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Created October 28, 2020 06:28
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A short exploration into the end game of web browsers.
This article may seem to be about bashing Google but it isn't. It's just about
reflecting on the current state and how much longer we should see ourselves
So what is the Web? Well we can agree the Web is a conglomerate of standards
proposed by the W3C. So what do those standards define?
"W3C standards define an Open Web Platform for application development
that has the unprecedented potential to enable developers to build rich
interactive experiences, powered by vast data stores, that are
available on any device."
The Open Web Platform can be seen as a virtual computer, where everyone pushes,
but mostly pulls, resources from. To get things done, regular users of the Web
seek out "online" versions of their software, which is accessible from their
Web browsers.
As someone who has used the Web since 2007, I think it is not surprising to see
the path of evolution the ecosystem has taken. At it's core, the Web is a super
information highway; it's goal to get bits from point A to B. It started with
transmitting text, to images, animations, video and then programs. This has been
extended today to software which touch our devices, and devices which are
mounted directly to our faces (VR).
These series of extensions have been proposed by browser vendors, but mostly
Google. This has caused "feature fatigue" among vendors, and has successfully
worked to kill off Internet Explorer. Firefox is not far behind, with Mozilla
laying off many employees which were core to its development. Is this really a
problem though? On the surface it may seem a monopoly will cause some great
disaster in the near future, but hold on.
As we move forward, eventually, there will be nothing left to propose for the
Open Web Platform. We will reach feature-parity with our local
Operating Systems. At least that's what can be logically expected to happen...
When it does I expect Google will be in bigger trouble than it already is. It
would be interesting to hear from people closer to Chromium development what
kind of features they can envision being proposed, and what kind of proposals
they think would considered absurd or unnecessary.
There is a way right now though to know how close we are to the generalized
limit. People can take a look at what is possible on their local OS and compare
it to what's possible in a Web browser. Off the top of my head, there is not
much left for a Web browser to cover. It takes care of account management,
rendering, GPU access, device abstraction (webcam, microphone), USB access, VR
functionality, and much more. Of course these are necessary for Google because
of their Web-based ChromeOS. It is clear Google's goal is to survey people as
much as they can, in order to have as much access to "the world's
consciousness" as possible, so they can get individuals to consent to
purchasing consumer goods with minimal resistance.
A huge glaring business issue though is Google has left their ChromeOS out in
the open. It's clear that ChromeOS (specifically ChromiumOS) is "open-core" out
of "good faith", but I think this will soon bite them. An important concept to
software business is time-to-market. Many software products are only valuable
because there are no other alternatives, and sometimes there is simply no
incentive to create one. Eventually with enough time, if the application is
useful enough, someone will create a truly libre version of it.
Right now ChromeOS is available for any entity to come along and fork it. They
can rip all the Google functionality out (something the Ungoogled-chromium
project has exactly done). We can logically follow this to a future of a
"split Web". There's going to be the "Google Era" Web that will live for a
long time, and another iteration of the Web where us technologists will try
our best to create something more to our liking. This also means don't be
surprised if we see Google "de-opensource" the Chromium project in some way.
It's in the business's interest to have a "Googlified" Web and its own project
threatens this reality.
Given this reflection, I think the end game is closer than we expect. Seeing
how the Web standards have reached the hardware level, there is not much more
distance to cover. If we all acted as logical entities, we should have separate
"Ungoogled-ChromiumOS" machines (say running on the latest Raspberry Pi) which
is our access points to the "Google Era" Web, and on our main computers, use
something entirely different which reflects our values. Then as the "Google
Era" Web degrades, people catch wind from their technologist friends that there
is something better on the horizon that they might want to check out.
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As for me, the most important feature of the web browser is not the sandbox or the extra system access or any of the new cool things it can do. For me, it's the address bar. The power of typing something into that small field and open a portal to some place – is what got me hooked into the web.

Of course some of those portals' only mission is to make me stay inside that portal forever :) but this power to go anywhere and still stay in one software is far too much fun!

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i5heu commented Oct 28, 2020

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joepie91 commented Oct 28, 2020

At it's core, the Web is a super information highway; it's goal to get bits from point A to B.

This is wrong in a subtle but important way - the part that gets bits from point A to point B is the internet, not the web. The point of the web was specifically to be an open hyperlinked resource for (human-digestible) information, which is a lot more specific than that.

This matters for two main reasons:

  1. When you consider that it was the internet which was meant to shuttle bits from A to B, rather than the web, the 'scope creep' described here is suddenly a lot less significant; after all, we were shipping software across the internet long before webapps became a widespread thing. That's not to say that the web hasn't also seen scope creep, but:
  2. There's a very good reason why the web has expanded to also do software delivery, that becomes more obvious once you look at the web as a "hyperlinked resource" rather than a "highway for bits". Namely, people have a strong desire to link together information on the web with information or 'locations' in other applications - and having it all be built on the same hyperlink-capable platform is an easy way to accomplish that. This is why even poorly-designed modern webapps usually still have some sort of permalink capability.

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mpcm commented Oct 28, 2020

The future of browsers is not in what they do, that is just part and parcel as you called out. But what you call out is only the end human interface layer. The future of 'browsers' is where they are run from and on whose behalf they execute, the persona/identity isolation provided, what gets aggregated up through these layers to an eventual human user, and what tasks they are assigned to complete in those contexts. For technical people this is going to be interesting. For general consumers... this is all likely to be provided by vendors in a wrapped package, who are part of the 'browser'. Think game-store-type interactions, but for all the topics/goals/tasks you care about. You can see this in the smart speak 'personal assistants' being offered, coming off the push for native apps that are essentially cleaned up patterns on web interactions.

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The situation is rather worse than mentioned, most of Github is now completely non-functional in non-Chromium browers due to Google Webcomponent standards. Without hiring a massive team as Google has done, even Mozilla has been struggling to keep pace. Now Mozilla has layed off nearly all of their Servo team and is on the verge of disappearing completely.

Even if you use an "ungoogled" version, Google has still won the web by forcing incompatibility with any non-Google-based browser. Simply because there is no other alternatives!

Unless of course webdevs choose to turn the tide by refusing to implement these "standards". It is clear Microsoft's Github does not care to support "backwards compatibility" or in other words, any non-Google standard. As Github's staff said when using a non-supported web browser: I appreciate that this is disappointing and frustrating for you

See Also: An Open Letter to Web Developers ->

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