diego's weblog

there and back again

the web is not the browser (redux)

A few years back one discussion that was all the rage was whether mobile phones could or couldn’t supplant PCs as web browsing devices. In 2009, that is taken as a given. Mobile browsers (Safari Mobile, Opera Mini, Skyfire, even, ahem, IE on WinMo) have become pretty good at what they do. The web experience has migrated into high end phones successfully, or as successfully as one would expect while retaining the browser metaphor.

But therein lies the problem.

I far prefer (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) browsing twitter through, say, Tweetie on the iPhone than through a browser. And while not a regular Facebook user, I also prefer to use the Facebook iPhone app to the site itself. No doubt the seamless interaction enabled by the iphone plays a role here, but Android, Blackberrys, S60 phones, and even, yes, Windows Mobile phones (mostly thanks to Samsung and HTC) all have apps that somehow pull us in more effectively than their web counterparts. While every once in a while I end up looking at an embedded browser within whatever app I’m using, or occasionally I may load Safari, most of the time I don’t. I would even say that I avoid loading the browser if I can.

What’s going on here?

We think of form as function. We conflate ‘web’ with ‘html’. Or even html and (gasp) CSS.

In other words: We confuse the web with the browser.

What the mobile app renaissance sparked by the iPhone app store is showing is that there’s a whole set of tasks and modes of use that don’t really lend themselves well to a browser. Some of it, surely, is reverse causality. We do them in a certain way because that’s what the phone allows and then it becomes natural to to them in that way, and we shouldn’t confuse natural use with designed use. Twitter is perhaps like that. But the Facebook app example and others show that what started as a pure web app can find a more comfortable home in modes of interaction that are not browser-centric.
It’s not the first time this has happened, or, even, that I make this point: see this post from 2003 the web is not the browser, in which case I was making the argument for RSS, readers, and such. (Yes, I repeat myself. But always in style).
HTML 5 is, I believe, trying to react to this trend. I personally cringe at the idea of HTML 5 and the boondogle it’s becoming. It’s trying to do things that should be better left for other things. Maybe it is another standard of markup. Maybe it is another standard of something else entirely. For example: The progress element. HTML trying to be a UI language. But It’s not. So many of HTML’s roots are part of the browser that the browser’s “box” is inescapable, and trying to make these new experiences into the confines of the browser model will just ensure that it’s both modern and irrelevant.

The future of the web is in the mix of browsers and apps, feeds (Atom, RSS), and ad hoc REST services. A lot of it will happen through interfaces other than a web browser. And that’s ok.

The fabric that is the web will be all the better for it, and so will we.

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