A Browser Darkly

A look at the past, present, and future of Web browsers from the Opera Backstage event in London

In 1959, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called All Summer In A Day. On a world where the sun comes out just one day every six years, sunshine is greeted with awe and wonder.

We see the sun all the time. We don’t treat its appearance as a miracle. We’re used to it. When wonders become commonplace, they are quickly relegated to the realm of the routine.

That’s the way we treat the Web most of the time. We use it every day. There isn’t a day goes by that I’m not online — even briefly — to read blogs, look at pictures on Flickr, or just catch up on the news.

There are wonderful lines by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh that sum up my typical day on the Web:

I wallow in the habitual, the banal, wherever life pours ordinary plenty.

I get to soak up the Web’s sunshine so frequently that I almost take it for granted. It’s worth stepping back and remembering that this everlasting Summer is a precious gift.

The obvious person to thank for this gift is Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He gave us not one, but two World Wide Webs. There’s the Web that we know today; a chaotic cornucopia of pages joined together through the beautifully haphazard threads of hypertext. At the same time, he created the first ever Web browser, which was also called WorldWideWeb.

This browser was originally going to be named after a Victorian guide to life called Enquire Within Upon Everything. What a gloriously apt name for a Web browser: enquire within upon everything.

When I surf the web, my browser acts as my eyes, my ears, and my nose. It’s my only sense organ and I rely on it totally as I sniff my way from page to page, stepping through the Web’s wormholes to follow the sound of an intriguing hyperlink… sometimes stepping back again if I don’t like what I find there.

I’m not sure browsing is the best verb to describe this behaviour. It makes the Web sound like a giant catalogue that we might occasionally thumb through, sitting on the sofa some Sunday afternoon.

Sure enough, when the building of browsers became big business, the language changed. After Marc Andreesen revolutionised the landscape of the Web with his Mosaic browser, he founded Netscape. They didn’t build a browser, they built a Navigator. When Microsoft started playing catch-up, they built a device called Explorer. Navigation. Exploration. These are much bolder terms. Less couch potato; more Captain Kirk.

The Web certainly became a more interesting place. But I really could have done without the excitement of the browser wars.

The first casualty of a browser war is markup.

As they bandied their justifications of “innovation”, the browser makers took it upon themselves to unilaterally embrace and extend the other great gift from Tim Berners-Lee: the HyperText Markup Language.

Like the Web itself, HTML is one of those everyday miracles that we now take for granted. We wouldn’t have the World Wide Web if it weren’t for HTML. It’s beauty lies in its simplicity. HTML wasn’t designed for creating ecommerce empires or auctions or shrines to pet rabbits. Yet the language has proven itself capable of describing all this and more. It’s so easy to grok that anyone can add to the ecosystem of the Web just by learning a few tags.

HTML was also never designed to do page layout. Thanks to Dave Siegel and his sleight of hand with the table element, even that hurdle was overcome.

It wasn’t much fun though. Combined with the collateral damage being caused by the great browser war of the late nineties, the Web became a factory of frustration. It was this frustration that gave birth to the Web Standards Project.

Personally speaking, one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about the correct use of standards like Cascading Style Sheets and the Document Object Model is that they allow us to rediscover the joy of HTML. No longer coerced into being all things to all people, the real strength of this markup language is allowed to shine through.

Just about every Web browser today supports Web standards to a greater or lesser extent. This trend can only continue. This very month, Internet Explorer 7 will be released…

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

These days, our browser wars are clean affairs, fought according to the rules of engagement. Browsers can compete on features, usability, and security. It’s a given that standards like CSS and the DOM will be supported.

It’s all too easy for us Web Developers to get fixated on these technologies. Don’t get me wrong: I think they’re great, but they aren’t a patch on HTML.

HTML is proving to be even more versatile than we previously imagined. With browsers showing up in the strangest places — mobile phones, games consoles, fridges — the HyperText Markup Language is once again emerging as the lingua franca for a wider Web. Latté-sipping, Mac-owning Web designers like myself would do well to look up from our desktop environments and take heed of this changing landscape.

Perhaps my desktop environment will become one big browser. If that’s the case, then the looming clash between the open source XUL on one side and Microsoft’s XAML on the other will make the late nineties look like a minor skirmish.

Or maybe the browser will become the desktop. Maybe we’ll see a return to the days when keyboards and screens were little more than dumb terminals communing with a more powerful central mainframe. As more and more of our data, and even our applications, migrate to the Web, perhaps all we’ll ever need to know when purchasing a new computer is “Will it run my Web browser?” Forget about hard-drive space, RAM, and processor speed: put that stuff on the server. I’ll be happy with a thin client. Have browser, will travel.

Dare I predict where we’ll be in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years time? I’d be foolish to make any firm predictions. I will say this, though: HTML will still be around for quite a while, of that I am certain. I’m not alone in this belief. Back at the birth of the Web (and what I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall in CERN back then), Håkon placed money on the prediction that HTML would be around for fifty years. I think his money is safe.

I’ll leave predictions of the future to the experts, like William Gibson. In one of his near-future novels, he describes a virtual reality interface onto the Web that’s the staple of any decent cyberpunk story. But what I love about this particular description is that, although the browsing device is a completely immersive, three-dimensional piece of technology, the actual Web site being visited is a tacky, home-made affair, full of the VR equivalent of spinning animated .gifs and over-the-top effects. Think: MySpace meets The Matrix.

In the future, life will continue to pour ordinary plenty… and that gives me hope. I’m looking forward to that future. When I finally get my flying car and my jet pack, I fully expect them both to come with Web browsers pre-installed.

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