Web 4.0.3


I spent a couple earlier posts discussing some trends I see emerging on the Web over the next several years. The two I previously touched on were data-driven distributed web services and the proliferation of content, its creation and its consumption. In this post, I want to touch on my thoughts regarding the convergence of the browser and the desktop into a unified Web-enabled platform.

For nearly 15 years, the browser has been the vehicle for delivering web content. While the browser has been enhanced with things like animation technologies, virtual machines, proprietary plug-ins, etc, it has for-the-most-part been the window to the Web since the modern Web has evolved. While the browser has served it’s purpose well, and adoption has been almost ubiquitous, I believe the web experience is likely to shift from the browser to the desktop over the next couple years.

Back in the mid-90’s, when Microsoft first took aim at conquering the Web (remember Windows 95/98?), part of their strategy was to blur the lines between desktop and browser. By attempting to incorporate persistent web-based apps into the operating system, the goal was to subtlely shift the association of the Internet from the browser onto the desktop. This attempt was short-lived, and most of these proof-of-concept Web-based features available in Windows 95/98 were discarded in Windows XP. The simple reason this convergence didn’t work back then was that, despite the web-based content on the desktop requiring (or at least optimized for) persistent connectivity to the Internet, most users didn’t have always-on connections to the Web.

Things are different today. With the cost of communication approaching zero, and the availability of broadband approaching 100%, persistent connectivity of the desktop (whether on a PC or any other device) to the Web is becoming not the exception, but the rule. With that, there is little need for a transient window onto the Web, and browsers simply limit the ability to innovate around the web experience.

While the browser has some tremendous benefits — strong adoption, standards-based presentation model, existing tools, generally small footprint, etc — it has a host of drawbacks that make managing a web-based experience difficult and inefficient. For example:

1) Lack of State Maintainance - A browser is stateless; outside the use of cookies to maintain information about a session, the browser has no inherent ability to remember who you are, where you’ve been, or what you’ve done. This means that managing your web experience over multiple sessions or across multiple instances of a browser is next to impossible;

2) Lack of Configurable Form Factor - When using a browser, applications are generally expected to be optimized for a full-screen viewing with resolution somewhere between 800×600 and 1024×768. This makes running multiple applications side-by-side very cumbersome, and provides designers (and therefore users) with a very limited set of user experiences;

3) Lack of Communication Infrastructure - When running multiple web applications in multiple browser instances, there is little ability for the applications to communicate with one-another or with other services running on the desktop. While there is good reason for this — security — it makes building robust interactive experiences difficult, if not impossible.

Web users are expecting radical improvements in application and web experience over the next several years, and the basis for this change will be the shift from browser-based experiences to desktop-based experiences, using desktop application intergation with the web and desktop widgets. In ten years, it’s likely that accessing data from a particular website will not involve firing up a browser and typing in an address (a URL), but instead will involve going to your Windows “Start” menu, and selecting the specific application interface you wish to use to present the web data you need. We’re already starting to see this shift with desktop applications for things like reading blogs (there are a dozens of desktop RSS readers), getting the weather, and shopping on eBay . In the future, this trend will continue, and fewer and fewer people will be visiting their favorite websites via a browser.

In fact, I’m going to predict that within 5 years, we see a decidely different approach to branding of web properties; instead of companies being referred to with the “.com” as part of the brand, online brands will start to converge with offline brands, and the “.com” will fade away…