. I too can’t see the future, and I’m not sure this could really happen… Especially if you take into account the number of apps you just can’t “put” in a browser – the audio and video editing software for example, let alone the 3D and animation stuff.

Still, it’s nice to think that some day this OS-Browser of yours could happen at least for web and graphic designers. An OS Designer’s Edition…

Man, that’s a whole new level of ego-tickling :)

Nov 1, 2010

trent says:

I’ll bite too. What will run the browser if it is the “OS”?

I assume by OS you refer to the day to day programs to edit documents and files. When I think of OS I think of a lower level, which I don’t see a browser ever going.

Nov 1, 2010

Asher Webb says:

Just thought those interested in the idea of an OS as your browser should check out google’s chromium OS (not sure where it stands in relation to androids popularity—the idea is chromium OS for desktop and android OS for mobile)

I think this article is pretty spot on, nice contribution. A whole book could be written on the subject. A couple of other points not discussed are the ever-increasing array of devices with “native apps”, apps built for iOS or Android or Symbian. This could become a major problem. I think this is why HTML5, CSS3 and modern JavaScript are crucial to the future of the web. Without web standards one could imagine a web app being designed on 10 or 20 platforms to extend to its market…this is any developers nightmare. We really should be pushing for apps based in-browser made by HTML5.

Nov 1, 2010

James Young says:

I wrote this a few weeks back, I think I had similar feelings on the direction and UI aspect of delivering content

http://www.welcomebrand.co.uk/blog/the-dumbening-of-the-web/

Nov 1, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Just as a point of reference, I just realized that Pixlr is actually Flash-based, which I suppose changes the way we look at it.

Still, I think that the Browser as OS concept is still very much a possibility…

Nov 1, 2010

Jason Gross says:

I look at this article and the first thought that I have is that I would think we would see the browser become integrated into an OS before it happens the other way around.

Really this isn’t a huge difference as the ideas behind what kind of functionality was possible and how the system could work are the same. My thought is that we already have so much software that is created and distributed with the OS in mind. It would be much easier to keep all of that in place and integrate internet content and browsing in with the existing OS.

Nov 1, 2010

flash says:

Matt –

Great article. I think you are spot on in regards to the browser being the OS. In regards to the Chrome OS, you can already try it out thanks to Hexxeh (( Vanilla Chrome )).

Cloud based computing is definitely the future. Being a web designer I really enjoy using programs such as Kodingen, a cloud based development environment (( which has Pixlr integration for image editing )).

@Polly — There are also a lot of great products on Aviarythat can handle images && audio. Kodingen is releasing a new version of their software soon && it will have Aviary support — so basically everything I’ve been doing on a desktop I will now be able to do in a browser (:

Nov 1, 2010

Geddesign says:

“With the introduction of in HTML5, it seems to me that web-based vector applications are probably not that far off either.”

Just wanted to point out that you’re probably thinking of SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics). Canvas is a pixel-based drawing pad.

Nov 2, 2010

Richard, Leeds says:

I do wonder how far things can actually advance.

Most of the major innovations in the web so far have given major usability benefits whereby things like increased download speeds allows for larger sized files to be used.

However, I’d imagine that there is going to be a point soon where innovation becomes merely novelty, rather than any practical improvement.

Are there actually any obvious things the web lacks that people are crying out for any more?

The only thing I can think of is the money men calling for more crackdowns on piracy, which isn’t a very exciting future.

Nov 24, 2010

edgar allan says:

I was one of those Geocities baby. And I really love how much the internet has grown since my first “Hello World!” on WWW. For me, the future of the web will depend on how social the people will be like the Facebook and Twitter trend. And how businesses will place everything on the web.

Dec 30, 2010

Mike Simmon says:

One of the email tools that I recommend is Omnistar Mailer because it will automatically manage every aspect of your email marketing

Aug 28, 2011

Jack says:

Excellent article… and really interesting to read. Everything goes through your browser nowadays… communications, applications, data, invoices… Browser as OS seems interesting. ;-)

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