I woke up today to a very annoying new bug in Firefox. The browser shits the bed in an unpredictable fashion when rounding up single pixel line widths in SVG. That’s quite a problem on The Session where all the sheet music is rendered in SVG. Those thin lines in sheet music are kind of important.
Browser bugs like these are very frustrating. There’s nothing you can do from your side other than filing a bug. The locus of control is very much with the developers of the browser.
Still, the occasional regression in a browser is a price I’m willing to pay for a plurality of rendering engines. Call me old-fashioned but I still value the ecological impact of browser diversity.
That said, I understand the argument for converging on a single rendering engine. I don’t agree with it but I understand it. It’s like this…
Back in the bad old days of the original browser wars, the browser companies just made shit up. That made life a misery for web developers. The Web Standards Project knocked some heads together. Netscape and Microsoft would agree to support standards.
So that’s where the bar was set: browsers agreed to work to the same standards, but competed by having different rendering engines.
There’s an argument to be made for raising that bar: browsers agree to work to the same standards, and have the same shared rendering engine, but compete by innovating in all other areas—the browser chrome, personalisation, privacy, and so on.
Like I said, I understand the argument. I just don’t agree with it.
One reason for zeroing in a single rendering engine is that it’s just too damned hard to create or maintain an entirely different rendering engine now that web standards are incredibly powerful and complex. Only a very large company with very deep pockets can hope to be a rendering engine player. Google. Apple. Heck, even Microsoft threw in the towel and abandoned their rendering engine in favour of Blink and V8.
And yet. Andreas Kling recently wrote about the Ladybird browser. How we’re building a browser when it’s supposed to be impossible:
The ECMAScript, HTML, and CSS specifications today are (for the most part) stellar technical documents whose algorithms can be implemented with considerably less effort and guesswork than in the past.
I’ll be watching that project with interest. Not because I plan to use the brower. I’d just like to see some evidence against the complexity argument.
Arc is the most interesting one. Built by the wonderfully named Browser Company of New York, it’s attempting to inject some fresh thinking into everything outside of the rendering engine.
Experiments like Arc feel like they could have more in common with tools-for-thought software like Obsidian and Roam Research. Those tools build knowledge graphs of connected nodes. A kind of hypertext of ideas. But we’ve already got hypertext tools we use every day: web browsers. It’s just that they don’t do much with the accumulated knowledge of our web browsing. Our browsing history is a boring reverse chronological list instead of a cool-looking knowledge graph or timeline.
For inspiration we can go all the way back to Vannevar Bush’s genuinely seminal 1945 article, As We May Think. Bush imagined device, the Memex, was a direct inspiration on Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson, and Tim Berners-Lee.
The article describes a kind of hypertext machine that worked with microfilm. Thanks to Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, we now have a global digital hypertext system that we access every day through our browsers.
But the article also described the idea of “associative trails”:
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.
Our browsing histories are a kind of associative trail. They’re as unique as fingerprints. Even if everyone in the world started on the same URL, our browsing histories would quickly diverge.
Bush imagined that these associative trails could be shared:
The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.
Heck, making a useful browsing history could be a real skill:
There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.
Taking something personal and making it public isn’t a new idea. It was what drove the wave of web 2.0 startups. Before Flickr, your photos were private. Before Delicous, your bookmarks were private. Before Last.fm, what music you were listening to was private.
I’m not saying that we should all make our browsing histories public. That would be a security nightmare. But I am saying there’s a lot of untapped potential in our browsing histories.
Let’s say we keep our browsing histories private, but make better use of them.
From what I’ve seen of large language model tools, the people getting most use of out of them are training them on a specific corpus. Like, “take this book and then answer my questions about the characters and plot” or “take this codebase and then answer my questions about the code.” If you treat these chatbots as calculators for words they can be useful for some tasks.
Large language model tools are getting smaller and more portable. It’s not hard to imagine one getting bundled into a web browser. It feeds on your browsing history. The bigger your browsing history, the more useful it can be.
Except, y’know, for the times when it just make shit up.
Vannevar Bush didn’t predict a Memex that would hallucinate bits of microfilm that didn’t exist.