In observance tenth anniversary of Mosaic, I got an email from a reporter asking me what I thought about the future of the browser. It got me thinking.

Why can’t the browser just be a browser?

We’re still paying for Netscape’s hubris and poor strategy, long after the company ceased to exist for all practical purposes. They tried to replace the entire operating system with a browser, and their browser still contains too much stuff. There was a while there when Netscape employees actually weren’t allowed to use the word “browser”.

We’d all be better off Netscape hadn’t started the tradition of junking up the browser with an email client, address book, WYSIWYG HTML editor, IM client, “push” client, multiple sluggish and unnecessary software platforms (java, javascript, XUL, whatever Microsoft is pushing this year), and lots of advertising buttons and links.

The future of the browser is in being a better browser. There’s plenty to do just in being fast, standards-compliant, and easy to use. Opera is leading the way. Camino has turned Netscape’s rendering software into its first decent browser since 1996. Safari confirms that the best bower is just a browser.

The most important innovations in browser design advance simplicity and ease of use. Until Camino introduced tabbed browsing and storing ID/password combinations securely with the Mac’s keychain, the most important innovation was forms autofill, which is at least five years old. Safari’s most important innovation is that it is (astonishingly) the first browser to have decent bookmark management.

The browser of the future will:

  • Render pages instantly and more consistently with other browsers
  • Have tabbed browsing, better bookmark management, and password management
  • Give the user total control of popups and advertising
  • Give the user total control of his cookies

Browsers need to support improvements in document structure, such as XML for content and CSS for markup. But these formats shouldn’t be developed by the people who create the browser. We need to eliminate proprietary formats and I’d be happy with eliminating Flash. Apparently, Flash is so awful even Macromedia’s customers don’t want to see it on their home page. It’s mainly used to make ads more noticeable by making them annoying and any information that might happen to be in a Flash file can’t be found on Google.

In many applications, the browser should be invisible, simply rendering HTML for applications like email and help.

The browser is not be the best client for cell phones. The more I use RSS, the more clear it becomes to me that RSS is a superior format for picking news sources, reviewing headlines, and reading stories. Real estate on a cell phone is too precious to waste on anything but the most concentrated information. Others may believe that RSS aggregation belongs in the browser, but it’s already in Netscape and no one’s using it.

Too many users (and businesses) make the mistake of thinking the browser should be the only interface to the Internet. The web is not the Internet, and the browser is not always the best way to use it. IM and P2P are proof that we need more clients (not fewer) if we’re going to take advantage the Net. Why implement an application with Java in a browser when you can create a standalone application?

The website of the future will help make this happen by

  • Permitting full use by any browser (not just IE)
  • Permitting browsing with Javascript turned off
  • Using more standard HTML and CSS
  • Using fewer tables
  • Using no Flash
  • Providing usable RSS for anyone who wants it
  • Not using Java unless there really is no other way to solve a problem